Down the street on Sangley Naval Base outside Manila, past the Little Bird helicopters lined up on the flight line, is the home of Naval Special Operations Group (NAVSOG). On the compound on any given day, it is not uncommon to find U.S. Navy SEALs training their Philippine counterparts. It is a relationship that stretches back decades, one that is quickly confirmed while inside NAVSOG headquarters, where plaques from American SEAL teams and the odd U.S. Special Forces combat diver team adorn the walls.
The first Philippine Navy Underwater Operations Team (UOT) was established in November of 1956. Interestingly, history is a little vague as to what the unit was created for. In many cases, the Philippine Armed Forces (AFP) were patterned after the U.S. military in the post-World War Two environment with little concern given to the local particularisms or modifying tables of organization and equipment to fit the indigenous culture. That said, piracy was and is a security concern in the Philippines that necessitates a maritime capability. Thus the first six UOT members were drawn from the Philippine Marine Corps.
During these humble beginnings, these Naval commandos had little more in terms of equipment than UDT shorts, and they were often used as maintenance divers to repair ships rather than their doctrinal role of underwater demolitions. Many nations have misused their special operations soldiers as VIP security, and the Philippines was no exception during these early years. Frogmen were used to secure the presidential yacht. At times, they were even utilized as “human buoys” in the middle of the sea to guide in naval ships. In time, the first six frogmen became SCUBA, airborne, and demolition qualified.
In the 1970s, UOT was reorganized into the Underwater Operations Group (UOG), which came to include SEAL companies, an evolution that happened in tandem with the U.S. Navy. While the Vietnam War was raging, American SEALs used the Philippines as a training ground and many of their lessons learned no doubt rubbed off on their host-nation counterparts. The two forces also worked together during the annual Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercise, in which it was discovered that, although the Americans were better at subsurface operations, the Filipino SEALs were far better at jungle operations. “Two different races, two different cultures, but then I know we are of the same blood and purpose,” one old-school frogman wrote of his encounter with American SEALs.
In 1979, UOG was then reorganized into the Special Warfare Group. During the 1970s, the SEALs finally began to show what they brought to the table. In 1973, 13 SEALS infiltrated a fortified enemy camp in Basilan, prepping the objective for the army and police to come in and finish it off. The SEALs proved themselves during the Mindanao campaign and came to be recognized by the AFP as a formidable force.
Battling both communist and Islamist insurgencies, the Philippine SEALs also began sending students abroad to attend the U.S. Navy’s Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL course, and to Australia to learn clearance diving and to attend the hyperbaric medical officer course. The SEALs began expanding their numbers as well as their capabilities. SEAL detachments were now being deployed across the Philippines.
Today, there are 11 SEAL detachments, many forward-deployed to operational areas. The SEALs exist under NAVSOG, as does the Special Boat Unit, an explosives ordnance detachment, and a unit consisting of salvage and maintenance divers, which also includes several female divers. Under Filipino law, women can apply to become SEALs, but thus far none have. Prospective SEALS are put through BUD/S, which lasts for four months and can often stretch into six with breaks between phases.
The first phase consists of a physical fitness-based selection course culminating with the infamous six-day-long Hell Week, in which candidates constantly train without rest or sleep. Like American SEAL training, the candidates conduct log PT, boat work, and general physical “smoke” sessions. At the end of the sixth day, the students partake in the “Hell Blast” ceremony, in which they throw away their paddles and life vests, then drink some type of NAVSOG proprietary blend of alcoholic drink called “jungle wine.” The drink is described as “a cocktail mixture of 21 ingredients, classified into three liquid groups—soft drinks, liquor, and food condiments—topped by crushed fresh chili pepper and diced apples served in a vat.”
In the second phase, students learn how to draw charts, hydro recon surveys, and amphibious reconnaissance techniques. The SCUBA phase follows, in which the students learn how to become combat divers using the Draeger and Shadow rebreather systems. Combat dive missions have been conducted in the past, but not recently due to the danger involved. One Army officer described a Special Forces combat diver mission that ended with a number of divers being decapitated by the enemy.
Then comes the demolition phase and airborne phase. The SEALs still conduct the time-honored tradition of blood wings, which they call the “prop blast.” Finally, there is the land phase, in which the SEAL students learn land navigation, tactics, and the basics of maneuver warfare. The longest culminating swim in BUD/S stretches from Manila Bay all the way back to NAVSOG headquarters at Sangley, a 14.7 kilometer swim that is longer than the culminating swim the American BUD/S students conduct out at Coronado.
Finally, the candidates pin on their SEAL badge and are immediately deployed to an operational area. “We have a very fast OPTEMPO,” or operational tempo, a NAVSOG officer explained. A SEAL detachment will remain deployed in one area for two to three years, but will also be prepared for rapid redeployments in case other SEAL Dets require their help. The SEALs are prepared for numerous missions, including direct action, demolition raids, maritime sniper operations, high-risk visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS), and gas and oil platform recovery (GOPLAT-R). One SEAL Det is always on standby to recover the two oil rigs in the northern Philippines if they are ever captured by terrorists.
“Basically because we are an archipelago, in our organization we have different NAVSOG units across the country to address any situation in the area,” a NAVSOG officer told SOFREP. “Normally any operation comes from the sea, and when the armed forces utilize forces from the sea, we are the first to address any situation.” Essentially, the Philippines is a maritime country and the vast majority of military operations take place near the water, making for an ideal operational environment for SEALs. Because of this, NAVSOG also conducts many operations with the Marines, but they have also developed a positive relationship with Special Forces, Scout Rangers, and the Light Reaction Regiment in recent years.
When 9/11 happened, it put an added emphasis on counterterrorism operations for American special operations units, and this bled over into the Philippines as the United States government deployed Navy SEALs and Green Berets to tackle al-Qaeda-linked groups like Abu Sayyaf. One such early encounter during America’s War on Terror (the Filipino War on Terror had already been ongoing for about four decades) occurred in 2001. A 22-hour firefight erupted between SEALs belonging to Naval Special Warfare Unit-6, a company of Marines, a Special Forces riverine unit, and approximately 100 Abu Sayyaf fighters.
The SEALs were lured into an ambush with disinformation—false intelligence information supplied by a source in Basilan. The enemy was dug in, situated in foxholes and trench lines, firing on the SEALs with 40mm M203 grenades and sniper fire. The SEALs held their ground, helping to extract one dead and one injured Marine. Throughout the night, the SEALs, Marines, and Special Forces maneuvered against the enemy forces while fire support came from Little Bird gunships and 81mm mortars. The same SEAL team went on to take out infamous Abu Sayyaf spokesman Abu Sabaya.
The Abu Sayyaf Group at that time was holding several American hostages, and Sabaya was particularly noisy, making press appearances, spreading propaganda across Mindanao, and generally irritating the Armed Forces of the Philippines as well as the United States government, as it turned out. Operation Black Archer ended in success for the American and Philippine SEALs, but that is another story that will have to be recounted elsewhere.
NAVSOG is currently looking to the future and envisioning what direction they want to head. “There is a movement to create an AFP Special Operations Command,” a NAVSOG officer told SOFREP in an interview. Currently, NAVSOG is the only special operations branch component not commanded by a general, or admiral as it would be in the Navy’s case. SOCOM as it exists today is simply an Army bureaucracy over Scout Rangers, Special Forces, and the Light Reaction Regiment. NAVSOG, MARSOG, and Air Force forward air controllers (FAC) are not included at this time. The creation of an AFP-wide SOCOM would resolve this issue. “All special operations units would be under that umbrella,” the NAVSOG officer explained. SOFREP spoke to multiple SEALs, all of whom reported a good working relationship with the Army and a desire to create a SOCOM that includes the Navy and Marines.
Another area that NAVSOG is interested in expanding into is creating a SEAL delivery vehicle (SDV) capability. To this end, they have gotten the ball rolling with their American counterparts in order to purchase a SDV and dry dock, which would allow the SEALs to deploy from one of the Navy’s diesel-powered submarines. Because of the rich offshore natural resources in the Philippines, NAVSOG also anticipates the building of more oil platforms and a subsequent need for more SEAL Dets to be prepared for their GOPLAT-R mission. They are also interested in building their airborne capability and sending men to take the Army Military Free Fall Course at Fort Magsaysay. To this end, they are also looking to acquire state-of-the-art German parachutes, as well as Tri-Mix mixed-gas SCUBA systems. For the time being, they remain focused on counterterrorism, kidnapping, and seajackings.
When asked to describe some combat operations, a number of SEALs offered only a laugh, too shy to beat their chests or pat their own backs. They often referred me to others who they felt had more important combat experiences. Nonetheless, a few of those experiences will be described in future articles.