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.

NAVSOG has a long history with American SEAL teams

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.

BUD/S students

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.”