Retired General Ramon Mateo Dizon laughs often as he reflects on the serpentine path his military career took. After graduating from the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) in 1983, he was first assigned to the police constabulary. Interestingly, the constabulary was part of the Philippine Armed Forces up until the 1990s. In addition to fielding heavy weaponry, the constabulary also went after criminals and made arrests.
“There was a power struggle between General Ramos and General Ver,” Dizon described. “At the time they were abolishing the constabulary battalions and General Ramos decided that, instead of several battalions—he had 10—he was able to come up with one battalion, a special ops battalion. This was in early ’83.” General Ramos was the chief of staff and also the chief of the constabulary, which centralized a lot of power under his leadership. Meanwhile, General Vell was the chief of staff Ramos served under, and all of this took place against the background of the Marcos presidency.
This battalion would become known as the Special Action Force (SAF), a unique police unit charged with many missions, including unconventional warfare. General Ramos began selecting graduates of PMA class of 1979 to begin staffing the SAF. Back in those days, the police constabulary had armored vehicles and artillery, but now these were to be distributed to local military units. “The trade-off was that he was able to keep a special ops battalion,” Dizon said.
Right after graduating from PMA, Dizon was ordered to attend Ranger School, as was his entire graduating class. “I happened to be in constabulary headquarters scrounging for gasoline,” Dizon says with a chuckle. “In the hallway I met a bunch of senior officers, lieutenant colonels, majors, and captains, so all of my upperclassmen. You don’t usually see second lieutenants up at headquarters, so they are all wondering why is this second lieutenant here?
“So they stopped me in the hallway and you know how upperclassmen are. I’m standing there like a plebe. They are like, ‘What the hell are you doing in the hallway?’ ‘Why do you want to join SAF?’ And I’m like, ‘What?’” Dizon had no idea what they were talking about but figured he would simply say a bunch of yes sirs until his upperclassmen left him alone. That was how his name ended up on the roster for the Special Action Force.
Dizon was assigned to begin training the first generation of SAF companies. In those early days, they had two line companies and a counterterrorist company, as well as a light armored company and a headquarters. Dizon enjoyed his first exposure to special operations because he realized that, in a small unit, you can focus on teaching individual soldiers.
Over a coffee at a Starbucks in Manila, I asked Dizon what the SAF’s mission was at that time.
“We used to kid around that it was everything and anything. We were used in CT operations. We were sent to anywhere they thought there was a high threat. Eventually we realized that all of this is basically training. The real goal was to be able to support the constabulary in case…it ended up being in 1986…we were the power base of General Ramos.”
“So the mission of the SAF was to support the government?” I asked.
The Philippines has a history of military coups, and to this day, one of the SAF’s stated missions is coup protection. The Special Action Force exists as a second army within the Philippines, although technically they are a police unit. Their missions include mobile strike and reaction, hostage rescue, counterinsurgency, civil disturbance, counterterrorism, high-risk warrants, VIP protection, infrastructure security, checkpoints, search and rescue, police visibility, maritime operations, and dealing with aircraft hijackings. One way to interpret this is that the Republic of the Philippines does not fully trust its own military after so many military coups or attempted coups. Because of this, the use of force is partially distributed within the national police force to check the power of the military.
In a 2005 U.S. State Department cable, American diplomats warn that a coup was being planned behind the scenes by the Young Officers Union (YOU)-New Generation, an offshoot of an older generation of military officers who felt disrespected and disenfranchised by their government, and who participated in numerous coup attempts in the past. The diplomatic cable, published by Wikileaks, described the YOU as “a shadowy cabal of junior and mid-grade Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) officers.” SOFREP met with a prominent member of the YOU who was jailed for participation in the 1989 coup before receiving a pardon. He seemed like a reasonable man and described himself as a “reformer.” The diplomatic cable continued, stating, “The YOU plotters had already discounted any meaningful response from the PNP, believing YOU forces could ‘neutralize’ the Special Action Force (SAF).” This demonstrates the SAF’s perceived loyalty toward the government and the coup plotters’ understanding that the SAF would have to be eliminated in order for the YOU to be successful.
One of Dizon’s upperclassmen in the SAF was Leo Santiago, who became a company commander of the second company that the unit stood up.
In those days, the SAF was able to draw personnel from military units like the Scout-Rangers and Special Forces to form their initial cadre, as this was before the police constabulary formally split from the armed forces, which did not happen until the 1990s. A unique aspect of the SAF even in those early says was the inclusion of women. “We treat women really equally,” Santiago, who went on to become the SAF director, said. “In SAF, we put them really in front,” meaning in the line of fire. “The women go to the same basic course as the men with no physical modification.”
Despite part of their mission being coup protection, there have been allegations that the SAF has included coup plotters as well. “In 1984, 2nd SAF company was tasked to neutralize the Philippine Air Force,” Santiago said. “No one knows this or wants to accept this.” As SAF director years later in 2007, Santiago led the SAF in putting down the so-called Peninsula Siege. A few dozen officers occupied the Peninsula Hotel in Manila after being put on trial for the earlier Oakwood Mutiny, which they had participated in back in 2003. These were not simply political activists, but well-armed mutineers occupying the hotel.
Santiago wanted the Marines to clear the first floor of the hotel and then the SAF would clear the rest, but according to him, the Marines did not want to go in. “I tell them, you surrender or I come in,” Santiago recalled. After ordering the mutineers to surrender, “I sent my APC,” Santiago said, having it ram the front door while a .50 caliber machine gun suppressed the mezzanine. After deploying tear gas, the mutineers finally surrendered. When Santiago went inside the hotel to accept the surrender, he pulled one of the leaders aside and dressed him down.
“I’m tired of you guys,” the SAF director said, lecturing the leader of the mutiny. The point he was trying to get across was that, if the renegade military officers wanted to launch a coup, then they had better actually launch a coup rather than put on a spectacle at the hotel for the television cameras. That mutiny leader is now a senator named Antonia Trillanes.
“All of the problems in the Philippines are internal. There are areas where the enemy is really strong and the local forces cannot deal with it,” Santiago described. The way this works, according to Santiago, is that gradually the military will be phased out and the Philippine Police will handle internal security issues. “The only measure of success in a counterinsurgency or counter-separatist movement is when the police are in control with the local government. Until it becomes like that, the program is a failure,” Santiago continued.
SAF headquarters in Manila has a large sign out front where several gate guards are on duty. Just outside, a platoon-sized element of students in their physical training uniforms are formed up, preparing for the day’s training. They are SAF candidates. At the gate, my passport is collected and I wait a few moments before meeting with the SAF spokeswoman. As it turns out, she is a fully qualified SAF policewoman.
The SAF compound consists of a number of three-story buildings that look almost like World War Two-era barracks that have been refurbished. In the first building, there are the portraits of the SAF 44 hanging on the wall, the 44 SAF policemen massacred during the Marwan Raid.
Up a flight of stairs is a conference room where I am introduced to various staff officers in the unit. A PowerPoint presentation of the SAF and its capabilities is projected on the wall, welcoming me by name on the first slide. At this point, I can’t help but cringe with embarrassment. I have become the visitor, the interloper that has disrupted the SAF from their day-to-day activities. Surely, the men and women in the room were pulled away from their duties in order to accommodate my visit.
Director Benjamin Lusad enters the room and greets me warmly. During our interview, he listens carefully and thinks before replying in a measured manner. The director is also known for participating in shooting and martial arts competitions, something he encourages other SAF troopers to participate in as well. Every year they host the SAF challenge, similar to the Best Ranger Competition in the United States. My first question to the director is if he has a hard time meeting the obligations of the many different mission profiles that his unit is assigned.
“Jack, these are the challenges that we face in the Special Action Force, but then we can never say no to what our national headquarters and what the community would like us to assist with. We have our mandate and it involves a wide range of tasks in the Philippines. That being said, our troopers as of now have readjusted to these challenges and we are moving forward with capabilities enhancement,” which includes additional training for the SAF as well as purchasing new helicopters. Traffic in Manila is notoriously slow, and during an alert to respond to a potential aircraft highjacking, the SAF realized that, in order to have a quick-reaction capability, they will have to be air mobile.
- New training facilities funded by the U.S. government are just one example of the strong relationship between the SAF and America.
But why the SAF rather than one of the many military special operations units?
“The peculiarity comes in when we as police officers do law enforcement as well as counterterrorism. You always see the presence of law enforcers so it is along the tenets and laws of the Philippines that we as the police can react immediately to situations on the ground. And the Philippine Police always rely on us to complete the task.” Additionally, SAF can collect evidence, process crime scenes, and make arrests. “We do not just do tactical operations, but the investigative portion and intelligence portion is embedded in the individual skills of our troopers,” Lusad explained.
The director explained that because the Philippine National Police began with the constabulary, which was part of the military, today’s Special Action Force has a foot in both worlds. In a sense, the SAF may be the capability that bridges the military and the police, as the insurgencies are eventually handled by law enforcement rather than the military. This also places the SAF in an interesting position, because the military is unable to action targets against secessionists while they are in peace negotiations with the government. However, the SAF can action a criminal warrant at any time.
One officer in the room recounted an operation he participated in during 2005 when he was a captain. Abu Sayyaf inmates attempted to escape from their prison, killed two guards, and the nearly 300 prisoners took over the prison. The SAF responded to the uprising. “We responded immediately and contained the area,” he said. “Negotiations started the second day and they failed.” It was a high-threat mission, as the prisoners were a combination of terrorists, drug smugglers, and other criminals who had access to guns that had already been smuggled into the prison. “We had two tactical teams, coming from the rooftop and from the ground floor.” Twenty-two Abu Sayyaf members were killed. One SAF trooper was also killed during the operation.
Today there are six SAF battalions spread across Mindanao, Luzon, Manila (including Bilibid Prison, which the unit also controls), Sulu, Negros, Zamboanga, and beyond. There is also a quick reaction force, an air wing, a support branch, and a training branch. The SAF runs its own internal training course called Sureshock, plus a sniper course, airborne school, a maritime tactical course, and a combat diver school. SAF police officers also attend the Ranger School, the Special Forces Operations Course, and the Force Recon course. Nearly all of the capabilities of military special operations are replicated within the SAF.
“We start off with a basic recruit program,” Lusad says. “When you are processed to enter PNP service, you start a six month basic recruit training, and then we get them back and we embed them in a basic foundation course, and then the SAF commando course. If they qualify, they officially become an SAF trooper.” There are some contradictions about the current state of allowing females to attend the SAF commando course. Director Lusad said that this practice was being halted. “I think we might not be gentlemen to let our females go through that and then expose our female troopers at the forefront,” Lusad said, although he also said that women will continue to serve in SAF as administrators, in community engagement programs, and “other technical specializations.”
Although not stated outright, it could be speculated that the massacre of 44 SAF troopers during the Marwan operation may have led the unit to reconsidering deploying woman on the front lines. That operation is understandably a sensitive topic in the SAF. “There is no questioning the commitment, the passion, that SAF troopers have for serving the nation and our people,” Lusad said of the loss of the 44 men. “An SAF trooper will go anywhere and this can never be questioned,” he concluded.
I inquired as to the unit’s coup-protection mission, and if this was still a concern and something that the SAF had to be prepared for. Three or four troopers seated at the table replied with “yes” in unison. “We will accomplish this mission. We will always toe the line. We represent the last bastion of the Filipino National Police,” Director Lusad said.