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Special Forces: AFP Force 'Multipliers'

Empowering The Filipino People
MANILA, Philippines --- On 25 June, the Philippine Army’s Special Forces Regiment (Airborne) celebrates its 50th Golden Anniversary at Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija. From modest beginnings in 1962 as a company of 12 officers and 105 enlistedmen, the SFR (Abn) now numbers 180 officers and 3,000 enlisted personnel (including 20 women) in five battalions deployed countrywide.

The concept of Special Forces – defined succinctly as compact units adept at “unconventional warfare” – emanated from successful guerrilla movements against the Axis Powers in Europe and Asia during WWII. The US Armed Forces recognized the importance of skilled soldiers who could infiltrate clandestinely by land, sea, and air behind enemy lines.

These specialists provided timely intelligence and also trained guerrilla units to support conventional forces about to undertake an invasion or full-scale raid. Their hazardous undertakings required a core of versatile combatants around which local guerrillas could be organized and given access to communications, logistics, and, most important, leadership. SF units also provided escape/evasion mechanisms to rescue or exfiltrate important personages safely out of enemy-occupied territory. 

Our AFP and PNP, of course, have never been conceived to be destructive war machines – because their missions basically are about internal defense, public safety, countering insurgency, and neutralizing criminal syndicates. On the other hand, Special Forces units in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and PNP perform critical tasks as “force-multipliers” in collaboration with local officials and civilian auxiliaries (veterans, security guards, and reservists, etc.) in maintaining peace, order, and stability.

All-Out Force/All-Out Friendship

When the Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Huks) under Luis Taruc and Jesus Lava began to fight government because of agrarian abuses and social injustice in the late 1940s, the AFP launched large-scale operations against them. These unwieldy formations proved ineffective against the Huks who consisted of elusive armed cells and mobile local auxiliaries.

Reshaping his strategy, Defense Secretary Ramon Magsaysay directed the formation of compact hard-hitting units, principally Battalion Combat Teams (BCTs) and Scout Rangers. 

The resultant small-unit actions which focused on endurance, stealth, and jungle combat proved successful in hunting down the Huks through long-range patrols and first-strike operations. 

Early on, it was recognized that the real battle was for people’s “hearts and minds,” especially the rural poor, whose loyalty had to be won by Government at every step.
Knowing that even elite combat troops wouldn’t be enough to quell the Huk rebellion, Magsaysay further improved his pacification campaign by effectively combining “all-out force” (on the right) and “all-out friendship” (on the left). 

The latter included medical and engineering assistance to poor communities and homesteads for landless tenants (with retired soldiers as co-settlers) in Mindanao and other conflict areas. 

The 1st SF Company (Airborne)

In his ninth year as Captain, (having been stalled in that rank with the integration into the Regular Force of hundreds of “recognized” WWII guerrilla officers), FVR was assigned to command the newly created 1st SF Company (Airborne), PA. He had undergone Special Warfare and Airborne courses at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1960 with three other gung-ho officers (Jose Magno, David Abundo, Cesar Batilo). Only one of six volunteers passed the rigid physical fitness and psychological tests prescribed for the 1SFCA.

AFP Chief General Manuel Cabal enhanced President Magsaysay’s two-pronged approach by approving the SF “multiplier” concept. The AFP’s capabilities were thus expanded beyond combat operations by embracing community development and nation-building missions. SF soldiers became proficient in civilian skills, notably engineering, healthcare, and community organization – thus enabling them to tackle multi-faceted duties.

The first months were devoted to training in the mountains surrounding Fort Magsaysay, sweating through hundreds of kilometers of roadruns, and jumping from old C-47 cargo planes into unfamiliar dropzones. The 1SFCA did the first demonstration para-drops on Camp Murphy (now Aguinaldo), Fort McKinley (now Bonifacio), and Manila Bay. 

In addition to honing combat and airborne skills, SF troopers became proficient in jungle survival, civic action, and night operations. Their small teams specialized in intelligence, engineering, demolitions, communications, and medical support. Even doctors and nurses earmarked for South Vietnam deployment were toughened thru SF techniques. 

Unconventional Warfare Learned from Filipinos

Two US Army officers proved instrumental in giving shape to our Special Forces: LtGen William Yarborough and BGen George Jones. Both served as Commander of the US Army Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina during the 1950s-60s. 

Before WWII, Yarborough served with the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts. As test officer for the Provisional Parachute Group in 1941, in Fort Benning, Georgia, he designed the paratrooper’s uniform, badge, and aerial delivery containers. He spearheaded parachute combat missions in Italy and France in 1944-45. As USASWC Commander, he introduced multiple disciplines into training methods, particularly in deep penetration commando raids and the multiplier effect of audacious warriors infiltrated into hostile territory to organize local freedom-fighters. 

He also secured funding to develop the SF organization into a strategic force with a distinct sartorial identity: the “Green Beret.”

Jones was the leader of “Rock Force” – consisting of his 503rd Parachute Regiment plus support units – which jumped on the tiny “Topside” dropzone and liberated Corregidor in the first-ever “tri-phibious” air-sea-land operation in February, 1945. 

He had previously led his Regiment in December, 1944 in liberating Mindoro, and commanded the Regimental Team which flushed out Japanese hold-outs from Negros in July, 1945. 

Civic Action: Winning Hearts and Minds

SF training had to be extremely tough, because one “bad egg” could compromise the whole team’s survival. Commanders had to ensure that every SF unit was capable, mission-oriented, and determined because even ordinary “test missions” would require infiltration behind or within the target enemy. 

Most important, SF troopers learned to win the friendship and trust of the community. They cultivated goodwill with LGUs down to barangays, and became adept at menial pursuits like making sanitary toiletbowls or growing backyard vegetables.

Green Berets from Okinawa led by Lt. Col. Ray Call provided a nucleus training contingent during the first year. Overall US supervision was exercised by Pentagon officers Bob Brewer, Ace Ellis and Jerry Milsted.

Those were hard and challenging times – but also a period that FVR would not exchange for any other assignment in his 42 years in the AFP. FVR recounts: “Once you have stood at the airplane’s open door at 1,500 feet altitude at night, and gathered enough courage to jump into thin air with a fragile WWII-type parachute holding you aloft while being dragged down by 40 pounds of equipment and supplies for needy civilians – then anything else becomes relatively easy to do.” 

That intrepid 1962 band of pioneers would grow into the SF Group (Abn) in August 1964 and eventually became the SF Regiment (Abn) in November 1989. SF troops have operated throughout our country and even abroad as peacekeepers to help secure free societies and uphold the law. 

Countering International Terrorism

The SF has undergone major shifts in contemporary warfare – from countering insurgency to fighting international terrorism. 

None of these developments has diminished the value of unconventional warfare. If anything, the SF Regiment has become more important than ever. With asymmetric warfare magnified after the 9/11 attacks on US territory, conventional hostilities have receded farther from the norm. Stateless terrorists have killed and destroyed where a nation and its institutions are weakest – to unleash huge global destruction with relatively few investments in lives and resources.

The US achieved “poetic justice” when Osama Bin Laden – evil genius behind shocking violence and mass murders – was eventually terminated by Naval SF operatives (SEALS) after years of painstaking tracking. The raid on his Abbottabad, Pakistan, hideout was the culmination of intensive intelligence and relentless man-hunting that are SF hallmarks. 

Through the years, our SF units have attained commendable successes in dangerous enclaves inhabited by the NPA, Islamic jihadists, and Abu Sayyaf extremists countrywide. 

God, Country, and People Above All Else

The most notable of those successes are chronicled in the SFR (Abn) Anniversary Book to commemorate its first 50 years. Many were accomplished with little fanfare and with nothing close to the high-tech support enjoyed today by their American and European counterparts. Each of these success stories illustrates the meticulous application of principles and techniques that SF units have assimilated over the past half-century.

The growing prevalence of conflicts characterized by surprise, mobility, and lightning strikes against strategic targets is right up the SF alley. However, theirs also is the higher goal – not just to defeat insurgency or terrorism – but to help safeguard our national security, people’s well-being, and cherished national values. 

Indeed, the SF Regiment (Abn) has proven to be unwavering in its loyalty to God, country, and people. 


 Fidel V. Ramos | Manila Bulletin | June 16, 2012 | Article Link

Fidel V. Ramos is a Former Philippine President


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