LIFE MATTERS: The SAF: An Elite Force

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PART 1 OF 2 PARTS
By COL Dencio Acop (Ret)

Watching ‘6 Days’ vividly reminded me of that elite force I used to be part of some forty years ago. The movie was about the successful 1980 anti-terrorist rescue of hostages at the Iranian Embassy in London by the SAS. The Special Air Service is the special forces unit of the British Army founded in 1941. Hostage rescue, counter-terrorism, direct action, and covert reconnaissance were the unit’s specialty areas. Which brings me to the SAF. However, urban counterrevolutionary warfare came second to the SAF’s priorities when the unit was formed in 1983. Units, especially the elite ones, are organized based on the necessity of the times. 1983, the year I graduated from West Point, was a time of counterinsurgency in the Philippines as in many other parts of the world. It was also the year when a renowned political icon in the Philippines was brazenly assassinated. Perhaps, counterrevolutionary and counterinsurgency were merely the same as both aimed for regime change away from the status-quo, differentiated only in geography between urban and rural as in the Maoist or Leninist approaches of unconventional warfare. Communism wanted to take over the Philippines since 1930. Then, inspiration for the local communists came from the Russians. It was not until the 1949 communist takeover in China that the strategy of the Communist Party of the Philippines – New People’s Army switched to the Maoist doctrine of urban encirclements from the countrysides.

It was no surprise in 1983 then that the first order of the day for the Philippine Constabulary Special Action Force was ranger training. Becoming a fully-trained ranger was first phase and the initiation to being a member of the SAF. The curriculum of the 5-6 month course was a localization of applicable methodologies of warfare culled from the British Commandos, US Rangers, US Special Forces, and other special combat units renowned in counterinsurgency. And one more thing. A SAF trainee could not graduate until his ranger team encountered the enemy in actual combat. This test mission in NPA-infested territory was the SAF Ranger’s rite of passage. The SAF Ranger Team composed 8 men: the team leader, assistant team leader, lead scout, intel/ communications specialist, heavy gunner, sniper, demolitionist, and tail scout/medic. Beginning from scratch, the first members had to be recruited from existing units of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Fortunately, there were mobile battalions within the territorial Philippine Constabulary who made logical recruits for the envisioned national maneuver unit of the PC. A few pioneers were army volunteers. Later in its growth, the SAF would go on to recruit fresh from civilian ranks. The now inexistent Yulo sugarcane fields in Canlubang and the deep ravines of the West Valley Fault at the foot of Tagaytay Highlands were frequent terrain to the training. Not to mention the green and watery landscapes in Silang and Los Banos. Everything, and then some, was done by the book. No weekends were allowed. No mobile phones back then. Only complete isolation from the outside world. Downtimes were spent in sports and more sports. We were toned down to just bones and muscles.

Before we knew, it came time to pass the test. The last couple of weeks were dedicated to the test mission. The teams were put in isolation for days. Intelligence always preceded operations. Success of mission only came with accurate and timely intelligence. Free of compromise. The teams had to know everything they possibly could about the enemy they were about to encounter. They had to standby and continue training while at it until the needed tactical information came in. The teams deployed when the GO was finally given. All movements were done under the cover of darkness in unmarked vehicles. The first deployment was against insurgents in Central Luzon. The operation did not turn out the results the unit had hoped for. So the teams had to pull out and return to headquarters. Again, our teams had to isolate while intelligence developed the next target. After several days, S2 finally came through and briefed the teams on the new target this time in the hinterlands of Southern Luzon. Given the GO, the teams moved swiftly again in unmarked vehicles under cover of darkness. Teams were let off at pre-planned drop-off points where they moved camouflaged on foot. Radio contact was intentionally minimal and done on predetermined timings to coordinate team locations and for control and support purposes. We hit the enemy. The enemy never saw us coming. We only moved camouflaged in darkness. Daylight was hidden rest. The NPA was good at hiding who they were during the day. Their armory of firearms was hidden somewhere in or near the village. Picked up in darkness when there were targets of opportunity to ambush the following day. The enemy’s discipline to wait hours or days for unsuspecting prey was legendary. But we knew their strategy and tactics. The operation was successful and I wish I could tell you more. As full-pledged rangers, it was only the beginning and we moved on to targets in other hotspots as the national strike force of the Constabulary. To the Cordilleras, Negros Oriental, and others. What came afterwards in so far as counterinsurgency is a story for another SAF storyteller to tell. I couldn’t as I was moved to another important role. Wish we could say more. There is so much to say. But even words escape all that really went on in those days during those times. As still it is today and always has. But certainly those rangers at my left and on my right know what it is I wish to capture with my puny attempts at narrating. Today, also retired aging veterans looking back still trying to make sense of what we did at the prime of our lives. Consoled only by ‘For God and Country’.

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