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Stronger Together

Special Operations Forces build partner capacity, collective strength


Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Col. Ranulfo A. Sevilla, deputy commander of the Special Operations Command AFP (SOCOM AFP), and his United States counterpart, Lt. Col. Vincent Enriquez, Commander of 3rd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), spoke with FORUM during the Balikatan 2023 exercise in the Philippines in April. Sevilla also served as executive director for the Balikatan 2023 Special Operations Forces (SOF or SOFOR) Field Training Exercise (FTX) and as commander of the Special Operations Forces in the Balikatan Command Post Exercise (CPX). He and Enriquez discussed SOCOM AFP and U.S. Special Operations Command Pacific’s roles in enhancing the Philippine-U.S. partnership, given that enduring face-to-face interactions with allies and partners are the foundation of bilateral relationships.

FORUM: Tell us about your roles at Balikatan 2023.

Col. Sevilla: I am the deputy commander of the SOCOM AFP. For Balikatan, I am the exercise director for SOFOR FTX events. When the Balikatan exercise was conceptually planned two years ago, we realized that SOCOM needs to create an exercise directorate to supervise the players of SOCOM. So last year [2022], we created this exercise directorate and now I am the exercise director. Aside from being the exercise director for SOCOM SOFOR events, I am also the SOFOR commander for the Command Post Exercise [CPX], so I am wearing two hats for SOFOR events as the exercise director and, at the same time, the commander for the CPX for SOFOR. It will be very challenging joining the planning for the CPX as well as the tabletop exercises. I also supervise the events that my counterpart here will do in the actual scenario.

Lt. Col. Enriquez: I welcome the supervision! I am based out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord [in the U.S. state of Washington], and I am here in the capacity of a special operations task force with elements spread across Palawan, Northern Luzon, as well as on Fort Magsaysay, to help build up our interoperability, our ability to work with our long-term partners — the AFP SOCOM — as well as to ensure that my forces are training effectively in the field. We’re very excited for this opportunity. It’s been too long since we’ve been able to exercise at this scale, and it’s important that we continue to invest in the partnership. We are demonstrating to the world how strong our partnership is and how well we fight together.

Philippine and U.S. Soldiers prepare a weapon during exercise Balikatan. REUTERS

FORUM: Have you been involved in previous Balikatan exercises?

Col. Sevilla: I was involved in Balikatan exercises when I was still a captain. I was the assistant chief of staff for education and training, G8 of the Special Forces Regiment (Airborne) in 2000, and that was my first participation in Balikatan. Aside from being the training officer of the special forces, I joined the tactical level with the ODA 186 (operational detachment alpha or operational unit of special forces). I joined in the small unit tactics training. Barely seven years after that, I again participated in Balikatan and at the time, I was with the AFP Joint Special Operations Group (AFP JSOG). JSOG, at the time, was directly under the AFP, not SOCOM. I was the intel officer, and I was also given the task to participate in Balikatan on two occasions. I have seen the evolution of Balikatan, and I have seen a lot of changes. Previously, the Balikatan exercises were more focused on small unit tactics and training exchanges of TTPs [tactics, techniques and procedures]. Now the focus is shifting to operational concepts and expanding to a wider scope and wider perspective. I’m so glad that there are other special operations-type missions being introduced in this exercise, and we are now focusing on territorial defense, not just on posting on hybrid threats, but defending our sovereignty, our territory. So, I’m so happy for that.

Lt. Col. Enriquez: I have participated in many exercises in the Philippines, but oddly enough, this is my first time that I’ve participated in Balikatan. What is significant about this year’s event is that the scale is unprecedented. This is a unique opportunity we need to take advantage of to train at higher levels, like Col. Sevilla mentioned, looking at the operational level and maybe even the strategic. In previous exercises, the tactical training was beneficial for building the relationships. But that training did not necessarily provide an opportunity to ensure we can work together in a real combat situation. We must sustain the fight and communicate with each other to coordinate multiple operations. At smaller scales in previous exercises with units across the country, everybody could operate independently, and it was still good training. But we weren’t able to achieve combined, joint effects. This is a unique opportunity now that we have so many different partners here from the Philippines and our side, as well as the international partners — with the Australian SOF we can work together at scale. That’s really the main difference for this year. 

A U.S. M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System fires a missile during Balikatan 2023 in Zambales province. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

FORUM: What is significant about Balikatan 2023?

Col. Sevilla: We have trainings with Australia, but this is the first time that they have participated in Balikatan. I think it’s not just about interoperability, but now it’s more of integration of systems as well, and it’s a very good thing, because we know for a fact that our systems are way behind those from the U.S. We have to be able to integrate their system into our system so that we can work together to fight the common enemy, if there is one.

Lt. Col. Enriquez: I think we can’t ignore the backdrop. There are concerns regarding the territorial sovereignty of the Philippines. We want to ensure that our partnership deters any kind of aggression that could threaten that sovereignty. It’s important that we show that we can work together, defend ourselves and that we have a very capable partner in the Philippines. My ethnic background is Filipino, and it’s very exciting to come back and work with the culture and partners and friendships that we’ve had for so long. That’s a real excitement for me. And so is, in the course of my professional career, seeing the development of the relationship with our SOF partners and AFP SOCOM, and how the expansion of their headquarters and their capabilities have grown. What began almost as a company-size partner element has grown to the division and general officer combatant command and, throughout, we at 1st Special Forces Group have maintained a longstanding relationship. In a way, we’ve grown up together.

Col. Sevilla: What makes me excited about this Balikatan is what I mentioned this morning at our simple opening ceremony for the SOFOR events. I mentioned that it was in mid-2021 when U.S. planners came to my office and I was telling them: “Why not come up with different scenarios or training concepts for Balikatan? We should not just focus on small unit tactics. Perhaps we can incorporate unconventional warfare (UW) in the exercise, but on a limited scale. Instead of following the seven phases of UW, we can skip some of its phases since we have a limited time in the exercise.” It was good that they adopted the idea. It was last year’s Balikatan when UW was incorporated into the training, and it was so timely because a few weeks before the start of Balikatan, the Ukraine crisis erupted. The scenario that I was discussing with the U.S. planners during their visit to my office was almost the same with what is happening now in Ukraine. Now I am excited because of how we are going to practice that and rehearse that and come up with concepts that would help not only our Soldiers but also the Filipino community to become resilient and resistant if there is an invasion. So Balikatan would be a test case and perhaps by next year [2024], we would want it to expand more and not just focus on unilateral UW, but it should be a joint, combined type of UW.

Lt. Col. Enriquez: Oh, absolutely! The SOF presence here particularly is persistent. There is always an Army Special Forces Operational Detachment here alongside other SOF partners with emergent options to scale up over the next several months to a battalion headquarters. It’s indicative of a bigger investment in the partnership. On the special operations side, we don’t use the label “first to respond,” because “we’re already there.”  We’re always ready to resist aggression alongside our partners.

Philippine and U.S. Soldiers participate in weapons training during Balikatan 2023. GETTY IMAGES

FORUM: How would you enhance Balikatan and other bilateral training? And what advice would you give to future exercise directors and participants?

Col. Sevilla: I am an advocate of the national crisis management policy of our country. It was part of my job when I was with the Philippine government National Security Council Secretariat. In fact, I am one of the authors of the National Crisis Management Manual with its accompanying Executive Order No. 82, s. 2012, signed by former President Benigno Aquino. That said, I always encourage our security sector to come up with contingency plans for imminent threats and evolving crises, and for contingency plans to be validated through rehearsals and exercises. People who are involved in the contingency planning should also be included in the rehearsals and exercises. That’s why I am supporting what would be the next training that the U.S. and the Philippines would agree to in the near future to follow up on what we have started now. That’s what I have been telling them during our conferences and meetings: to take advantage of this opportunity to learn from the experience and try to observe what our counterparts are doing, so that once they go back to our units, they can also share that with us. I might be participating at the higher level, but I could not see what they were doing at the lower level. After this training, as the exercise director for SOFOR, surely there will be an after-action review, and we will gather what we have learned, what we have observed, and what we have experienced, so that it will be cascaded to our two other units who have not been involved here. I really emphasize to them to take advantage of this opportunity and try to also study the systems that we have, not just the technology, but also how the processes are being made. 

Lt. Col. Enriquez: I tell my Soldiers, “Build your team now and invest in your team because the next time you’re on this ground with a partner, it may be for a fight.” So, use this opportunity to get ready. We talk about the interoperability; we talk about their capabilities development. However, I have a very strong appreciation for the human aspect and relationships. Who do I trust, and do they trust me? This is an opportunity to build those relationships because you know if a crisis happens, you don’t necessarily have the time to build trust, and you will have to work together and in the spirit of Balikatan, shoulder to shoulder [Balikatan is Tagalog for shoulder to shoulder]. We need to act decisively together quickly because time is of the essence in a crisis. So, we’re training now to have that ability. By building these capabilities and trust now, we deter aggression, because nobody will want to mess with our team. We’re in this together.

FORUM: Is there anything else you’d like to emphasize about Balikatan or the Philippine-U.S. partnership?

Col. Sevilla: I just want to express our appreciation to our counterparts. We’re looking forward to working again with them in the future and at exercises even larger than this. We would really appreciate that, especially since [the AFP’s] SOCOM is still experiencing growing pains as we have just celebrated its fifth founding anniversary. We still need a lot of training and studying of how they operate SOCOM in the U.S. We are looking forward to working with U.S. SOCOM directly, not just in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

Lt. Col. Enriquez: I just want to say thank you so much to our AFP SOCOM comrades for the hospitality and for the partnership, the brotherhood, the camaraderie. All of my Soldiers are always so excited to be able to work in the Philippines. From the tactical level all the way up to the national level, we always feel welcome. It’s like we’re long-lost family friends, and it’s just a great opportunity to be able to train at scale. I hope that we continue to build the team. We have the Australians here who also can participate with us. Let’s continue to make this the biggest event we can.  

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