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Philippine National Police’s Special Action Force

Philippine National Police's Special Action Force
SAF operators in Cebu City in 2020.

The Special Action Force (SAF) is the elite counter-terrorist unit of the Philippine National Police (PNP). The SAF was established on May 12, 1983, under the former Philippine Constabulary (PC) per PC General Orders 323 [source]. Former President Fidel Ramos and Former National Defense Secretary Renato de Villa were responsible for forming the SAF [source]. Its structure was influenced by the British Special Air Service [source].

The unit is responsible for counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations under the PNP, although they sometimes are deployed to fight against heavily armed criminals [source]. They are tasked to assist in humanitarian operations, including search and rescue operations [source]. They are also assigned to support other PNP units and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in various field operations [source].

The SAF’s main base is in Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig [source]. Their training camp is located in Fort Santo Domingo, Santa Rosa in Laguna province [source].

Their motto is “By skill and virtue, we triumph” [source].

Major General (Currently Brigadier General) Felipe R. Natividad is the current commanding officer as of 2022 [source].

History

The Philippine National Police’s Special Action Force was established under the PC in 1983 with Rosendo Ferrer and Avelino “Sonny” Razon Jr. being responsible for setting up the SAF in the PC [source]. A training course called the PCSAF Ranger Course was created to train the first operators, being recruited from other parts of the PC [source]. Out of 149 candidates, 26 were commissioned officers and others were enlisted officers recruited from other PC units [source]. The PCSAF Ranger Course was first renamed to the SAF Operations Course (SAFOC) then SAF Commando Course (SAFCC) [source].

During the events of the EDSA Revolution in 1986, Ramos was involved in a secret exercise known as Exercise Ligtas Isla (Exercise Save Island), which called for an armed intervention in case former First Lady Imelda Marcos or Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff General Fabián Ver took over control of the Philippine government from President Ferdinand Marcos, who was sick at the time [source]. After Corazon Aquino became president, the SAF was always mandated to be on standby as an anti-coup unit in cases where units of the AFP go rogue [source].

On January 29, 1991, Republic Act 6975 was signed into law, changing the unit’s name from the PCSAF to the PNP SAF [source].

In January 2009, SAF operators were involved in Balikatan bilateral exercises in 2009, working alongside American and Filipino soldiers [source].

On July 20, 2016, the SAF created the New Bilibid Prison Facility Security Provisional Battalion (NBP FSPB) to lead operations against crime, corruption and the proliferation of illegal drugs [source].

In 2018, the PNP approved the creation of five more Special Action Battalions (SABs) in the SAF [source] [source].

In 2019, the SAF acquired 7 Airbus H125 and 2 Robinson R44 Raven II helicopters for its Air Unit [source]. But on June 29, 2021, the AU was transferred from the SAF to the Office of the Chief, PNP based on NAPOLCOM Resolution Number 2021-0720. This move was in line with the PNP’s 2020 Annual Report to help the agency’s organizational effectiveness, air support and mobility [source].

Notable Missions

The SAF has been deployed throughout the Philippines on numerous counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations and on occasions, against armed criminals. The following that is listed are significant operations that made the SAF’s involvement known to the media.

After President Corazon Aquino came to power in 1986, the SAF was involved in protecting her government from coup attempts until she stepped down from office in 1992 [source]. They were later deployed to quell revolts in the former Oakwood apartments in 2003 [source] and in 2007 at the Peninsula Hotel in Makati City [source].

On March 15, 2005, the SAF raided the Metro Manila Rehabilitation Center in Camp Bagong Diwa after inmates from the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) captured the compound and took hostages [source]. One operator, Police Officer 1 (PO1) Abel Arreola, was killed in the raid [source] while 22 hostile inmates were killed [source].

During the 2010 hostage crisis at Quirino Grandstand, Rizal Park in Manila, the SAF was placed on standby instead of having them deployed to rescue the hostages on the hijacked bus [source]. Their non-intervention led to an inquiry on why the local SWAT team was deployed instead of the SAF despite the fact that the former had begun preparations to resolve the incident [source].

In September 2013, the PNP provided assistance to the AFP in clearing Zamboanga City from rogue Moro National Liberation Front fighters. The SAF collaborated with Philippine military special forces units in clearing the city streets [source]. Three SAF operators were killed in action [source].

In January 2015, the SAF was deployed to Mamasapano, Maguindanao in order to take down Zulkifli Abdhir, a Malaysian terrorist who was known to be hiding in the region with links to the ASG, Jemaah Islamiya, the Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM) and the Khalifa Islamiyah Mindanao (KIM) [source] [source]. Although Zulkifli was killed in the operation, 44 SAF operators were killed [source] with 14 wounded and one survivor [source] [source].

From May to October 2017, the siege in Marawi by local Islamic State fighters resulted in the deployment of the SAF alongside the PNP Maritime Group as they clear the city alongside the AFP [source]. Four SAF operators were killed in action [source], where they were awarded the Order of Lapu-Lapu’s Kalasag Medal [source].

Philippine National Police's Special Action Force
A SAF team operates a Browning M2 HMG during the siege in Marawi.

From October to November 2020, the SAF worked with PNP SWAT teams and Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) security personnel to secure NBP due to prison riots that started from fights between Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Sigue Sigue Commando gang members [source].

Formation

Special Action Force
SAF operators standing at attention during the 36th SAF Founding Anniversary ceremony; via Philippine government Public Domain.

As of 2021, the SAF is composed of the following units:

  • Headquarters
  • Force Support Battalion [source]
  • Rapid Deployment Battalion [source] [source]
  • Twelve Philippine National Police’s Special Action Force Battalions (1/2/3/4/5/6/7/9/10/11/12/14 SAB)
  • Training Branch [source]

Weapons and Equipment

Since the Philippine National Police’s Special Action Force is an elite unit tasked to handle counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations, it’s equipped with a variety of small arms and vehicles that allows them to cope with various challenges in the field.

  • Grenade Launchers
  • Heavy Weapons
    • M67 recoilless rifle
    • RPG-7 (RBR7)
    • 60/81mm mortar [source]
  • Pistols
  • Vehicles
    • Cadillac Gage V-150 commando [source] [source]
    • Shladot-MDT Armor Tiger Mk. II [source]
    • GAIA Amir
    • CTK Incorporated-made armored vans

Training

Prospective recruits for the SAF must be active PNP officer, with the rank of at least PO1, the rank now changed to Patrolman due to PNP ranks reforms passed in April 2019 [source]. Recruits attend the basic public safety course at the National Police Training Institute for six months [source].

The unit strictly implements age and height requirements for both male and female SAF candidates. Male candidates are required to be 5’4″ inches in height while female candidates need to be 5’2″ inches. Age requirements for candidates are between 21 to 30 years old.

Philippine National Police’s Special Action Force candidates are required to attend the SAF Commando course [source] (or training from military-based courses in the Philippine military including the Scout Ranger Course, Force Reconnaissance Course and the Special Forces Operations Course [source]) in order to be awarded the black SAF beret [source]. The course consists of modules that teach internal security operations, waterborne rescue, police intervention, barangay module and operational testing, followed by a field training exercise [source].

Philippine National Police's Special Action Force
SAF operators practice clearing a Light Rail Transit (LRT) train; via United States government Public Domain.

After graduation from the Commando course, SAF operators are allowed to specialize in different fields by taking specialized courses. The specialized courses include explosives and ordnance disposal [source] [source], basic airborne course [source], urban counter-revolutionary warfare course or SURESHOCK [source], K-9 training course [source], sniper course [source], basic underwater search and rescue operations course or SCUBA-BUSROC [source], the SAF seaborne warfare course or SSWC [source] and the maritime tactical operations course or MTOC [source]. For MTOC, it’s strictly required for SAF operators attempting the course to be qualified from SURESHOCK and airborne training [source].

The SAF has conducted joint training with the 1st Special Forces Group (A) [source]. The unit has been previously trained by the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team/Critical Incident Response Team, the Police Nationale’s RAID and the Israel Border Police’s YAMAM [source].

Future

With threats coming from communist and terrorist groups as well as heavily armed criminal gangs, the Philippine National Police’s Special Action Force is mandated to handle all counterinsurgency operations if and when the PNP is tasked to do so under Philippine laws.

As the SAF has proven itself to defend the Philippine government against coups launched by the AFP in the 1980s, there is a strong trust that the unit will do its part and take the lead in suppressing any plots to take down the elected government in power.

Author

Mark Christian Soo

Mark is a undergraduate in Political Science from Simon Fraser University. His research interests focus on Japanese, East and Southeast Asian defense/foreign affairs policy.

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