U.S. and Filipino soldiers trained together earlier this year before the first Filipino brigade combat team deployed to fight Abu Sayyaf insurgents.

The training for U.S. soldiers from the 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team included stealthy movements through the jungle, alternating between working in Stryker vehicles to living out of ruck sacks and learning how to move a logistics train across an austere Pacific island.

For the Filipino troops, the training was an opportunity to field test combined arms maneuvers for the Philippine Army’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, a new unit formed in December, before their deployment.

During the three-month training mission with U.S. forces, the Filipino troops were alerted that they would soon deploy to their nation’s turbulent southern province of Sulu to counter ISIS-aligned Abu Sayyaf militants.

“Very short notice deployment, so we adapted our training model quickly and part of that was on the machine gun range,” said Lt. Col. Douglas Graham, who serves as a battalion commander with the 1-2 Stryker BCT. “Most of their formation had never trained significantly on machine guns and we had a young staff sergeant who I think trained the majority of three battalions worth of Filipino machine gun teams. That was just incredible.”

“That same model held with our engineers who were teaching EOD and breaching, driver’s training and really any aspect you can imagine,” he added.

Many of the Filipino troops still had extensive combat experience to share with the Americans. One infantry battalion had fought the country’s communist insurgency in the north and another had fought Islamist groups in the south.

The mechanized battalion also had elements that were veterans of the Battle of Marawi in 2017. The origin of the Philippines’ first BCT was largely tied to the lessons Filipino troops learned from that engagement.

“They had a lot of challenges with synchronizing operations between mechanized forces, their special operations, infantry, et cetera," Graham said.

So when the Americans were on the ground with them for three months, the two partner forces rehearsed combined arms maneuvers utilizing their infantry, armored vehicles and fires support.

“I know my counterpart really found a lot of value in that,” said Col. Leo Wyszynski, the 1-2 Stryker BCT commander. “He was our biggest advocate for coming back for future training, not just at the brigade level, but at the division level."

Philippine Army divisions are operationally deployed throughout the country and therefore don’t spend as much time training and planning as American division headquarters, Wyszynski noted.

The two partner nations conducted various offensive and defensive training iterations, circumventing hot and humid daytime operations in favor of moving almost exclusively at night and practicing assaults in the early morning hours when the enemy’s vision would be degraded.

Filipino troops received notice during their training mission that they were being tapped to deploy to Sulu province to fight Islamist militants. (Army)
Filipino troops received notice during their training mission that they were being tapped to deploy to Sulu province to fight Islamist militants. (Army)

U.S. troops received a master class in moving through jungle terrain, utilizing locals as early warning systems and taking advantage of bird calls and bamboo sticks for silent coordination, according to Sgt. 1st Class James Howard, who acted as the brigade operations sergeant major while deployed.

“They’re like a Swiss Army Knife,” Howard said of the Filipino combat veterans. “They are very resourceful with how they fight and how they communicate.”

The training culminated in a large-scale, complex live-fire exercise.

“One of the most complex live-fires I’ve ever done, to include in combat,” Wyszynski said. “The real value in this was the readiness training, the synergy, being able to work together in a multinational team.”

For the Filipino BCT, the training blended into what has become a months-long offensive against remnants of the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu by the Philippine Army.

In Sulu, Filipino soldiers have faced active combat, including a suicide attack that killed three Filipino soldiers at the headquarters of their first BCT in late June. Roughly a dozen other soldiers were wounded by militant gunfire during that attack.