In June 1972, a U-17 reconnaissance plane confirmed the presence off the coast of Digoyo Point in Isabela of a fishing vessel (MV Karagatan) loaded with high-powered firearms and ammunitions for the NPA. Intercepted by the AFP’s Task Force Palanan, MV Karagatan gave the Armed Forces a measure of the growing strength of the insurgency. The Air Force organized the Composite Air Support Force (CASF) under the 1st Air Division to assist Task Force Palanan in terms of comprehensive airlift, communications equipment, personnel and medical air evacuation support. Using jet fighters, Hueys, U-17s and converted T-34 trainer planes, Air Force pilots went on bombing and strafing sorties, and daily reconnaissance missions.
In September 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos proclaimed martial law, claiming that the insurgents had put the state in grave danger. Far from suppressing the pockets of armed rebellion, however, the dictatorship only succeeded in further fanning insurgent flames. Over the next 14 years, the Air Force would give government troops the mobility and firepower to keep the well-entrenched rebels at bay despite often-heavy casualties on both sides.
The cost of the long counter-insurgency war to the PAF would go far beyond human lives, misplaced strategic priorities and rapid depletion of meager resources. It led to a steady decline in the external defense capability of the Air Force.
In terms of firepower, the military had only one sustainable advantage: the Air Force. At no time was this power wielded more dramatically than in November 1972 at the battle of Sibalu Hill in Sulu near the southern tip of the Philippines.
General Reconquista – then a lieutenant in charge of A3 (Air Force operations) – remembers having been on duty that Sunday at Villamor Air Base. Shortly after noon, he received the first of a series of frantic calls from Jolo, Sulu, requesting air support to extricate a battalion of marines trapped within the MNLF strong-hold.
Lt. Col. Reconquista immediately alerted Basa Air Base to make available all aircraft and sent transport planes to load armaments. By the time General Rancudo, then PAF chief was located to give the deployment orders, no less than 60 planes and choppers were ready to fly to Mactan – the staging area for the air assault.
Air Force Col. Pompeyo Vasquez was flown in from Jolo to brief the pilots on the situation at Sibalu Hill. The marines and the rebels were within shouting distance of one another: it was imperative to determine their exact positions. That same evening, Colonel Vasquez flew back to Jolo where he would orchestrate the attack as air controller the following morning.
By dawn, wave upon wave of F-5 and F-86 fighters, as well as T-33 jets and C-47 gunships, took off for Jolo every minute – bombarding the enemy camp accurately and relentlessly. After each sortie – some pilots flew three sorties during that attack – the aircraft would dart back to Mactan to reload. Before the morning was over, helicopters landed at Sibalu Hill to extricate the marines that narrowly escaped a massacre.
A few months later, the Air Force would again play a vital support role in the massive military counter-offensive in the central Mindanao province of Cotabato.
By early 1973, the MNLF forces had virtually surrounded Cotabato City and the Awang airport complex. With overseas support for training and arms, the rebels were gearing up for riverine and land attacks to seize the seat of government in Central Mindanao. This would complete the first step in their grand plan to turn Mindanao, Palawan and the Sulu chain of islands into the Bangsa Moro Republic.
To thwart the Cotabato rebel attack, the Central Mindanao Command (CEMCOM), headed by Brig. Gen. Fortunato Abat of the Philippine Army, enlisted the support of every branch of the Armed Forces, as well as paramilitary civilian home defense forces.
Aside from airlifting troops from Manila and Cebu to the war zone, the PAF swooped into the thick of battle. Composite Air Support Force Cotabato (CASFCOT) fielded Huey choppers, rocket-bearing U-17 aircraft and C-47 gunships as CEMCOM troops advanced to recapture town after town from rebel hands.
The liberation of the town of Maganoy on 2 April 1973 hinged on a risky air mobile operation in which six Hueys had to execute a tight spiral – one after the other – from 5,000 feet to a marked landing spot at the town plaza to insert elements of the 22nd Infantry Battalion.
From March to August 1973, the PAF provided air cover and tactical support to ground forces, interdicted waterborne rebel reinforcements, broke up rebel concentrations and blasted fuel and ammunition dumps.
The military attack culminated in the two-month campaign to destroy the well-secured rebel logistics base in Barrio Tran, Lebak and to restore government control over the town. Secondary explosions following a series of air strikes heralded the success of the mission.
From there, CEMCOM gained the initiative and shifted to unconventional warfare as the rebels, in Gen. Abat’s assessment, began resorting to “harassment, limited attacks, depredations, sabotage and terrorism…to keep their image of strength.”
Even as the Muslim secessionist movement waned in the face of peace and diplomatic initiatives, the military found no respite as it confronted the growing NPA threat on several fronts.
Following the expiry of the parity rights agreement in 1974, the Americans began to leverage the provisions of the Military Assistance Pact. Straightforward aid gave way to a credit system that tied Philippine resources to difficult repayment schemes. Meanwhile, maintenance costs spiraled as the first global oil crisis blew fuel prices sky-high. As the economy took a turn for the worse by the early 1980s, the PAF felt a severe strain on its resources in the sustained war against the insurgents.
The desire to the authoritarian government to perpetuate itself in power also caused stagnation in professional advancement within the Armed Forces in favor of certain “trusted” generals. This proved an ideal breeding ground for demoralization among young officers. Thus began the politicization of the military, along with the rest of Philippine society.
Sotelo describes how his views changed when the dictatorship’s abuses became apparent: “As a fighter pilot, my participation in the counter-insurgency and the secessionist conflict in the South was purely professional. You live in a base, fly to the scene of conflict, drop your bomb. Little by little, you ask yourself, who is the real villain, the rebels or lazy officials who steal public funds?”
At about 6 am of Monday, 24 February, a flight of Sikorsky gunships bearing Col. Sotelo, piloted by Squadron Commander Maj. Charles Hotchkiss and other members of the 15th Strike Wing defected to the rebel camp. That decision irreversibly titlted the balance against the dictatorship. Later that morning, a 15th Strike Wing gunship, steered by Capt. Wilfredo Evangelista, was dispatched to fire warning shots at Malacanang in a show of rebel superiority. At noon, three rebel gunships neutralized the air power of “loyalist” forces at Villamor Air Base. The PAF was back in the service of the Filipino people.