SOF Joint Combined Exchange Training from a Host Nation’s Perspective

By: MAJ Emmanuel G. Cabahug, Philippine Army

"Victory in war starts in training" is an aphorism that rings true for every military, and even nonmilitary, organization.1 Routine training events, in the form of SOF Joint Combined Exchange Trainings (JCETs), have taken place in the Philippines for more than two decades as part of the resolute US response to global terrorism.2 Among other goals, the primary intent of the Special Operations Command, Pacific (SOCPAC) JCET is to provide Philippine security forces with the ability and competencies to thwart terrorist acts and to deny terrorists both sanctuary and training grounds for their activities in the Southeast Pacific region. After many millions of US dollars have been spent, however, has this program been effective?

In this essay, I explore how JCETs have affected the host nation's operational and training preparedness from my perspective as a Philippine participant.3 Unless these trainings are thoroughly planned and programmed, conducted to a high standard, jointly assessed, and continually evaluated, they are not likely to result in the optimal training outcome. The term optimal is defined here as a function of the unit's performance (both individual and collective) during training and actual combat deployment. In other words, has the training improved the participants' knowledge and skills so that they are able to apply their newly acquired skills toward greater mission success?



Overview of JCETs in the Philippines

Every year, the armed forces of the Philippines host approximately seven to ten JCETs with SOCPAC: three to four with the Philippine Army (PA); two to three with the Philippine Navy/Marines; and two to three with the Philippine Air Force. Each of these JCETs is service-centric and caters to the training needs of the Philippine security forces. The most serious obstacles to Philippine and US interoperability include constraints on doctrine and organization; differing tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs); incompatible communications equipment; a lack of well-established training facilities and adequate equipment in the Philippines; and insufficient funding from the Philippine government. Most of the PA JCET training activities are conducted directly in the field with units of 70 PA SOF personnel, on average.

More often than not, however, the JCET fails to include personnel from the various Philippine schoolhouses (the Special Forces School, Scout Ranger Training School, and Counter-Terrorist Training and Development School). If their personnel were able to participate, these schools could then integrate the best practices, TTPs, and lessons learned that were acquired during JCETs and similar bilateral training exercises into their programs of instruction. As it is, the acquired skill sets benefit only the unit and the individual soldiers who participate in a given JCET. The subsequent transfer of institutional knowledge and expertise is typically neglected because the JCET participants quickly become preoccupied with current operational requirements on the frontlines. This problem is exacerbated by the lack of resources to sustain the training and readiness of personnel on the frontlines. This is clearly a less-than-optimal arrangement, so why does it continue?


The JCET Process: Programming, Coordination, Planning, Execution, and Evaluation and Assessment

Ideally, each JCET is programmed and incorporated into the yearly list of bilateral training activities of the Philippines-United States Mutual Defense Board (MDB)-Security Engagement Board (SEB).4 The MDB, which was created to oversee the implementation of the bilateral 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, addresses the traditional security concerns of both parties. The SEB was created in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks primarily, but not exclusively, to deal with the nontraditional issues of counterterrorism, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief operations. The MDB-SEB meets twice a year (alternating between the Philippine capital, Manila, and Honolulu in the US state of Hawaii) to discuss and finalize the approximately 350 to 400 activities proposed for the succeeding year. The combined board is also supposed to assess all of the bilateral activities of the current year in order to sustain those programs that provide optimal outcomes and to enhance or refocus the ones that are not delivering the intended effects or benefits. Once the exercise plans are approved by their respective signatories (Commander, US Pacific Command, and Chief of Staff, Armed Forces of the Philippines), both countries' points of contact (which include the SOCPAC Operations Directorate, the in-country security cooperation representative [Joint United States Military Assistance Group to the Republic of the Philippines], and the Philippine armed forces' executive agent) need to coordinate the dates for the predeployment site survey (PDSS) and initial planning conference (IPC) for a specific JCET.


Active monitoring and coordination among the two countries' points of contact are crucial to the success of the JCET, considering the timelines and other administrative requirements of both countries' participating units. The PDSS and IPC, which last from five to seven days, are conducted to survey suitable training sites and facilities, determine the logistical requirements of the exercise, determine the training events and timelines, and address other details for the JCET. Training normally takes place about six months after the PDSS and IPC are completed in order to ensure all the preliminary requirements have been met. A significant factor in the success of the exercise is how well prepared the host nation is in terms of its proposed training concept and the resources needed to realize the concept. Such preparations are therefore scrutinized during the PDSS and IPC. If the host nation planners have an extensive, well-developed training concept, it is easier for the US planners to refine the concept based on the skills and competencies of the designated US SOF team, and to anticipate the resources required for the specific JCET. The planners on both sides are expected to jointly draft the administrative procedures agreement, which lays out all the administrative and logistical arrangements that both parties will execute in order to ensure the successful conduct of the exercise. The IPC also produces a draft exercise plan and training calendar.

Because US law requires that more than 50% of the training benefits the US participants, US SOF personnel usually have the opportunity to undergo special training in jungle survival and stick and knife fighting. As time and budgets allow, US participants who are training on Luzon Island may also visit military and historical landmarks such as the Camp Pangatian Memorial Shrine (site of the Cabanatuan Raid), the Capas National Shrine (memorializing the Bataan Death March), and Corregidor Island.

The IPC includes a final planning conference and final site survey lasting three to five days, during which time the actual training dates are chosen, the administrative procedures agreement is confirmed, and the exercise plan and training calendar are refined. There are plenty of "nuts and bolts" details that must be dealt with, all the way from preparation to mission completion, and regular communication between all the concerned parties is vital for the process to work.

Often, legal pressure from anti-US organizations in the Philippines poses a serious challenge to the execution of the JCET. Because PA SOF units that are projected to participate in the JCET are regularly involved in real-world operations, they have become the primary targets for legal harassment by organizations that want to discredit all military operations.5 These organizations make their voices heard by routinely filing complaints, particularly on human rights matters, and appealing to leftist-oriented media outlets. Lawyers for these organizations know that by pursuing these actions, they will be able to impede the professional training and development of PA soldiers. This legal strategy relies heavily on the US Leahy amendment, which dictates that all foreign national SOF units and their respective training participants and unit commanders need to be approved by the US government for each JCET.6 There have been instances in which the number of PA personnel expected to participate in the JCET was trimmed by almost half (e.g., from 70 personnel down to 40) due to these legal challenges. Moreover, the Philippine Scout Rangers, a critical combat unit, were denied permission to participate in JCETs from 2010 to 2012 because of standing legal complaints filed by these opposition groups. As a consequence, the Scout Rangers' training and operational readiness have been put at risk.


Last but not least, the MDB-SEB has largely failed to follow up with a serious evaluation and assessment of its bilateral military activities, including the JCETs. The absence of any candid assessments limits the ability of the JCET program to obtain its optimal outcome of improved interoperability. Therefore, some issues and concerns that have arisen during previous JCET exercises are reoccurring because they have not been taken into serious consideration and targeted for corrective action by the joint committees. An example of this recurring capability gap is the interoperability of the Philippines' armed services (Army, Navy/Marines, and Air Force) in the conduct of joint and combined arms training and operation. Close collaboration and synchronized efforts among Philippine security forces on the ground, in the air, and at sea are crucial elements that contribute to successful combat operations. The development of a combined PA-US evaluation and assessment report would be an essential tool to ensure continuity between previous JCETs and current and future JCETs. It is vital that both sides know where they left off in previous JCETs so they can build on the lessons learned and address the capability gaps. Unfortunately, the existing process is all too reminiscent of the movie Groundhog Day, in which the same difficulties happen over and over again without anyone seeming to understand why.7

The Defining Factors of JCET:
A Personal Reflection

From the second half of 2009 to the first half of 2014, I facilitated the conduct of the Army SOF JCETs and observed other sister-service (Navy/Marines and Air Force) JCETs as well. In doing so, I noted not only the strengths of these exercises, but also the weaknesses and capability gaps that need attention. I consider three elements to be key if we are to optimize the conduct of JCETs in the Philippines: commitment, continuity, and resources.

Commitment for JCET

A JCET must not be perceived merely as "business as usual" for the US and Philippine participants, but rather as an opportunity to interact, learn, and share the knowledge and expertise necessary to have a meaningful bilateral exercise. It must add a solid connective thread to strengthen the already existing cord of friendly relations between the two countries, even as it reinforces the host nation's capacity and capability to address domestic and external challenges. From top to bottom, participants, commanders, planners, and decision makers must possess a firm commitment that includes a positive attitude, a willingness to acknowledge problems, and the ability to set serious goals for each bilateral training engagement. Senior commanders and decision makers on both sides should continually support these JCETs by articulating realistic goals that will address the capability gaps. This is especially important for the skill sets that the armed forces need to develop, improve, and sustain if they are to deliver effective blows against the enemies of the state and, ultimately, win and keep the people's trust.


Training participants must always bear in mind that their actions are not only reflective of themselves and their armed forces, but also of the flags that they carry proudly on their shoulders. We (American and Philippine military personnel) can never avoid the scrutinizing gaze of the public, especially of those who are against the government. Any infringement of Philippine domestic laws by visiting US military personnel may imperil the already existing defense agreements of both countries and our bilateral ties as well. Although there have been some serious violations of domestic laws during exercises in the past, US SOF were not involved in those cases. Moreover, from a cultural perspective, Filipino soldiers usually respect US SOF as experts in their fields; therefore, any misconduct or perceived disrespect on the US side would have a tremendous negative impact on training outcomes. Every SOF operator must be sensitive to the host nation's culture and, in turn, should not assume that Filipinos have a good grasp of the visiting forces' culture.

Continuity of JCET

JCET program continuity is vital to the strategic goal of enhancing bilateral ties between the United States and the Philippines, builds Philippine security capabilities, and supports US security interests in the region. The JCET program should be integrated into long-term planning in a manner that supports the strategic intent of both countries. Too often, however, this has not been the case. The 2009 JCET, for instance, seemed to have minimal connections to the JCETs of the previous and succeeding years. The program should have a purposive engagement plan that lays out how it will help build and sustain the capability requirements of the Philippine security forces over time. One example is the Philippine-US exercise called "Balance Pistons," which is conducted, on average, three times a year. The Balance Pistons training events tend to be similar to each other, with the main difference being the training audience/unit. The official objective of these exercises is to "enhance the war fighting capacity and capability of both forces." Simply stated, that objective is too broad, making it difficult to set useful performance measures or measures of effectiveness. In addition to being based on subjective inputs, the evaluation and assessment portions of Balance Pistons have been poorly performed, with greater emphasis on quantity—
the number of programmed activities—than on quality—the actual conduct of the training. These lapses might also be attributed to the absence of a cohesive and purposeful engagement plan from the Philippine side.


This need for continuity is the main reason why the PA SOF (a regular customer of the JCETs) has developed and initiated the Five-Year SOF Engagement Plan as a subset of the SOF Bilateral Training Roadmap. Among other objectives, the Training Roadmap will serve as a guide to connect each and every JCET conducted in the Philippines. It will deliberately involve the PA schoolhouses and key stakeholders in order to integrate the new TTPs and learning into all PA SOF domestic training, as well as into subsequent bilateral and multilateral training engagements. The intent is to institutionalize the TTPs and best practices acquired from the JCETs that can be readily applied on the battlefield.

SOF Interoperability Training Exercise

The international SOF community must be persistent, deliberate, and forward-looking if it plans to develop regional coalition engagements, such as SOF CT/COIN–focused exercises with teams from partner nations like the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. Other potential participants include Australia, New Zealand, and other interested allied countries. Such an exercise could fall under the rubric of an UPSMAINT (Uninterrupted, Persistent, Sustaining Move Against Insurgents, Narcotics, and Terrorism) SOF interoperability training exercise, which would focus on the exchange of TTPs, best practices, and lessons learned to counter the latest trends and tactics used by terrorists, drug traffickers, and insurgents. This could take the form of a weeklong exercise during which each country shares its best practices and lessons learned regarding a domestic crisis or international event that affected that particular country.


This proposal may sound ambitious, but it could be done if the participants' commitment were genuine. If concerned countries are genuinely committed to concerted efforts to face nontraditional security threats such as terrorism, they should not hesitate to participate in this kind of bilateral or multilateral SOF interoperability exercise. In return for their investment of time and resources, participants could expect to achieve maximum benefit from such an exercise. This proposal could also be included as an agenda item for consideration at SOCPAC's annual Pacific Area Special Operations Conference (PASOC), held in Hawaii and attended by SOF community leaders and decision makers in the Pacific theater. The SOF interoperability training exercise could serve as a practical application of SOCPAC's initiative. Adopting these suggestions would go a long way toward eliminating the continuity lapses that I have witnessed during my five years as an SOF JCET insider.

Resources for JCET

Resources are the most crucial determinant in the interoperability game. For the purposes of this article, my definition of resources is confined to the military scope that includes training facilities, equipment, and money to support the JCET. Every cent spent for the JCET counts. To avoid waste, the quantity or frequency of bilateral engagements could be trimmed down, and a greater focus could be placed on the quality of the training. As both partners continue to experience financial constraints, they need to sustain the bilateral training programs that provide operational benefits and eradicate those programs that do not add sufficient value. The MDB-SEB must conduct thorough evaluations and assessments of all JCET activities to optimize the chances for a positive outcome. The quality and measurable outcomes of bilateral activities should be the primary concerns, not the quantity of the activities.

Conclusions and Recommendations

SOF JCETs are an excellent opportunity for Philippine security forces to interact with US SOF, share knowledge and best practices, and exchange TTPs and lessons learned in warfighting and nontraditional operations. The interoperability portion of the training, however, has been neglected. That is why, since 2012, the PA side has proposed that a Philippine-US interservice JCET (called "Joint Piston") should include the objective of SOF joint and combined arms planning and execution. Unfortunately, this concept has not materialized. I am not convinced that claims of a lack of funding for JCETs on both sides is the real issue; rather, I suspect that a firmer commitment by both parties and their SOF stakeholders is necessary. There are other activities listed in the MDB-SEB that were not carried out due to lack of commitment and perseverance on the part of the event coordinators. The armed forces of the Philippines, and perhaps US forces as well, are still blinded by their service-centric lenses. The Philippine security forces need to enhance their skills and competencies, specifically in the area of joint and combined arms operations, in order to effectively neutralize enemies of the state. US SOF assistance with this concern would be extremely valuable. Perhaps one way of addressing this joint-combined gap is to reduce the iterations of other JCET programs (e.g., Balance Piston) from three per year to two, and funnel these funds to support a future Philippine-US Exercise Joint Piston 01-2016, that would include all Philippine and US SOF. Philippine National Police SOF units should also be invited to participate in order to add more complexity and fluidity to the concept of a joint, interagency, and law enforcement training exercise.

In sharing these thoughts, I anticipate a positive future for Philippines SOF international relations as the Philippines continues to adapt to the changing security landscape in the region and confronts the domestic difficulties brought about by terrorists, insurgents, and other criminal elements operating in the Philippines. Although some may perceive JCET programs as generating only a small benefit, in my experience, JCETs make a genuine difference in regional security and stability. Sometimes called the "sick man" of Asia, the Philippines is determined to stand up against the various internal and external challenges facing it. With continued US government support and assistance, particularly from SOCPAC, the Philippines security forces will be better able to protect the people against traditional and nontraditional security threats, secure the nation's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and earn a well-respected image as a strong US partner in the Pacific region. Finally, it takes a firm commitment, persistent training engagements, and the wise use of resources to ensure optimal outcomes and the successful attainment of SOF JCET objectives.

About the Author(s):
MAJ Emmanuel G. Cabahug is an infantry officer in the Philippine Army.

This is a work of the US federal government and not subject to copyright protection in the United States. Foreign copyrights may apply.

  1. The views stated here are solely those of the author and do not represent official Philippine government policy or that of any official entity. 
  2. Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) is one aspect of a wide range of US international military training and education programs. For a recent report on these programs, including JCET, see Department of Defense and Department of State, Foreign Military Training: Fiscal Years 2008 and 2009, Joint Report to Congress, Vol. 1: II-2: 
  3. Major Emmanuel G. Cabahug was assigned to the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Education and Training, OG8, Philippine Army, from 1 June 2009 to 16 June 2014. In this capacity, he dealt specifically with bilateral and multilateral training engagements with allied partners, including Army SOF JCETs with US Special Operations Command, Pacific. 
  4. See Thomas Lum, The Republic of the Philippines and US Interests, RL 33233 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service [CRS], 5 April 2012): 
  5. See, for example, Rubi Del Mundo, "Election ‘Hotspots,'" National Democratic Front of the Philippines, 31 January 2007: ; Karaptan Alliance for the Advance of Human Rights, Oplan Bantay Laya: Blueprint for Terror and Impunity, 2009 Year-End Report on the Human Rights Situation in the Philippines (Quezon City, Philippines: Karapatan Alliance for the Advancement of People's Rights, 2009): ; Dabet Castañeda, "Soldiers Vent Wrath on Civilians," Bulatlat 5, no. 12 (1–7 May 2005): ; and "Scout Rangers Face Charges for Manhandling Farmworker," GMA News Online, 3 September 2008: 
  6. The Leahy Amendment, or "Leahy Law," forbids the US military from providing assistance or training to foreign militaries that are known to violate human rights. See Nina M. Serafino et al., "Leahy Law" Human Rights Provisions and Security Assistance: Issue Overview, R43361 (Washington, D.C.: CRS, 29 January 2014): 
  7. In this Hollywood movie, an ambitious TV weatherman (played by Bill Murray) is angry at being sent, for the fourth year in a row, to cover Groundhog Day, an event featuring a famous weather-forecasting rodent. On awakening in his hotel room on the day "after" the event, he discovers that it is again Groundhog Day. He eventually realizes that he is doomed to spend the rest of eternity in the same place doing the same thing every day, unless he can learn a personal lesson. See Groundhog Day (Columbia Pictures, 1993), Internet Movie Database, n.d.: 
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