In the early 1950s, then Secretary of National Defense and later President Ramon Magsaysay initiated a highly successful reform program for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Magsaysay, who managed to bolster the people’s trust in the military, went on to become one of the most beloved presidents of the Philippines.

In 2013, Rino A. Francisco, editor in chief of the AFP’s Office of Strategic and Special Studies (OSS) Digest, wrote and published “Magsaysay and the AFP: A Historical Case Study of Military Reform and Transformation,” which puts Magsaysay’s reform program in the context of the modern military, and posits possible trajectories for the new millennium’s AFP.

On the 57th death anniversary of President Ramon Magsaysay, we are sharing Rino A. Francisco’s study, published here with the author’s permission.


by Rino A. Francisco


For more than a decade, the issue of reform has been much touted in the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The 2003 RP-US Joint Defense Assessment made a comprehensive evaluation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and came out with the finding that the AFP’s capability to execute its missions was rated as generally Minus (-) Partial Mission Capable, largely attributed to systemic deficiencies found within the defense and military establishment.[1] The Philippine Defense Reform Program that was formulated in 2004 endeavors to create “a strong, capable and responsive Philippine defense establishment,” believing as it does that a transformed defense and military establishment that is capable of responding to current and emerging threats will usher in a secure, stable and peaceful environment conducive to economic growth and national development.[2]

Much of the succeeding discussion about military reform and transformation however became focused on the issue of corruption beginning with the 2003 Oakwood Mutiny, followed by the Garcia Controversy and the “pabaon.” As such, reform efforts became concentrated on good governance, transparency, resource efficiency. While the above initiatives were definite steps in the right directions, the defense establishment has not said much beyond generalities on what improvements could be effected on combat performance.[3]This article takes the position that the foundation or at least the starting point of military reform and transformation should be ensuring combat effectiveness. It believes the age-old wisdom that the true test of how good an armed force is could be found on how it performs on the battlefield. Only slightly less important is how openly and proudly a military organization embraced warfighting as its raison d’ etre even as armed forces have to perform a variety of tasks apart from its core function.

In support of the above argument, the author uses as a case study, a very important but long forgotten episode in Philippine military history that could provide lessons for today’s reform and transformation efforts. This was the reform program initiated by Secretary of National Defense and later President Ramon Magsaysay in the early 1950s that transformed almost overnight an AFP saddled with issues of corruption, poor leadership, low morale and indifferent performance into arguably the best armed force we ever had. His reforms not only improved the performance and conduct of the military but have triggered a transformation and may even have created a revolution in military affairs in the field of counterinsurgency. Indeed, Magsaysay’s and the AFP’s achievements in these areas may find resonance in today’s situation since the problems they overcame more than 60 years ago were still the issues that current DND-AFP reform efforts are trying to address.

The article uses as a contextual paradigm the relationship between military reform and the core or warfighting function of the Armed Forces. By doing so, it touches on the concept of military professionalism as there is a direct correlation between the two; success in the reform effort leads to improvement in the level of professionalism.

The concept of military professionalism would be forever etched with Samuel Huntington. He argues that it has three main characteristics: expertise in what is termed as the “management of violence”; responsibility to the state and society as the expert adviser in his competency and as its practitioner at their service; and, a unique corporate character where membership depends on the requisite education and training, where the professional world tends to encompass a high proportion of the life of members, and where they normally live and work apart from the rest of society.[4] Those who subscribe to Huntington’s definition would agree that the essence of military professionalism is related to its warfighting function.

There is a need therefore to make a clearer statement on how our military establishment views military professionalism as its conception will anchor and direct reform efforts. This is also where the value of the lessons from the past can help educate and broaden perspectives as in the case of how Ramon Magsaysay reformed the AFP in the 1950s.


The Strategic Context

The driver for the systemic improvements Magsaysay did can be found in the security challenge the Philippines faced in 1950 and how the government handled that. In 1946, the newly independent Republic of the Philippines found itself facing a full-blown rebellion from the Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon or Hukbalahap, a Communist-led but peasant-based guerilla movement that first emerged in Central Luzon during the Second World War but later spread to other parts of Luzon and even the Visayas. The Hukbalahap or Huks got their support from the peasantry who were victimized by landlords often employing private armies. The Huks also adopted powerful propaganda lines that contributed to their popularity such as “land for the landless,” “equal justice for all,” and “inefficiency and corruption in government.”[5]

Government efforts to end the rebellion from 1946 to 1950 were largely unsuccessful. One of its main instruments in the task, the Armed Forces of the Philippines was described as suffering from poor leadership and morale leading to a lack of discipline and manifested in the abuse of civilians. A patronage system was in place where positions in the military were given to relatives, friends and supporters of politicians. As a result, “frustrated, underpaid soldiers garrisoned in local barrios for extended periods with little supervision, preyed on the local population while those above seemed equally unconcerned, more interested in graft, corruption and a comfortable life than fighting.” The other partner in the counter-insurgency effort, the Philippine Constabulary was also charged with alienating the population.[6] By the latter part of 1950, Huk attacks have become more widespread and daring. In August 1950, they launched a series of attacks at Tarlac, Laguna and Pampanga.[7]This led to the appointment of Ramon Magsaysay as Secretary of Defense.

The new Secretary was a Congressman from Zambales prior to the time of his appointment. Born in 1907, he was raised in a family that valued integrity and hard work, which would shape his character.[8] After graduating from college, he first worked as a mechanic for a bus company and subsequently became its president. In the Second World War, he first served in the Philippine Army 31st Division and later became a guerilla leader in Zambales where he gained fame for a brilliant operational record and was appointed as the province’s military governor by General Douglas MacArthur during the liberation. Magsaysay’s character and record immediately translated to political success after the war as he was elected as Congressman of Zambales in 1946 and 1949. In this capacity and up to his appointment as SND, he worked for veterans’ rights and improvements in the armed forces as a member and later Chairman of the House Committee on National Defense.[9]

It should not be forgotten also that Magsaysay was well-served by his partner, the US Air Force officer, Edward G. Lansdale. Landsdale, with his innovative ideas on counterinsurgency acted as an adviser, sounding board, friend and confidant to the former.[10]

Magsaysay’s Reforms as a Catalyst for Transformation

An American who served as a guerilla leader during World War Two described the Defense Secretary and future President in these words: “A unique man with unique methods, Magsaysay devoted his energy, the power of his office and his personal magnetism to offering the people a way of life that was patently better than the communist example and promise.”[11]

Magsaysay’s first actions as SND was a like a whirlwind that made a clean sweep at the defense and military establishment. He made a command shakeup by firing the AFP Chief of Staff, the Chief of Constabulary and other senior officers. Officers who do not want to go to the field or were implicated in graft and corruption were likewise removed. He then went on unannounced visits in the field to ascertain conditions by talking to troops and the people as well as to punish and reward officers if circumstances warrant. Meritocracy became his principle in selecting commanders while improving the living conditions of the soldiery. As a result, there was an immediate improvement in leadership, conduct and performance of the armed forces.[12]

Magsaysay also totally revamped the way the AFP should fight the insurgents. His military approach was encapsulated in what he told the AFP General Staff: “Gentlemen, I know you all have graduated from military establishments here and in the United States. Now I am telling you to forget everything you were taught at Ft. Leavenworth, Ft. Benning and the Academy. The Huks are fighting an unorthodox war. We are going to combat them in unorthodox ways. Whatever it was that hurt me most as a guerrilla is what we are going to do now to the Huk.”[13] (Italics added)

From the perspective of doctrinal innovation, he introduced a warfighting TRIAD integrating intelligence, combat operations and psychological warfare, better known as “Find Em, Fight Em, Fool Em.”[14] While the foundation of the concept is intelligence and the driver is combat, psychological warfare became the prime catalyst for its success.

One of the greatest gains of the Magsaysay reforms as far as the intelligence picture was concerned was the windfall of information. People who were before reluctant now enthusiastically came forward to provide information on the Huks. As a result, combat and psychological operations became effective due to timely and accurate intelligence. Combat operations on their part became based on small unit actions by Battalion Combat Teams, 1,100-man units that conducted sustained operations against insurgent sanctuaries. Their operations in some cases lasting for months took away the initiative from the Huks and prevented the latter from returning to their bases of support.

The emphasis on psychological warfare showed that success in the war could not be gained by body counts or other quantifiable metrics but through the undermining and ultimate destruction of the Huk moral cohesion and will to fight by fomenting deception and discord among the hardliners and subversion of the rank and file. The last particularly became attractive when government forces greatly improved their conduct.

The reformed and reinvigorated AFP became so successful that the Huks’ back were broken within six months from the time Magsaysay assumed the post as SND and by 1955, the rebellion was finished as a national security threat.

Transforming the Role of the Military in a Counterinsurgency

The tactical innovations pioneered by Magsaysay were paralleled by his transformation of the military’s role in a counterinsurgency. It should be noted that prior to his assumption as SND, the AFP fought the insurgents in the same manner militaries fought them in other parts of the world, with ruthlessness and indiscriminate application of force. Little or no distinction was made between guerillas and civilians while body counts became the accepted measure of success.

Magsaysay took a different path that shows his keen understanding of the war he was fighting. He never saw the conflict purely as a management or public administration issue yet at the same time, he realized that military force should be properly calibrated and employed. Therefore, he made the Armed Forces an instrument for securing the support of the people for their government while making them also an effective instrument for pursuing, capturing, killing, or permanently discouraging the guerrilla. Magsaysay said that every member of the Armed Forces had two missions: He must be an ambassador seeking to build good will for his outfit and his government; he must also be a fighter seeking to kill or capture at least one enemy.[15]

Magsaysay instinctively knew that the conflict against the Huks could not be won by one Branch of Service and the military alone so he stressed a close working relation among the services and between civil and military authorities. In this regard, the Philippine Air Force came into its own as a force that is not merely the handmaid of the Army but one that is effective at all levels of war.[16] In another example, field staffs had a civil affairs officer who was considered a most valuable person for not only acting as liaison with the civilian authorities but also providing a civilian viewpoint during the planning of military operations.[17]

Two of the Magsaysay’s reforms that highlighted the AFP’s transformational role and whose impact worked for the benefit of the larger society were the Army’s legal assistance program and the Economic Development Corps (EDCOR). Recognizing that injustice in the form of lack of access to legal services for the peasants was fuelling the insurgency, Magsaysay assigned PA lawyers to represent the latter in court cases. By doing so, the SND not only directly provided legal assistance to those who needed but it also sent a signal to landlords that the military and the government are behind the peasants. This also has the added advantage of taking the wind out of the Huk propaganda sails of “equal justice for all.”[18]

EDCOR for its part was a response to the Huk propaganda of “land for the landless” which had a powerful attraction with the peasantry. Under the program, a surrendered Huk was taken to a resettlement area and given a small house and six hectares of partly cleared land, which he could hope to own in one or two years. One of the most amazing elements of this program was the government daring Huk Commanders to visit the EDCOR sites under a safe conduct pass with the stipulation that they tell their comrades what they saw. Most impressive of all was that before the end of the rebellion, when many Huks surrendered to the government, the first thing they asked was how they could get their own farm.[19]

Magsaysay’s reforms and impact transcended the defense establishment and he became a living embodiment of integrity and good governance. Edward Lansdale told a story of a postal clerk who was afraid of stealing money out of fear the Secretary of Defense might show up behind him despite the fact that Magsaysay had nothing to do with the Post Office.[20]

For his accomplishments, Magsaysay was touted by no less than the eminent military theorist John Boyd as a practitioner of what the latter termed as moral warfare. According to Boyd, this counter to guerilla warfare waged by the Huks is characterized by the following themes: having no fixed principles for organization, tactics, leadership, etc; wide freedom for subordinates to exercise imagination and initiative, yet harmonized within the intent of superior commanders; heavy reliance upon moral (human values) rather than material superiority as basis for cohesion and ultimate success; and, commanders must create a bond and breadth of experience based upon trust for cohesion. To achieve this atmosphere, leaders (at all levels) must demonstrate requisite physical energy, mental agility and moral authority to inspire subordinates to enthusiastically cooperate and take initiatives within superiors’ intent.[21]

But perhaps the best tribute of its success of Magsaysay’s reforms came from his adversaries himself. Communist Party leader Jesus Lava admitted that when Magsaysay started making reforms in the Philippine Army and in the government generally, it had an impact not only on the movement’s mass support but on the armed (Huk) soldiers as well. Many left because repression was ending…[22]

Magsaysay’s Reforms as the Foundation of Military Revolution in COIN

In the post Cold War Era the term Revolution in Military Affairs or RMA had become fashionable in the literature of military and defense affairs. Heavily influenced by the overwhelming Coalition victory over Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, experts have touted that a RMA occurred. The influential US defense official Andrew Marshall defined RMA as “major change in the nature of warfare brought about by the innovative application of new technologies, which combined with dramatic changes in military doctrine and organizational concepts, fundamentally alters the character and conduct of military operations.”[23]

Some of the most intriguing questions regarding Magsaysay and his military reform concerns its nature. Was it merely a response to the strategic, operational and tactical requirements of a counterinsurgency war or did it transcend the bounds of transformation to actually create a new paradigm in this warfare area? Did its characteristics meet the criteria of RMA considering their lack of a technological element? In other words, was Magsaysay’s reform a military revolution or at least a revolution in military affairs?

According to counterinsurgency experts Colonel Napoleon Valeriano and US Colonel Charles Bohannan, Magsaysay’s greatest success was in leading the counterinsurgency effort to achieve the following: 1) Understand the primary mission—the provision of effective government that represents the wishes of the governed and respects their rights; 2) Ensure that all actions of the government, and its personnel, clearly further the primary mission; 3) Convince the governed that the government is earnestly and effectively seeking to accomplish the functions stated.[24]

The above found strategic expression in the Right Hand-Left Hand Policy the SND enunciated. Also known as “All-Out Friendship or All-Out Force, the policy worked as such: The Hukbalahap who would work for, rather than against the people, (i.e., who would surrender) would receive a friendly welcome and the help he might need to rehabilitate himself. The Hukbalahap who continued to fight against the people and their government would be repaid in his own currency—force.[25]

Right Hand-Left Hand arguably brought dramatic changes in the doctrine of COIN through the “Find Em, Fight Em, Fool Em” warfighting TRIAD, unified action between military and non-military approaches and what could now be termed as security sector reform. Likewise, it highlighted the importance of civilian supremacy over the military in directing the COIN effort as exemplified by Magsaysay himself, thus avoiding militarizing the solution. The organizational changes through the Battalion Combat Teams were also transformational in the sense of being the optimal organization for that type of war combining maneuverability and enough mass. As to the question of Magsaysay’s reforms fundamentally altering the character and conduct of military operations, the answer is definitely yes as it provided a template for successful COIN operations ever since. Regarding the lack of a technology element, perhaps the problem lies more with who conceptualizes RMA and not what. Technology never provided an answer to the challenges of ideology or politically-based insurgencies as evidenced in China in 1949, the Vietnam War, Iraq and Afghanistan. For this reason alone, Magsaysay deserves credit at least for developing a revolutionary method for defeating insurgencies.


The reforms instituted by Ramon Magsaysay constituted the AFP’s most successful transformation efforts that should be studied by defense and military officials today as they craft their own transformational efforts. This is not to say that what applied then has direct and specific application to the present; they should be seen as broad references on approaches to address the challenges of military reform and transformation.

Several lessons can be derived from the AFP’s reform experience in the 1950s. First, military reforms should never lose sight of its primary focus: improvement in combat effectiveness. In the final analysis, the performance of armed forces as well as their conception and level of professionalism would be judged in the unforgiving arena of war. This does not mean that reforms in management of resources and administrative process are not important. They should be seen however not as ends in themselves but as enablers that ensure capable, adequately trained and equipped forces that are ready to fight.

Second, military reforms should also amplify the concepts of self-identity of the organization making it clear to its each and every member the answer to the question “who are we” and “what is our purpose?” The issue has now assumed a critical dimension considering the expanding role of the military in non-core functions.[26] In this connection one of the targets of reform effort should be doctrines. As one study noted, doctrine is significant because it captures not only the strategic concepts and operational-tactical proclivities of armies. It also expresses their soul-forces, or self-concepts of warriordom… The self-concept of a fighting force is what gets it to the finish line against long odds… This important aspect of military doctrine also links forces to the society that supports them by defining a relationship between citizen and armed force.[27] (Italics added)

Third, military reforms are not just improvements of individual components but are systemic and run the whole gamut of armed forces activities. These usually involve changes in doctrine, organization, training, capability development and professional military education. Done right, these can become the very drivers of transformation and even catalysts for military revolution.

Fourth, military reform whose objective is combat effectiveness is a concern not only of the armed forces but of the civilian policy makers. The latter cannot limit their attention on policy-making and leave operational and tactical improvements solely to the military. They actually have a responsibility to support and oversee these improvements. To paraphrase France World War One leader, Georges Clemenceau, military reform is much too important to be left to the military. What is needed is a partnership between civilian policy makers and the military leadership in what is termed as an “unequal dialogue” – a dialogue in which both sides express their views bluntly and not once but repeatedly, and unequal, in that the final authority of the civilian leader is unambiguous and unquestioned. In this, Magsaysay should be held as a model of successful civilian leadership of military reform effort.

Fifth, systemic improvements to military organizations could be part of wider efforts to improve not only the armed forces but also the whole defense/national security apparatus or even as part of social transformation. Magsaysay’s EDCOR Program, civic action and employment of Army lawyers to assist peasants in legal cases against landowners stand out as examples of how the left hand component of his counterinsurgency strategy led to improvements in the socio-economic conditions of the masses while at the same time greatly improved the standing of the government as it was now seen as putting its weight behind providing social justice. The case of the postal clerk also highlighted the transcendent character of Magsaysay’s emphasis on integrity and good governance.

Last but not the least, is the importance of “ownership” of the reform effort among military leaders at all levels. Implementing military reform is and should not be limited to the senior officer corps but should permeate the mid- and junior-levels. As “owners,” senior leaders can become the sponsors or drivers; mid-level officers can become catalysts; both can be the sustainers; and junior leaders can become end-users of what their superiors produced. Joint “ownership” also reflects a unity of purpose and outlook among the members of the organization that adds to the credibility of the reform effort. In this connection, one common characteristic of successful military reforms is that their architects enjoy the trust and confidence of the armed forces and the people.

As the Armed Forces of the Philippines undertakes its reform and transformation efforts, it is hoped that military leaders and civilian policy makers would not lose sight that the success of their efforts will be ultimately tested in the battlefields the AFP may find itself fighting. On how well our soldiers, sailors and airmen can or be ready to fight will hinge history’s verdict on these reforms.




[3] One such example is the Philippine Army Transformation Roadmap 2028 which according to the PA is “anchored on the Performance Governance System.” See Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Plans, G-5, Army Transformation Roadmap 2028. Headquarters, Philippine Army, Fort Andres Bonifacio, Taguig City, p. 2. Accessed at

[4] For an extensive discussion of his conception of military professionalism, see Huntington, Samuel, The Soldier and the State. New York: Bellenayo Press, 1981, pp. 7-18.

[5] Valeriano, Napoleon and Bohannan, Charles, Counter-Guerilla Operations: The Philippine Experience. CT: Praeger Security International, 2006, p. 40.

[6] Quoted and cited in Lembke, Andrew, Landsdale, Magsaysay, America and the Philippines: A Case Study of Limited Intervention Counterinsurgency. Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2012, p. 37.

[7] Milan, Primitivo and Catalan, Primitivo, Philippine Military Policy and Strategy 1896-1971. Camp General Emilio Aguinaldo, Quezon City: Office of the Chief of Military History, General Headquarters, Armed Forces of the Philippines, 1972, p. 79.

[8] His father who was a school teacher, was fired for refusing to pass the School Superintendent’s son in carpentry class. Cited in Greenberg, Lawrence, The Hukbalahap Insurrection: A Case Study of a Successful Anti-Insurgency Operation in the Philippines. Washington DC: US Army Center of Military History, 1987, p. 79.

[9] Lembke, pp. 43-44; Greenberg, pp. 80-81.

[10] For Landsdale’s background, see Lembke, pp. 39-42.

[11] Stephen Hosmer and Stella Crane (Editors), Counterinsurgency: A Symposium April 16-20, 1962. Sta. Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1963, 2006, p. 73.

[12] Greenberg, p. 83.

[13] Greenberg, p. 87.

[14] For an extensive discussion of the concept, see Valeriano and Bohannan, pp. 113-159. See also Greenberg, pp. 116-119.

[15] Ibid, pp. 166, 190.

[16] For an extensive discussion on the role of the PAF in the Anti-Huk campaign see A.H. Peterson, G.C. Reinhardt and E.E. Conger (Editors), Symposium on the Role of Airpower in Counterinsurgency and Unconventional Warfare: The Philippine Huk Campaign. Sta. Monica: RAND Corporation, 1963, pp. 34-56.

[17] Counterinsurgency: A Symposium, p. 61.

[18] Ibid, pp. 83-84; Greenberg, p. 92.

[19] Symposium on the Role of Airpower, p. 48.

[20] Boyd, John, Patterns of Conflict. Accessed at

[21] Quoted in Moyar, Mark, A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009, p. 104.

[22] Cited in Rino Francisco, Doctrines and Revolutions in Military Affairs. OSS Digest 2nd Quarter 2002 Camp General, Emilio Aguinaldo, Qezon City: Office of Strategic and Special Studies, Bulwagang Mabini, P.23.

[23] Valeriano and Bohannan, p. 78.

[24] Ibid, p. 83.

[25] The Armed Forces of the Philippines is tasked to perform non-combat missions such as support to national development whose subtasks include law enforcement, infrastructure construction, environmental protection, among others.

[26] Cited in Brett Steele, Military Reengineering Between the Wars. Sta. Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2005, p. ix.

[27] Cohen, Eliot, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime. New York: Anchor Books, 2002, p. 209.