MANILA, Philippines – The new commanding general of the Philippine Army, Lieutenant General Gilbert Gapay, formally took over the 97,000-strong force on Friday, December 6, with a top mandate to end the communist insurgency.
In a change-of-command ceremony at the Army headquarters, Fort Bonifacio, in Taguig City, Gapay assumed command of the military’s largest branch of service. Retiring Army chief Lieutenant General Macairog Alberto, Gapay’s Philippine Military Academy classmate (Class 1986), relinquished his post, capping off 33 years in the service.
While classmates, Gapay is more junior than Alberto. He will reach the mandatory retirement age of 56 in February 2021 yet.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who was guest of honor at the ceremony, tasked Gapay with pursuing the Duterte administration’s goal of ending the decades-long rebellion of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA).
Gapay said in his assumption speech: "Whatever challenges lies ahead of us, be it the communist insurgency, terrorism, climate change, nation-building, or territorial integrity preservation, rest assured that the Philippine Army will rise to the occasion as best as we can.”
Prior to his appointment as Army chief, Gapay was appointed in January as commander of the AFP Southern Luzon Command (Solcom) that covers Calabarzon, the Bicol region, and the island provinces of Mindoro, Marinduque, and Romblon. There, he led the government’s campaign against communist guerrillas using the new tack of “localized peace talks.”
Gapay established the first regional task forces to implement President Rodrigo Duterte’s Executive Order no. 70, which employs the regional approach to ending the communist insurgency. Under his watch at Solcom, the New People’s Army’s (NPA) capabilities were reduced, a number of their key leaders were neutralized, and there were fewer incidents of NPA “atrocities,” the Army said in a statement.
In 2017, he became commander of the Army’s Mechanized Infantry Division, now the Armor “Pambato” Division, based in Capas, Tarlac. He oversaw capability upgrades in armor, aviation, air defense, and cybersecurity.
Gapay is a “well-rounded general officer” who has held “various sensitive positions in both garrison and field assignments at the Philippine Army and the General Headquarters,” the Armed Forces of the Philippines said in a separate statement.
After graduating on top of the PMA “Sinagtala” class of 1986, Gapay rose through the ranks of the Army. He fought at the height of the communist insurgency in the Agusan provinces in 1988, after which he came up with the “Bayanihan Operations Concept” of counterinsurgency, which the military counts as a “major contribution.”
Gapay was among the officers who led troops in the capture of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s stronghold, Camp Abubakar in Maguindanao, in 2000.
In December 2016, after the fatal bombing at the Roxas night market in Davao City in September that year, Gapay became deputy commander of the AFP Eastern Mindanao Command. He led the Joint Task Force Haribon in the aftermath of the attack, giving him the opportunity to secure the President’s hometown.
After the Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate Maute terror group began what would be the 5-month siege of Marawi City in May 2017, Duterte placed all of Mindanao under martial law. Gapay served as the martial law spokesperson.
A growing force
Gapay takes over as Duterte plans to grow the Army, saying on Thursday that he wanted to add 20 to 35 new battalions.
Speaking to reporters after the ceremony on Friday, Gapay said some 20,000 fresh troops will be recruited in the coming months to fill up existing battalions and create 10 new ones.
The Army currently has 159 battalions.
Gapay said the support from Duterte increases the Army’s chances of accomplishing his order to end the communist insurgency by 2022.
"I have always adhered to two basic guideposts of military commanders: the accomplishment of the mission, and looking after the morale and welfare of my troops,” Gapay said in his speech.
Besides fighting communist guerrillas, Gapay said he would prioritize developing the Army’s air defense capability, enhancing the mechanized infantry and special operation forces, as well as improving health and education programs for officers and enlisted personnel. – Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.