Exercise in Africa Breaks Many Molds

Tuesday, January 02, 2010
By Rita Boland


Sgt. Ryan Kish, USMC (right), exercise test network coordinator, and Uganda captains Tony Okol (center) and Francis Mugungu (left) troubleshoot a tactical chat program that allows radio operators to send data over high-frequency radios during the exercise Africa Endeavor. Observing are (l-r) Cpl. Keita Salifu from Gambia, Petty Officer 1st Class Eric Callen, USN, and Sgt. Christian Valencia, USMC. Africa Endeavor is an annual U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM)-sponsored initiative to assist African militaries with improving their communications capabilities.

A new host, new participants, and requests for industry involvement are a few changes for annual event.

African nations are overcoming the tyranny of distance posed by their massive continent through an exercise designed to increase command, control, communications and computer capacity. Representatives from more than two dozen African countries met in Gabon at the end of last September through the beginning of October to test technology compatibility. The event helps build relationships and enhance interoperability during disaster relief and peacekeeping missions. The most recent effort built off past exercises and included a variety of first-time occurrences. It also identified new areas of need such as the addition of an information assurance technical working group.

The annual Africa Endeavor communications exercise not only includes individual African nations but also involves the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU). Two European countries—Sweden and Switzerland—participate in technical advisory roles. The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) served as the facilitator in 2009 for the first time. Previously, U.S. European Command (EUCOM) filled that role.

Africa Endeavor is an offshoot of Combined Endeavor, a EUCOM area-of-responsibility exercise. Countries participating in Combined Endeavor have more robust technologies and working groups. When AFRICOM came into existence, it logically inherited Africa Endeavor. “So we facilitate it and enable all these countries to come together,” Cmdr. Britton Talbert, USN, exercise director of Africa Endeavor, AFRICOM, says. Some participants need help traveling to the exercise, so the command contributes what it can to help them make the trip. Other responsibilities include setting up logistics and working with the host nation. Cmdr. Talbert explains that his command’s goal is to have the host nation do the work and present the exercise, while AFRICOM helps in any way it can, including answering questions and providing requested assistance. The command’s goal down the road is for the AU to run the exercise completely.

Also new in 2009, the Economic Community of Central African States observed the exercise for the first time and will participate in 2010. “That was a big deal,” Cmdr. Talbert says. He adds that African nations put heavy emphasis on regional organizations, which have a strong influence over countries. Participation by such organizations helps the event succeed. The exercise has been planned for the last four years, but 2009 marked only the third execution because of a last-minute cancellation the previous year. The event would have been held in South Africa in 2008 and was held in Nigeria the two previous years. The 2009 Africa Endeavor took place in Libreville, Gabon.

An overarching goal of Africa Endeavor is to support the AU and the standby brigade in the command, control, communications and computers (C4) realm so forces can communicate during relief efforts. Another major goal for the event is for African nations to enhance their C4 capacity. “That’s an underlying theme for the whole exercise,” the commander states. During the exercise, countries test their equipment to ensure it is compatible with that used by neighboring countries. “The bottom line is that if there’s a natural disaster or peacekeeping operation and several countries contribute forces, the goal is that they’ll already know which communications equipment is compatible with each other,” Cmdr. Talbert explains.

Placing a heightened effort on increasing the capacity of the countries enables the nations to handle peacekeeping and disaster response operations more quickly on a continent that includes many developing nations. Cmdr. Talbert says AFRICOM is there to help those countries increase their C4 capacity and to assist them in any way the command can when the countries ask for help. 

A significant discovery during this year’s exercise uncovered difficulties with information assurance (IA). One issue was contamination of portable drives. Technicians bring computers to all the planning conferences. “As part of the processes and procedures we’re trying to implement, we scan all the thumb drives,” Cmdr. Talbert says. “At the planning conference, every single thumb drive that was scanned had a virus on it.”

To help mitigate the effect from contaminated drives, the event introduced policies and procedures to help ensure that they were virus-free. Personnel set up scanning stations and held classes and distributed material on topics such as malicious software and how to protect computers with antivirus software. The problems were so widespread that, this year, an IA technical working group will be added to the two previously established technical working groups: single channel radio (voice) and data networks. IA formerly was part of the data networks working group. As more specific questions about IA started coming in from the participants, the African delegation chief said the nations would like to introduce a technical group to deal with the area. “It’s what they wanted, so we’re all for it,” Cmdr. Talbert says. Each nation contributes at least one technician to each of the technical working groups.

The IA technical working group was not the only change African nations requested for the future. The countries also would like to see an operational side of Africa Endeavor. Unlike many military exercises, Africa Endeavor has not involved fictional scenarios; participants simply tested their technologies with others. For 2010, Cmdr. Talbert says, exercise planners will introduce a scenario that requires C4 models. Various delegation chiefs will compose a working subgroup to create the scenario for which technicians from the various countries will create and test a communications architecture. The change enables participants to take their testing and apply it to operational situations so they can practice for events such as disasters or peacekeeping missions.

The Joint Interoperability Testing Command administers and runs the testing during Africa Endeavor. At the end of the event, a book is released that shows the result of every test so that countries have a reference. For example, a country such as Cameroon can use this book to determine which of its equipment works best with Kenya’s equipment in the event the two nations conduct an operation together, Cmdr. Talbert explains. “It shows status of compatibility,” he says.


Service members from 25 African nations and AFRICOM march in a ceremony during exercise Africa Endeavor 2009.

The commander emphasizes that a failed test during the exercise is not necessarily a bad result. Failures identify problems that two countries can explore and resolve technically, whether the issue is on voice or data equipment. Cmdr. Talbert says Africa Endeavor offers the venue to work out just such problems. “If all the tests … worked, we wouldn’t have any problems to identify,” he shares.

Another important part of the exercise has nothing to do with technology. Cmdr. Talbert calls the human interoperability portion of Africa Endeavor a “huge deal.” The event creates a platform for more than two dozen nations to meet at the annual exercise as well as the planning conferences, enhancing relationships and bonds between the countries. “That carries forward once they get home and start interacting with their neighbors and other countries in their region,” Cmdr. Talbert says.

All the meetings strengthen bonds and relationships from the delegation chief level through the technician level. “It’s an exercise for the Africans, run by the Africans, enhancing African C4 capabilities,” Cmdr. Talbert says. The commander also explains that increasing the C4 capabilities of the African nations and forwarding the human relationships are what make Africa Endeavor important. The exercise generally includes three planning conferences held once a quarter beginning in December. The planning conferences have less attendance than the actual exercise, but they still bring together representatives of various countries. Generally, the Africa Endeavor event itself takes place in July, but in 2009 it was postponed because of elections in Gabon.

One of the biggest challenges of Africa Endeavor also is on the human side. The commander shares that having representatives from so many countries on the continent gather in one place and talk to each other—in this case to discuss C4 issues—helps solve many problems. He continues that face-to-face interactions with other technicians sitting together and discussing why technologies fail to work takes problem solving to a new level above calling a help desk.

Though some countries have equipment that is more advanced than that of other countries, the commander says technology sophistication has little impact on how nations interoperate. The difference in equipment rarely is great enough to prevent them from communicating with one another. Countries that own the most advanced equipment pass down their knowledge to those with less effective tools. In some cases, countries without certain equipment ask to observe one year and then participate the next year. Cmdr. Talbert says such growth is a goal of Africa Endeavor.

The work of AFRICOM and Africa Endeavor is similar to work in U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), and AFRICOM staff has had talks with counterparts at their cross-ocean ally. Cmdr. Talbert shares that the commands have had several discussions about how SOUTHCOM handled many of the situations AFRICOM now faces, particularly how SOUTHCOM helps countries help themselves. Both commands cooperate with developing countries, and this collaboration includes a large amount of interagency involvement. No agencies have yet participated in Africa Endeavor, but the AFRICOM personnel are exploring that as a future option.

Another group that has played almost no role in Africa Endeavor is industry. Except for the use of its equipment, the private sector has no involvement in the exercise. However, representatives of African nations have suggested bringing vendors into the event. Such a move has not yet been approved, but Cmdr. Talbert says AFRICOM is examining the possibility of having an afternoon when vendors can display their equipment and services. He explains that such a move requires background research to ensure the best procedures, but he feels confident planners and organizers will find a way to make the idea a reality.

Because industry has the latest and greatest technologies, exposure to their expertise would enhance Africa Endeavor, adding another aspect to the event. Industry could bring in technologies the military cannot for various reasons.

The sheer size of the African continent both poses a challenge for Africa Endeavor and makes the event more important. Cmdr. Talbert says the continent is so huge that it takes a long time to travel to other places on the land mass. The exercise offers a venue for nations that might never otherwise communicate or collaborate to share ideas and potential solutions, or even simply exchange information. Through the exercise, nations can create and continue relationships. The commander relates that at the closing ceremony, everyone was encouraged to look at it not as a closing but as a continuation of relationships enhanced through Africa Endeavor. When the representatives return home, they can build on the bonds forged during the technical testing to enhance their communication.

U.S. Africa Command: www.africom.mil
Economic Community of West African States: www.ecowas.int
African Union: www.africa-union.org
Economic Community of Central African States: www.ceeac-eccas.org


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