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Vast distances, unexpected dangers - and rewards - as Africa mission expands

Mar. 3, 2014 - 02:53PM   |  
Airmen from the 81st and 82nd Expeditionary Rescue Squadrons and soldiers with the 1/18th Battalion conduct joint training Jan. 12 at Grand Bara Range in northeast Africa.
Airmen from the 81st and 82nd Expeditionary Rescue Squadrons and soldiers with the 1/18th Battalion conduct joint training Jan. 12 at Grand Bara Range in northeast Africa. (Staff Sgt. Erik Cardenas/Air Force)
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Rwandan soldiers wait in line to have their weapons inspected by Staff Sgt. Curtis McWoodson (right), before getting on a C-17 Globemaster III on Jan. 19 at the Kigali airport, Rwanda. (Staff Sgt. Ryan Crane / Air Force)
Capt. Vincent McLean of the 621st Contingency Response Wing takes part in a crisis planning scenario discussion with members of the Nigerian air force in January at the National Defense College in Abuja, Nigeria. (Capt. Sybil Taunton/Air Force)
Capt. Vincent McLean of the 621st Contingency Response Wing takes part in a crisis planning scenario discussion with members of the Nigerian air force in January at the National Defense College in Abuja, Nigeria. (Capt. Sybil Taunton/Air Force)


The order to help evacuate Americans from the violence-seized capital city of South Sudan came just 2˝ months after the small group of airmen from Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., arrived at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti.

The airmen, both active duty and reserve, had come to Africa with only what they could fit inside a C-130. They’d stood up the 52nd Airlift Expeditionary Squadron — a first in the support of U.S. Africa Command — inside an old shipping container.

On Dec. 18, the C-130 landed in Juba, South Sudan, to aid in the evacuation. Senior Airman Adam Van Horn, a loadmaster on his first deployment, readied passengers for the flight to Kenya.

That same month, Van Horn helped provide presidential support at the funeral of South African leader Nelson Mandela.

“I don’t think there is really any bigger honor than evacuating people who needed evacuating, or being there for presidential support,” he said. “For an airman on his first deployment, that’s pretty amazing.”

Missions in Africa are as diverse as the continent, where the formation of an African combatant command in 2008 signified a decided shift in America’s interest to this part of the world.

As the war in Afghanistan comes to a close, Air Force officials and airmen in the region are expecting a ramp-up in deployments across the continent that will keep combat search-and-rescue and UAV operators busy in the Horn of Africa, involve new training partnerships with countries looking to bolster their services, and require quick-reaction mobility missions to respond to uprisings in places like South Sudan, Mali and the Central African Republic.

Air power will grow increasingly important for countries across the continent as they patrol borders, fight piracy and extremist groups and respond to humanitarian crises, said Col. David Poage, the division chief for international affairs in Africa with U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa.

And it can make a real difference in people’s lives, he said.

Active-duty, Guard and Reserve will be called on for wide-ranging missions, from airlift support to partnerships with air forces in nations such as Nigeria, South Africa, Botswana, Ghana and Tunisia.

“It’s an interesting time for airmen in Africa,” Poage said.

Partnership flights

The focal point of Air Forces-Africa’s operations will begin in earnest this year, with a program called the African Partnership Flight. While it was announced in 2011, there was only one in 2012, and all in 2013 were postponed due to the U.S. federal budget sequestration.

The program includes a large group of airmen, more than 70 in the only iteration so far, boarding a C-130 and heading to an African country to teach the host nation air force about things such as logistics, base security and aircraft loading. The first took place in January 2012 in Ghana, when airmen used a C-130J from Ramstein to teach 160 students from Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo and Benin about airmanship.

The Air Force contingent included airmen from Air Forces-Africa, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, the 818th Mobility Support Advisory Squadron at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., and the North Dakota Air National Guard.

This year, the Air Force is planning three events: next month in Angola, in Senegal in June and in Uganda in August.

Airmen go over the basics of setting up and maintaining an airfield, Poage said, basics that can help future operations.

In addition to these large events, an average of two teams are in Africa every week throughout the year, depending on funding, Poage said. This includes eight Air National Guard units that have established partnerships with African countries, in which they travel regularly to advise and train airmen from their host country.

Poage said the biggest career fields in need for Africa operations are logisticians, maintainers and security forces. Most African air forces do not have a long history in aviation, so they need help getting set up and honing their abilities.

“A lot think you can just go out there and turn the key, but it doesn’t work that way,” Poage said. “There has to be someone to provide logistic support, to maintain the aircraft.”

Air Forces-Africa does not have forces assigned to it to do the mission, so the command needs to request forces.

These forces come from all over, Poage said. The command looks for airmen who have experience on the continent and have language skills.

AFRICOM, on the whole, is looking to increase its training forces in Africa. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Steven Hummer, the deputy to the commander for military operations at AFRICOM, said the command’s main focus is to respond to crises, and the ability to respond starts with training.

“It’s a huge continent, and I see that there’s more than enough space, there’s more than enough security forces and military forces and more than enough different aspects to focus on,” Hummer said. “So let’s say you’ve got the Army, Marine Corps and special operators doing the theater security cooperation, with the whole menu of skills they’re able to share.

“I see the Navy operating along the coasts with their maritime countertrafficking-type skills. And the Air Force with their tactical, operational and strategic lift. There’s more than enough opportunities to be able to support the growth of the security sectors in the various countries.”

Hummer said he sees an evolving interest in tactical or operational lift in African countries, such as KC-130s or smaller twin-engine aircraft, and not as much of an interest in bombers or fighters.

“I don’t see a lot of African countries being interested in buying the latest block of F-16s,” Hummer said. “Many participate in peacekeeping operations, so those are the types of aircraft that they’d be looking for.”

The Horn of Africa

The Defense Department’s largest base, and the busiest center for Air Force operations, is the sprawling Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the only U.S. base in sub-Saharan Africa and home to more than 4,000 military personnel, 700 of whom are airmen.

The Air Force’s presence centers around the 449th Air Expeditionary Group, which provides combat search-and-rescue for Combined Joint Task Force, Horn of Africa. Rescue squadrons rotate through on deployments ranging from just more than one month to three months, with their HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters and HC-130 King planes on call for humanitarian aid and combat rescue for operators in the region, which includes hot spots such as Yemen and Somalia.

Lemmonier is strategically located as the best jumping-off point for U.S. operations in the region, said Col. Kelly Passmore, the commander of the 449th AEG.

“I don’t know where else you would do it from,” he said. “If Djibouti didn’t exist, we’d be looking for a place just like Djibouti.”

The Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa’s responsibility includes Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Seychelles, along with interest in Yemen and other countries in the region. Camp Lemmonier hosts all other services, along with foreign units from countries such as France and Spain, which opens up the possibility for more training and experience with several militaries.

“We’re not really at war here, so that really changed our focus,” said Lt. Col. Dave Anderson, commander of the 303rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, currently deployed to Camp Lemmonier from Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.

“We came out of 10 years of operating in Afghanistan and Iraq, where when you lifted off on a mission, you were expecting enemy fire,” Anderson said. “Here, you understand you are working with the nations you are flying through, not necessarily against them.”

The base has seen a surge in quick-reaction forces to respond to contingencies in Africa, such as the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the December evacuation of American civilians in Bor, South Sudan.

“We are a rescue unit. My job is to rescue American and coalition soldiers anywhere they can be placed in harm’s way,” Anderson said. “While we certainly aren’t at war, American [troops] can find themselves in harm’s way in many different ways.”

The search-and-rescue mission in the Horn of Africa differs from the missions the airmen perform in any other region. The Horn is about 200 million square miles, and coverage extends out to the ocean.

“The coverage responsibility is vast, it’s almost overwhelming,” said Capt. Koa Bailey, a combat rescue officer from the 82nd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron. “It’s a unique opportunity we have as pararescuemen.”

The South Sudan incident was the first public mention of CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft from Air Force Special Operations flying out of Djibouti. With American assets shifting away from Afghanistan, new capabilities will head to Camp Lemmonier, Passmore said.

“As operations draw down in CENTCOM [area of responsibility], that frees up capabilities that otherwise might not have been available to AFRICOM in the past,” Passmore said.

But in addition to search and rescue, the Air Force daily flies missions with unmanned aircraft and F-15E Strike Eagles, along with manned surveillance aircraft such as the U-28A, to watch and strike at threats in the region.

The sprawling Camp Lemmonier, in addition to the CSAR crews, requires airmen from many career fields, including communications, finance, supply and many others, Passmore said.

The base is getting prepared for the upcoming shift to the new deployment model, Air Expeditionary Force Next, by deploying airmen on nonstandard lengths. Because the base comprises rescue squadrons on standard deployment lengths as a unit, and individuals or small groups from other AFSCs, it is hosting airmen on different rotation lengths so that it can operate under the new model beginning in 2015, base spokesman Lt. Col. Glen Roberts said.

Special operations

Africa also keeps special operators busy helping countries build their own networks to respond to threats, Army Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, the deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, said at a conference in Washington on Feb. 11. The U.S. military, along with host nation partners, has worked increasingly across services to create new units to focus on crisis response.

In December, the Air Force’s special operations effort in Africa was put to the test. Two CV-22 Ospreys carrying Navy SEALS were hit with small arms fire on the way to evacuate U.S. citizens in Bor, South Sudan. Four troops were wounded in the attack, and the Ospreys were forced to divert to an airfield outside the country, where they were picked up and treated by Air Force medical crews aboard a C-17.

Capt. Ben Malott, a pilot assigned to the 62nd Airlift Wing out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., had deployed to Afghanistan multiple times when he was called up for the medevac mission in Nairobi, Kenya.

“You’re taking a $200 million plane to a place where maybe only a handful of [airmen] have been,” Malott said. “Thankfully, I had a really experienced copilot who had been there before.”

Still, they relied on the U.S. Embassy for support during their brief time on the ground.

“For a lot of these smaller places, you could go in and someone could demand millions for gas,” he said. The embassy was able to tell them where to go and how much to pay.

Four elite security forces members who traveled with them guarded the C-17 while the crew slept.

“It’s certainly much different from Afghanistan, where we have so much presence,” Malott said. “It’s sort of like the wild, wild West.”

The continued Air Force support for operations in Mali and the Central African Republic doesn’t just include the publicized mobility assistance of airlift and tanker plane support. In February 2013, as French troops took control of Mali from insurgents, the U.S. deployed about 100 troops to Niger to set up a drone base.

President Barack Obama told Congress in a letter at the time that the troops “will provide support for intelligence collection and will also facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces.”

U.S. drones flew intelligence-gathering missions from Niger airstrips to track militant movement, defense officials said at the time.

Air Force Special Operations Command is honing its skills in rapidly deploying unmanned planes to remote areas, including Africa. In a recent deployment, special operators were able to load two unmanned MQ-1 Predators onto a C-17, then deploy and set up at an expeditionary base within four hours of landing, Brig. Gen. Buck Elton, the director of plans, programs, requirements and assessments for Air Force Special Operations Command, said in September.

In the recent six-week deployment, which was not disclosed but was in the timeline for the Niger deployment, airmen used a portable hangar in a tent and a wooden taxiway.

Surprises in the bush

Africa is, in some ways, the final frontier.

The first thing Lt. Col. Jason Terry tells airmen new to Africa is that the continent will try to kill you.

Terry, commander of the 52nd Airlift Squadron at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., is sort of serious. The dangers are far different from those that airmen have faced on deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past dozen years.

Thunderstorms over Africa can sprawl for hundreds of miles. Airspace is less regulated, increasing the possibility of a mid-air collision. There is often no protective cover from other U.S. aircraft.

On the ground, there is less support. Heat and humidity can linger long into the night, and mosquitoes carry malaria. There are language and cultural barriers most airmen are unaccustomed to.

“The threats are different from the past,” said Terry, who led the team tasked with standing up the 52nd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron at Camp Lemonnier. “You have to be sharp. You have to be ready.”

“When [U.S. Africa Command] was set up, there [were] not a lot of people with a lot of Africa experience, so there was a lot of learning,” Poage said.

“It’s not like going to St. Louis International Airport. Sometimes you’re kind of out in the bush,” he said.

And there are surprises in the bush.

Once, a hippo was discovered lumbering across a remote runway. The animal had pushed its way through a fence and onto the airfield.

The first time Terry landed a plane in a jungle in Africa, baboons ran out of the vegetation to greet him.

“That’s a new thing. That’s memorable,” Terry said.

For many, Africa is a mysterious place. The unknown tends to intimidate, Poage said.

“One of the common misconceptions is Africa is a big country. Africa is 54 countries. The terrain, the cultures and demographics are vastly different. They are as different as Canada and Mexico and Argentina,” Poage said. “There are places in Africa that are very modern, with great infrastructure and investment. Others are very remote and austere. The variety in Africa is as much or more as anywhere else on the planet.”

During Poage’s first trip to Ghana, he said, “I was pleasantly surprised at the openness and humor of the people. They are wonderful, warm and welcoming. That was the big impression.”

For Staff Sgt. Melvyn Thomas of the 435th Air Ground Operations Wing at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, a 10-day mission in December to move Burundian forces to the Central African Republic fulfilled a longtime goal.

Thomas and the other airmen on the mission had just eight hours to get off the ground in Ramstein. When their C-17 arrived some 16 hours later, they set up their operations and prepared to move 850 people and 360 short tons of cargo.

“It was confusing at first. That’s because we’re figuring out what we need and what we have on the ground to get the mission done,” Thomas said.

The infrastructure was relatively rudimentary, he said, but it was enough: running water, electricity and hotels. Monsoon season had left the landscape lush and green.

“You see pictures, you hear stories,” Thomas said, but experiencing it for yourself makes all the difference.

“The people were very friendly. Whatever we needed, their personnel were ready and able to help speed things along. ... I don’t ever recall us having to ask. Once they saw where we needed help, they were ready to help,” Thomas said.

It was an experience of a lifetime, he said. “Some people, unfortunately, don’t get the opportunity to see places such as Burundi. Take it. Make the most of it.”

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