A lot is riding on the performance of U.S. Army soldiers with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, as they begin their ramp-up for deployment with U.S. Africa Command next spring.
The unit has been tapped as the Army’s first regionally aligned forces (RAF) brigade, a concept that everyone from the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, on down has touted in recent months as the service’s best shot at staying regionally engaged around the globe, while training host nation forces to provide their own security in a more effective manner.
The stakes were hashed out at an Oct. 23 panel discussion at the Association of the United States Army conference in Washington. Army leaders tasked with making the RAF concept work talked about their plans.
Lt. Gen. John Campbell, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for operations, admitted that the program might go through some growing pains during its first few rotations, and that the Army will have to focus on learning those lessons and adjust on the fly.
“We are an Army in transition,” he said, “and what that really means is, we’ve got to work this out,” but it will take time.
One key aspect of the program is that the brigade will remain posted at Fort Riley, Kan., for the year it is aligned with Africa Command. Only portions of the brigade will deploy for relatively short periods of time during that year. Or at least that’s what the plan looks like right now.
Still, Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahue, commanding general of Army Africa and Southern European Task Force, said the 2/1 soldiers are slated to participate in 96 activities in 34 countries, “more than half of the continent’s nations,” during the first six months of their usage.
The brigade will first undergo a rotation at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., in February as well as additional training from the 162nd Infantry Brigade at Fort Polk, La., in certain aspects of language and culture. The training will focus primarily on the languages most commonly used in eastern and southern Africa: French, Arabic and Swahili.
But what does all of this mean closer to the ground? In an interview, Col. Kevin Marcus, U.S. Army Africa’s chief of plans and policy, said the command is looking forward to working with Army Special Forces.
“Increased collaboration and participation in Special Forces-sponsored exercises is a particular area of emphasis,” he said.
Marcus added that other collaborative efforts are being explored with Special Forces leaders because SF in Africa “has always been challenged by a lack of forces. Now with increased access, I think there’s more to do and more to do together.”
One of the potential efforts is to look for ways to combine or even sequence conventional forces and special operations forces training, so that training efforts by conventional forces could be followed up by a smaller spec ops presence that assesses the results of the training program over a more sustained period.
The Army also is looking for ways to expand the National Guard-led state partnership programs in Africa by deepening its collaboration with the National Guard on the training mission in coming years, Marcus said.
The National Guard conducts more than 100 state partnership events in Africa annually, with eight U.S. states participating in long-term training missions there.
“It’s not about active component or the reserve component, it’s about identifying the best force for the best mission at the best time,” Marcus said.
The RAF concept won’t just be limited to brigades. A variety of issues are still being worked out, but so far, plans call for aligning I Corps, of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., with Pacific Command., and III Corps, of Fort Hood, Texas, with Central Command. The XVIII Airborne Corps, of Fort Bragg, N.C., will be the global response force, available to respond to the other combatant commands, Campbell said.
Marcus said the program isn’t about how long a unit is in Africa, “it’s about the regularity of contact and then the ability to link events together over time, so that we’ve got that sustained engagement.”
He declined to go into specifics when asked about hot spots along the Mediterranean, the Sahel region, and places such as Mali.
“It’s not about one country or region,” Marcus said. “It’s about doing what we can do to protect U.S. interests in building the capacity for African militaries to protect their own interests, and in turn cooperate with ours. It’s not a function of geography, it’s a function of interests.”
After 2/1’s mission ends, European and Pacific commands will be assigned brigades in 2014, while a third will follow 2/1’s rotation in Africa in 2014.