WASHINGTON — US Special Operations forces in Africa are preparing for one of their biggest exercises of the year, a multinational event that spans several West African countries and serves as one of the premiere partnership events for US forces in Africa.
Late last year, Chad announced that it would host the Flintlock 2015 exercise, which kicks off Feb. 16 in the capital N'Djamena, with joint training exercises also taking place in Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Tunisia for several weeks before the event wraps up on March 9.
The exercise will bring together approximately 1,300 troops from African and NATO countries, including 673 African forces, 365 NATO forces and 255 US personnel who will take part in a variety of tactical engagements to improve interoperability, communication and humanitarian response capabilities, a spokesperson from Special Operations Command Forward – West Africa told Defense News.
In making the announcement in December that Chad would host this year's Flintlock program, Chadian Brig. Gen. Zakaria Ngobongue said that the event's "training objectives [will] help build relationships reinforcing the capacity of participating militaries to secure a stable environment for growth and development in the nations of the region."
The 2014 Flintlock event had a slightly different cast, with 1,000 troops from Burkina Faso, Canada, Chad, France, Mauritania, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Senegal, United Kingdom and Niger participating.
The operation is almost tailor made for the direction that the US Special Operations Command has set for the troops that it is training and equipping to operate in a post-Afghanistan and Iraq world.
While the SOCOM commander doesn't have operational control over the approximately 70,000 SOF currently on active duty, an initiative led by former commander Adm. William McRaven is helping to inform how the forces operate under the direction of the global combatant commanders, who exert operational control over the SOF under their command.
When taking over the helm of SOCOM in 2011, McRaven introduced his plan to keep his forward-deployed operators supplied not only with the latest intelligence on their area of operations, but also to link them up with their SOF brethren around the globe.
Dubbed the Global SOF Network, the program connects SOF around the globe to one another as well as with US government interagency partners and regional allies, building on the decade-long relationship that American and NATO SOF had forged through combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It's been a long road, but the plan is moving along.
At the very start of the process in 2011, the first task that a small group of SOCOM planners had to do was hash out the requirements for what exactly SOCOM would ask of the combatant commanders, and what those commanders could expect from SOCOM, said retired Col. Stu Bradin, who was McRaven's hand-picked chief of the Expanding Global SOF Operational Planning Team from June 2011 until his retirement in May 2014.
"Each theater commander independently had to work though this, and we had to do the same thing," added Bradin, who now serves as president/CEO of the Global SOF Foundation. "There's always going to be a finite number of special operations forces available, and money is limited."
The Global SOF Foundation describes itself as a non-profit organization that advocates for all aspects of Special Operations Forces development.
A big moment for the Global SOF Network came on Sept. 18, 2013, when SOCOM brought all of the 4-star global combatant commanders down to their headquarters in Tampa to brief them on the plan, and to have them stand in front of what was dubbed the "Green Monster" to walk through their special operations requirements.
The Green Monster was a massive map that took its nickname from the towering left field scoreboard in Boston's Fenway Park that laid out the physical geography of each combatant commander's area of operations, and McRaven asked each commander to walk SOCOM planners through what and where his requirements were most critical.
With a limited number of SOF available at any given time, and the continued requirements pull from commanders around the globe, SOCOM leadership's task was to build a force deployment model that would try and meet as many regional requirements as possible.
"Our goal was to provide the theaters with a persistent level of force by building a matrix based on global force management" Bradin said. "We went to each theater [commander] and said, 'bring us your special ops requirements,' and they whittled it down to something we could afford and do. There was nothing hidden, everybody saw everyone else's requirements."
The issue that SOCOM wanted to confront was the flourishing of networked criminal and terrorist cells who operate across entire regions without regard to national borders.
As Derek Chollet, former US assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told Defense News just before stepping down in January, in today's geopolitical landscape, "you have borders that matter less and less, non-state actors who are using any means they can acquire — whether weapons or technology and communications — to try to foment instability in that area but also, of course, to strike outside [that region]. There are weak governments, security threats, population movements and massive humanitarian problems — and they are all problems that don't know our bureaucratic stovepipes."
McRaven offered a similar assessment in May 2013 when he was pushing his initiative on Capitol Hill, arguing that "there is no such thing as a local problem anymore … the world is linked, and therefore we need to be linked," he said. "We have to build a network to defeat the enemy network."
Soon after taking over the SOCOM command from McRaven last summer, Gen. Joseph Votel doubled down on his commitment to the project, telling a group of Air Force special operators from the 352nd Special Operations Group at RAF Mildenhall in the UK that "we need to continue to synchronize the deployment of SOF throughout the globe. We all need to be synced up, coordinated and prepared throughout the command" in order to "thwart expanding trans-regional threats."
"We must continue to develop our global SOF network. Investing in our network allows us to share the burden more appropriately."