- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 23, 2012

U.S. Africa Command, the military’s newest regional force, will have more troops available early next year as the Pentagon winds down from two ground wars over the past decade, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Army chief of staff, told The Washington Times.

[Paragraph updated 12/27/12 to clarify the size and timeline of troop deployments:] As part of Gen. Odierno’s Regionally Aligned Forces concept, small teams of soldiers, eventually totaling about 1,200 troops, will begin deploying to Africa in March in an effort to place troops strategically around the globe to respond quickly to sudden challenges in hot spots such as Libya and to develop ties with the people and officials in host countries.

“It’s about us moving towards a scalable, tailorable capability that helps them to shape the environment they’re working in, doing a variety of tasks from building partner capability to engagement, to multilateral training to bilateral training to actual deployment of forces, if necessary,” Gen. Odierno said in an interview.

Amid budget cuts and with President Obama’s new military strategy downplaying the chances of another major land war, the Army has sought to maintain its relevance among admirals and generals in the Pacific, the Middle East and North Africa — likely places for the next flash point. When terrorists attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, no U.S. troops were close enough to help.

Gen. Odierno, the Army’s 38th chief of staff, said the idea for the Regionally Aligned Forces came to him during his tours of duty as the top U.S. commander in Iraq and as the commander of U.S. Joint Forces. He realized then that combatant commanders — the generals and admirals conducting foreign operations — wanted better-defined support for their missions and were not getting it from the Army because it was engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Under the Regionally Aligned Forces plan, brigades will be designated to geographic combatant commands to develop regional expertise and conversational language skills, as well as prepare for and conduct different-sized missions ranging from training host nation forces to field operations.

“In the past, we just said, ‘Hey, if you need us, call us and we’ll be there,’ but now it’s much more specific,” Gen. Odierno said. “It’s much more detailed, which gives more confidence to the combatant commanders that, in fact, the people they get will understand their area, will be understanding of the culture, of the physical terrain, of the virtual terrain, of the human terrain that they’ll have to operate in. I think that makes a big difference.”

Ready, responsive

Beginning in March, small teams of soldiers from the 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, based in Fort Riley, Kan., will conduct at least 108 missions in at least 34 countries in Africa through mid-2014.

The missions could include humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, training host-nation forces in marksmanship, first aid and other skills, and conducting military exercises. To prepare for these missions, soldiers are studying the regions and cultures of countries where they will deploy, and learning Arabic, Swahili, French and Portuguese.

According to the Combat Team’s commander, Col. Jeff Broadwater, the brigade will not deploy as a whole, but as smaller units to carry out the missions, some of which will last as short as a week and others as long as a month.

All missions will be conducted at the request of the host nation and will be coordinated with Africa Command and the State Department, Col. Broadwater said.

Gen. Odierno said the Regionally Aligned Forces concept fulfills the new defense strategy, which calls for more engagement with U.S. partners around the world. It also provides a way for seasoned soldiers to practice skills learned from a decade of war-fighting and for recruits to experience new opportunities around the world.

A key requirement is the Army’s readiness for every conceivable type of situation, such as the consulate attack in Benghazi, said British Col. James Learmont, an exchange officer working on the Army’s concept.

“Responsiveness is a pretty key component of this because everybody wants us to be more responsive — in other words, quicker,” Col. Learmont said in a separate interview.

Gen. Odierno concurred.

“Complexity of the world is changing by the minute. A lot of it has to do with how quickly information is proliferated around the world. It has an impact on many different nations, especially those that don’t have confidence in their governments,” the Army chief of staff said.

“So what’s happening is you’re finding that we have to be prepared to react to many small-scale potential contingencies, and so by aligning ourselves with combatant commands, it gives them more capability capacity and the ability to respond quicker.”

‘A test case’

Col. Learmont, the British exchange officer, said most of the missions will consist of training, not operational, tasks. But “if their combatant commander does require something that falls into the operational bandwagon, then we have the facilities to react to that with the approval of the secretary of defense and the Joint Staff,” he added.

Gen. Odierno said U.S. soldiers could be involved in direct-action operations but noted that their main purpose is to help host nations develop capabilities to handle their own issues, whether it’s terrorism or local conflicts.

There is no shortage of conflict in Africa, what with Islamic extremists increasing their activities in North Africa, ongoing instability in Libya, militant uprisings in oil-rich Nigeria and a civil conflict in the Republic of Congo.

As the smallest of the U.S. geographic combatant commands, U.S. Africa Command, or Africom, has had no shortage of resource demands.

“I picked what I thought is an area that is growing in importance and that we have the opportunity to shape it now to prevent conflict later. So that’s why we chose Africa first as a test case,” Gen. Odierno said. “In Africom, it will give us the opportunity to provide a range of capabilities that are needed, from very small to a bit larger, so I think for us, it’s a great test for the concept to see if it works.”

Gen. Odierno envisions the Regionally Aligned Forces concept to involve the total Army force, including the Reserve, the National Guard and all military occupational specialties, including intelligence, logistics, network support and engineering, and will be broadened to include the U.S. Special Operations Command.

“As we continue to now progress into our new strategy, we think there are a lot of links that will enable conventional forces to provide support to Special Operations Command as they continue to do counterterrorism and other missions around the world,” he said. “So we are working very closely with them to develop the criteria that would allow us then to align forces to support them as they conduct their worldwide missions.”

With regard to a smaller defense budget, Gen. Odierno said, the new concept is an “efficient and optimal use of our resources that will help us to provide security.”

“We’ll learn as we go. We have to figure out specifically how it’ll be funded, but we’ll work our way through that as we go,” he said.