Africom builds cooperation with collaboration

Language and tech barriers pose a challenge to the new command’s C4 efforts

The U.S. Africa Command is poised to become the Defense Department’s sixth joint regional command later this year. However, the challenges inherent in Africom’s mission — focused more on promoting regional security than warfighting — call for a somewhat different structure and create a challenge for Africom’s command, control, communications and computers (C4) operations.

Unlike traditional unified commands, Africom will focus on war prevention rather than warfighting. And it will function largely as a listening command, working with as many of the 53 African nations as possible to build regional security and respond to crises from its headquarters in Germany, said Gen. William “Kip” Ward, Africom’s commander.

Structurally, the differences are telling. One of Africom’s two deputy co-commanders is Ambassador Mary Carlin Yates, a career diplomat. To fulfill its mission, the command is partnering with federal agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Justice, Commerce and Treasury departments. It's also turning to a contractor cadre and private, nongovernmental organizations such as the International Red Cross and United Nations Food for Peace.

In August 2007, Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for African affairs, underscored the urgency of balancing the human elements with the strategic. “The United States spends approximately $9 billion a year in Africa funding programs in areas such as health, development, trade promotion and good governance,” she told the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Africa and Global Health Subcommittee. However, “security-related programs receive only about $250 million a year,” she said.

Peter Pham, director of James Madison University’s Nelson Institute for International Affairs, is guardedly optimistic about the prospects for the new command and the difference it can make. Pham said Africom is small for a combatant command.

Even with its already-established subcommand, the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), fewer than 2,000 people are involved, and many are contractors. Some will be important in information technology training, he said.

“Some of the units in place in Africa doing training already have civilian trainers with them to help with the IT aspects,” Pham said. “So one could only anticipate that that’s going to be a growth sector as they expand…. They’ve been not so much the force footprint in Africa, but the number of countries and individuals that they touch” is important.

Pham said he believes there’s a tipping point for collaboration in Africa as Africom moves forward. “On one hand, Africa is making a technological leap,” he said. “The speed of transformation is incredible. I see it every time I go there. On the other hand, there is a serious infrastructure problem. So Africom is going to have to operate in this tension at the same time that basic infrastructure — including communications infrastructure — is considerably lacking.”

Pham said a vital challenge “is to find a modality, an operating system that enables you to leverage the value-added things that Africom is bringing to building capacity in Africa and its local partners, yet in a way in which the system is operable across the board.”

One success in information sharing has been the creation of a Web portal as part of the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative, Pham said. Through the portal, “we and the nine part-ner countries on the continent plus the enduring partners in Europe can interface, exchanging information in real time — both classified and more basic, open-source data.” Pham added that nongovernmental and private voluntary organizations can, and should, be part of the portal.

Pham said that with CJTF-HOA’s support, maritime communications are also transforming. “On both coasts, systems to electronically engage in maritime domain awareness [have been created], putting out identification systems on ships and then linking that information, so that ... countries which are essentially slivers off the sea, one after another, can maintain at least awareness of what’s out there in their waters — lawful craft or possibly pirates, smugglers or something worse.”

Pham said the U.S. Sixth Fleet based in Naples, Italy, and the Africa Partnership Station Initiative are steering the ship identification projects. The initiative, a program to promote maritime security in Africa, “will come under Africom to build up the maritime domain awareness and capabilities.”

Africom’s C4 planners said portals are crucial to expanding collaboration in Africa. “Web portals with single-authentication capabilities combined with the ability to create communities of interest on the fly will provide a superb environment for sharing information and overcoming interoperability issues,” said Brig Gen. Paul Capasso, Africom’s director of C4 systems. “If designed right, a portal becomes a public meeting place where multiple agencies, nongovernmental organizations and our host nations on the continent of Africa can collaborate. Web portals with wiki-like technologies will even the playing field and enable an unprecedented amount of collaboration between the command and other non-DOD organizations.”

Capasso cited the Web-based humanitarian assistance and relief portal as one of the collaboration platforms that Africom might use. “It has collaboration built into it and is open for [nongovernmental] and interagency [organizations]. We have already created an Africa Command presence there and have the capability of creating rooms for collaboration spaces.”

Africom is also using DOD collaboration tools, he said. “We have used the new DOD standards of collaboration — namely, the Adobe Defense Connect Online — with success during [the April 2006 attempted coup in Chad]. We were able to connect three different Joint Operations Center planners for collaboration and to coordinate activities with our fellow combatant commands.”


Tthe largest barrier to collaboration in Africa is the lack of a consistent infrastructure across the continent. “USAID essentially created the Internet in Mali,” Pham said, adding that it has also set up a low-tech solution for communities that don’t have Internet connections.

Technicians have created a system of thumb drives, Pham said. “Truckers that leave the capital of Bamako on their outbound route drop off these thumb drives. They’ve got these very interesting computers that operate on solar panels or hand-cranked electricity. People download or compose the information — e-mails, etc. On the drive back to the capital, truckers collect the drives, take them into the capital, plug them in and send out the messages.”

Pham said that although it’s not exactly an instantaneous connection — there’s a one-week lag in messages — it’s a major improvement. Communities that are not on the national electrical grid can communicate, he said, calling the thumb drive system a remarkable development compared with what was previously available.

Meanwhile, language barriers are another collaboration challenge. Africa’s variety of languages and dialects presents enormous training and communications challenges. U.S. and foreign linguists might help.

“The trainers are indeed a mix of uniformed, government civil servants and U.S. government contractors with augmentation from in-country consultants hired by the U.S. government to support these programs locally,” Capasso said. “We have requirements for some of our contractors to be bilingual. Many of our African nation counterparts speak French. This will be a key requirement as we continue our Theater Security Cooperation initiatives.”

“As the command builds portals, I envision language-specific communities of interest,” he added. “This will promote information sharing in native African dialects. However, French and English will be key languages for sharing information across a broader spectrum.”

Some critics say the translation chores might make information security nearly impossible to manage. “As a command, we must be able to balance the need for protecting the confidentiality of U.S. and host African nation information while at the same time be able to share information openly,” Capasso said. He said he envisioned bilateral information security agreements between the command and host nation counterparts.

Meanwhile, there are other hurdles to successful collaboration. “Part of it is a cultural question rather than a technological one because the technology obviously already exists, and our personnel use it in reporting back and checking in,” Pham said. But “right now, the priority is trying to get the foot in the door, engaging Africans directly and building that person-to-person relationship. I think the next part, the follow-up, might eventually contain a great deal of [remote training], but the important thing now is to get that face-time and that one-on-one contact.”


With such a broad range of organizations needing to share information, information-sharing opportunities are potentially unlimited, and as a result, there is a significant need for creating scalable procedures and standards, Capasso said.

Capasso said the focus areas of building the infrastructure for Africom’s public environment are “developing knowledge management procedures, standardizing the command’s collaboration tools and developing a unified architecture that assures protection of the network and has a data strategy that promotes interoperability among systems. The tough issue is growing the right skill set that can meet our interoperability/information-sharing and information assurance challenges. We have been leveraging our business partners to provide this key expertise as we build our capabilities.”

To build the skill set in Africom and with partner nations, Africom’s IT and computer training employees are important, Capasso said. “IT training on the continent will play a major role in building enduring relationships with our African partners." There are already several training programs in place in Africa, Capasso said. The Economic Community of West African States’ Regional Information Exchange System “has embedded in-country IT consultants who provide training to the Ministry of Defense staff of those nations with specific applications that are on their systems.”

Africom will also be taking over the Multinational Information Sharing Initiative program from European Command, “which is also already conducting training in the Trans-Sahara region of Africa with success,” Capasso said.

He said the African Union recently received training on Very Small Aperture Terminal Satellite for African Union Command, Control, Communications and Information Systems, a program Africom has taken over.

“The intent is to maximize a train-the-trainer concept as our training foundation,” Capasso added.

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