DDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - For the first time ever, a direct communications link was established between the African Union and units in the field as part of the annual Africa Endeavor 2010 exercise, in which 36 African nations met in Ghana in August to improve military coordination during an emergency.

The link-up included well known Internet sharing software such as Skype (over a satellite phone rather than using commercial phones) and the All Partners Access Network, which allows international military and nongovernmental groups to work together in a neutral online environment.

The satellite link was part of a long-term program by U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) to assist the African Union with communications links to its new African Standby Force. The African Standby Force includes five brigades for five regions throughout Africa under the AU's Peace Support Operations Division, or PSOD.

"We are supporting peace, peace in Africa," explained Staff Sgt. John Wanyama of Kenya, who helped provide communications for the PSOD. "If there is a conflict, we need people to talk. ... Communications will facilitate the means by which people will talk to one another in order to understand one another and lessen the conflicts."

Wanyama is the senior noncommissioned officer for communications at the PSOD, which is under the AU's Peace and Security Council. The African Union is headquartered in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

AFRICOM, based in Stuttgart, Germany, is responsible for providing military support to U.S. policy in Africa. This includes a multi-year program by the C4 System Directorate (Command, Control, Communications and Computers) of AFRICOM to work with the African Union. Part of that support entails helping the PSOD to build an operations center, with networking supplied by the United States and computers supplied by the United Kingdom.

One of AFRICOM's goals is "helping the African Union to build its capability to communicate effectively with its humanitarian assistance missions and peacekeeping operations throughout the continent," said Kent Waller, chief of the Coalition Division within C4 Systems.

"We've done that by establishing a Peace Support Operations Center here in Addis Ababa and [providing] familiarization to the Peace Support Operations Division on how to man and operate that center, and also by integrating their activities into our major communications operability exercise, African Endeavor," Waller said.

Africa Endeavor is a U.S.-led continent-wide communications exercise that allows African nations to gain experience communicating with each other and with the international community during an emergency.

"This week, for the first time ever, the Peace Support Operations Center will be communicating with remote military forces from 35 nations in an African Union scenario," Waller said.

The initial communications were part of an exercise for humanitarian response in a fictitious African country. On Aug. 17, the exercise center in Ghana transmitted messages about an outbreak of viral meningitis in the fictitious country, being investigated by the World Health Organization in Paris and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga.

African Endeavor communications exercises have taken place for several years - in Gabon in 2009, and Nigeria in 2008. The numbers of African nations participating have steadily increased, and there are discussions to include African leadership in running or coordinating future exercises.

"The African Union has been involved as an observer for the past couple African Endeavor exercises," Waller said. "However, the increasing desire to communicate effectively with the African Union missions and the African Union Standby Force has moved us to this point where the African Union staff is becoming more intimately involved with the Africa Endeavor exercises."

The African Union's PSOD has used Africa Endeavor to help prepare communication procedures for Amani Africa, a major AU exercise scheduled for October. Amani Africa, coordinated in conjunction with the European Union, will be a major test of the new African Standby Force.

"Africa Endeavor has opened up some windows for us to see how we will approach the Amani Africa," said Wanyama, the AU communications staff sergeant. "What we are doing here, the lessons learned, will help us a lot in carrying out some of the activities in Amani Africa."

The Peace Support Operations Center is a conference room in an office building overlooking the new African Union complex, currently under construction with assistance by the government of China. The government of Germany is building a nearby office building for the Peace and Security Council, which includes space for a new operations center. For now, the interim ops center consists of banks of computers and communications equipment. Many of the communications take place through basic commercial sites - satellite phones similar to those used by television journalists and ships at sea, as well as public Internet sharing sites that allow private chat rooms.

To help establish the operations center, AFRICOM will assist with familiarization visits throughout the next two years, and ivite ops center staff to visit U.S. military operations centers. This includes the operations center for Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa at Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti, said Arthur Kelley, the C4 Systems project leader for working with the African Union's C3IS communications unit. Kelley was on his seventh visit to Addis Ababa to work with the AU.

"The goal is to facilitate information sharing between the Peace Support Operations Division and the deployed forces," said Waller of AFRICOM's C4 Systems Directorate.

"The operations center provides a very structured approach to gathering, analyzing and disseminating critical information for military leadership, civilian leadership, and mission commanders in the field. So it's a key element of any organized standard military operation," he said.

Waller said he is aware some observers have voiced concerns that U.S. assistance in helping African militaries communicate means the United States could eavesdrop on African operations.

"That's just a natural reaction," Waller said. "To me, the way to overcome that is to keep doing what we can do, let them assess us as individuals, let them know that we're not here to do that ... and hope that they trust us."

That trust will only be earned through long-term partnership and ensuring that AFRICOM keeps sending its best people to work on partnerships with organizations such as the African Union, Waller said.

Africans do appreciate the outside assistance, Wanyama said.

"America is just like any other partner trying to assist the Africans through the AU. Information technology has reduced the world to a global family. And when you are in a family, if somebody has a problem, if you have a heart you will wish to help," Wanyama said.

The first AE was held in Pretoria, South Africa, in 2006. Subsequent exercises took place in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2008 and in Libreville, Gabon, in 2009.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16