SUFFOLK, Va. - Leaders preparing to deploy to Djibouti next month are getting a sense of the challenges they will face as the next headquarters staff at Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa during a realistic training exercise at U.S. Joint Forces Command's Joint Warfighting Center.

A week-long mission rehearsal exercise kicked off, Jan. 10, culminating training that began in May to prepare to Navy Rear Adm. Anthony M. Kurta and his core staff for the mission they will assume next month.

The computer-assisted command post exercise is the fourth for Joint Forces Command since the mission began in 2002 to prevent conflict, promote regional stability and protect coalition interests in East Africa and Yemen, explained Army Col. Michael Rose, chief of the center's operations group.

But in other ways, it's a first, with members of U.S. Africa Command -- which became fully operational in October -- participating in the training, both in Suffolk and at Africom's Stuttgart, Germany, headquarters. The Horn of Africa mission previously had been U.S. Central Command's responsibility.

Directly in synch with Africom's mission statement, Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa focuses on operations that blend defense, diplomacy and development. The goal, Rose said, is to build capacity within African nations so they can keep extremism from taking hold.

"What we are doing is trying to prevent conflict and promote regional stability," he said.

To prepare deploying joint task forces for challenges ahead, Joint Forces Command begins a broad training program months before the deployment that continues after they arrive in the theater.

The mission rehearsal exercise, conducted just a month before deployment, brings the pre-deployment training to a crescendo in an exercise Kurta called "very reflective of the environment we will see on the ground in Djibouti."

As the exercise reached its fourth day, Kurta and his staff were dealing with everything from the day-to-day nuts and bolts of making the joint task force work to higher-level planning operations at the strategic and operational level.

Rose's team kept the staff on their toes by hitting them with every notional "what if" in the book - often simultaneously. Tanzania was hit by a cyclone and asked for an assessment team to evaluate the situation. Extremists threatened to attack a water-drilling team operating in Kenya. U.S. citizens and third-country nationals in Eritrea were under threat due to a border dispute, requiring Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa to support a noncombatant evacuation.

"What we are doing is presenting a whole bunch of problems for the Horn of Africa staff to have to deal with, to come up with courses of action, brief them to the commander, and then the commander makes a decision about what course of action to purse," Rose said.

Army Brig. Gen. Sanford E. Holman has seen the mission rehearsal exercise from both sides of the fence. Before becoming vice commander of the Joint Warfighting Center, he went through its training before becoming deputy commander of Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa in 2007. Holman offered his firsthand assessment of the value of the training to deploying task forces.

"This gives them the opportunity to go through their standard operating procedures, their tactics, techniques and procedures and get them ready," he said. "And by the time they finish this exercise, they are ready to deploy."

Kurta called the training Joint Forces Command provides -- particularly its use of best practices and lessons learned in training scenarios -- a key to the task force's success. "We are certainly ready to take on that mission," he said.

His staff shared his sentiments. Navy Capt. Mark Davis, head planner on the new combined joint task force staff, welcomed the exercise as an opportunity to prepare for his first mission outside the submarine force.

"It's remarkable how real it is here, and how realistic the scenarios are that we are being exposed to," he said. "This gives me the confidence to say that on Day One, I can hit the ground running."

Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Leo McCray volunteered for his second deployment to Djibouti, but said the exercise is giving him new insights, too. "This gives the staff an opportunity to build relationships that will be important when we arrive in the theater," he said.

With 21 years of service under his belt, including service on four ships, McCray said he's hard-pressed to come up with a more fulfilling mission than what awaits the combined joint task force staff in Djibouti.

"The beauty of it is, this is not combative. This is humanitarian, and we are there to help," he said. "The great thing about this mission is that you get to see the fruits of what you have done. That makes it all really heartfelt."