By 1st Lt. Miranda Summers Lowe, District of Columbia National GuardJune 27, 2012
DOUALA, Cameroon (June 27, 2012) -- Sponsored by U.S. Africa Command, 36 nations joined together here to conduct Africa Endeavor, the largest joint interoperability communications exercise ever held on the continent, June 18-27, 2012.
Communications interoperability exercises focus on working out a myriad of communication problems that could arise because countries and neighbors differ in equipment, procedures and languages. Even within a single organization there can be difficulties in communicating effectively said one U.S. communications scenario observer/controller.
In short, the idea behind the exercise was to work out communications problems ahead of time, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Jeff Marks.
"Natural disasters don't respect political boundaries," he said "Problems are regional. You have to be able to work with your neighbors."
This year's scenario revolves around a multi-national response to a major earthquake devastating a fictitious country. Different nations, sent by the African Union, contributed forces to set up radio and internet communications that would enable the delivery of humanitarian aid.
While the scenario and country weren't real, the communications that went on was very much realistic. While operating within the setting, participants practiced sending and receiving communications with the equipment they would use in a real-world mission.
The Joint Interoperability Test Command, or JITC, part of the Defense Information Systems Agency, a U.S. organization that facilitates and conducts testing of information technology systems hardware, software and components played a major role in the exercise. JITC has participated in Africa Endeavor through all six iterations.
According to JITC, communications interoperability has three components: technical, human, and procedural. The technical aspect focuses on how equipment works with other equipment. The human component focuses on the message of the communication and how people interact. The procedural aspect focuses on finding common practices that are consistent from service-to- service and nation-to-nation.
An exercise like Africa Endeavor gives participating nations the opportunity to work on all three aspects, said officials. JITC maintains records to make each exercise as productive as possible. During the equipment testing phase, JITC tracks which nations have not participated before or which nations have new equipment and prioritize that testing.
"We bring a lot of continuity," said Roy Swartz of JITC and test director for the exercise. "I've been here for three years, so I'm a familiar face."
The procedural aspect of interoperability has been the most challenging. Working with the African Union, the information collected at Africa Endeavor, or AE, is used to refine operating procedures for communication across Africa.
"These exercises set a standard," said Senegal Army Maj. Babacar Diagne, who has participated in AE three times. "With good interoperability, communications can bridge operational gaps."
The African Union began with operational planning for the standby force, said Babacar. It became clear that standardized procedures would be necessary not just for ground troops, but for communications as well.
"In 1998 I was in the expeditionary force to Guinea Bissau with West African nations. We had not had a chance to train with our equipment and it did not always work," said Babacar. Now that he has been to AE, he has a much better idea of how to work with the same countries, he added.
The human aspect of interoperability comes naturally during exercises like Africa Endeavor, but would be nearly impossible to practice without the face to face contact of having all the participants at a training site, according to offocials. This happens during the exercise scenario, but often happens just as much during a lunch break, participants said. To help foster these relationships, Africa Endeavor has time set aside time for a sports day and cultural dinner.
"Getting the radios to work is the easy part," said Warrant Officer Pierre Paradis of the Canadian armed forces, an observer/controller for AE 2012. "You have to be able to understand what the guys on the radio are saying."
"If you want to be able to participate in communications exercises worldwide, you need to be able to understand a common vocabulary. This exercise gives everyone some experience working in the same process," said U.S. Navy Cmdr. Steve Jacobs, delegation chief for the U.S.
The District of Columbia National Guard sent two participants to the public affairs workshops of the exercise. Staff Sgt. Michelle Gonzalez of the 715th Public Affairs Detachment provided coverage of the operation, and her work appears on U.S. Africa Command's social media outlets as well as the Canadian Armed Forces combat camera webpage.
"It's been really interesting to see how similar, and how different, our training has been, not only among the African Nations, but also between ourselves and the Dutch and Canadian instructors," Gonzalez said.