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Into Africa: Natural Fire 10

U.S. Army Africa recently conducted Natural Fire 10, a multinational exercise in Uganda, and successfully overcame logistics problems that were complicated by cultural differences.

In fiscal year 2009, the Southern European Task Force (Airborne), based in Vicenza, Italy, was redesignated from an airborne joint task force headquarters to U.S. Army Africa (USARAF), the Army service component command of the nascent U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). Recently, USARAF has worked to restructure internally as it becomes a full Army service component command. Joint Chiefs of Staff Exercise Natural Fire 10 was the command’s first major exercise and the largest deployment of U.S. forces in Africa since World War II.

Just mentioning Africa conjures romantic images of wild animals, mysterious peoples, and pathless jungles. Although logistics services in Africa are not as widely available as they are in the United States or Western Europe, all manner of logistics support is now available from host nations, the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations, and commercial contractors. Every day, businesses turn profits, goods and people move, and cell phone coverage is available and affordable.

However, operating in Africa is not necessarily simple or straightforward; success there requires a highly adaptive application of logistics principles and practices, as USARAF found while conducting Natural Fire 10. This is the story of how flexibility, experimentation, and innovation generated success from the strategic to the tactical levels.

The Logistics Challenges of Africa

Africa is disjointed and internally disconnected in a way that few other places are. This is a result of the effort a century ago to define its borders without taking into account the natural relationships of its peoples. Africa presents physical, administrative, and cultural challenges.

The physical size of the African continent is hard for many people to fathom. With a land mass more than three times that of the continental United States, Africa presents daunting distances. For example, the distance from Tunis, Tunisia, to Pretoria, South Africa, is roughly the same as that from Frankfurt, Germany, to Chicago, Illinois.

More than 90 percent of the population and services are within 100 miles of the coastlines, and the limited Non-Secure Internet Protocol Router Network disappears rapidly toward the continent’s interior. Roads, ports, and airfields are frequently inadequate for heavy military use. Fifteen countries are landlocked, which complicates their infrastructures and causes administrative hurdles. Automated in-transit visibility (ITV) is nonexistent.

Africa is not a country, but a continent composed of 54 nations and 400 ethnic groups using 2,000 languages. The fact that there are few large-scale centralized agreements between nations greatly complicates diplomatic clearances for aircraft as well as customs procedures and border clearances for surface cargo. Border stations for surface cargo can be remote and unsupervised with subjective standards of enforcement.

When it comes to contracts, local providers may have trouble accessing the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) web-based bidding system because many African businesses do not yet use the Internet. In a cash economy, payments from DOD systems are cumbersome. These procedural problems are manifestations of broader cultural issues that must be considered when operating in Africa. The continent cannot be transited without dealing with multiple customs departments, difficult highway conditions, inadequate railroads, and security problems. And keeping an operation within the borders of one country is impossible.

African supply and service operations are often an exercise in “expectation management.” The single largest cultural challenge for U.S. military logisticians and commanders is the importance of time. Things move slower—period. All operations are directly affected by the availability and condition of the infrastructure. When the infrastructure is less developed, logisticians must use lighter loads and smaller platforms, which greatly extend delivery times.

When conducting cooperative operations with African forces, U.S. personnel must place less emphasis on clocks and calendars. Of greater importance, and perhaps even more difficult, is the need to develop an appreciation, or at least an understanding, of informal authority structures. Families, clans, tribes, and local leaders can often wield greater influence in specific areas than a national government.

Natural Fire 10

During Natural Fire 10, USARAF encountered all of these challenges and, for the most part, overcame them by using the adaptive logistics network concept, which maximized the use of existing systems on the continent. USARAF adhered to an efficiency-driven business model that emphasized a small military footprint, clearly understood objectives, and minimal control over the distribution process.

Natural Fire 10 was planned as a cooperative exercise among five East African nations (Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and Kenya) and the United States. It consisted of a brief “table top” session in Kampala, Uganda, and a 2-week joint field training exercise and humanitarian and civil assistance operation with 1,500 soldiers representing 6 nations.

The exercise was conducted at the site of a remote Ugandan army post in Kitgum, Uganda, which is approximately 600 kilometers by road north of Entebbe and close to the Darfur (Sudan) border. The African soldiers simply drove to Kitgum, but the U.S. deployment was somewhat more complicated.

The U.S. deployment involved moving 600 passengers and 300 pieces of major equipment by surface and air. Kitgum’s remote location was the main mobility challenge since it is more than 1,600 kilometers inland from the seaport in Mombasa, Kenya, and approximately 100 kilometers from the nearest usable airfield, Gulu Airport in Uganda. To make matters worse, the final 100 kilometers of the road to Kitgum are unpaved, which was a problem because the exercise was held at the beginning of the equatorial rainy season.

The Original Plan

The original deployment plan was to move sensitive items and passengers by strategic airlift to Entebbe International Airport in Uganda, then use C–130 Hercules aircraft from the 17th Air Force to move to Gulu Airport, and then proceed by truck or bus to Kitgum. Bus movement from Entebbe to Kitgum was planned as backup but was not favored by the Ugandan gendarmerie.

Surface cargo would move door to door using the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command’s (SDDC’s) Universal Services Contract from multiple home stations in the United States and Europe through Mombasa to Kitgum. The contractor would assume responsibility for all customs clearances, border crossings, ITV, and subcontracting of required materials-handling equipment. SDDC would position an experienced operations officer in Mombasa to provide ITV and liaise with the contractor. By setting up the contract in this manner, USARAF could avoid deploying military personnel to the Mombasa port or to other key locations where movement control elements are generally found.

The planned logistics support for the Entebbe element was straightforward. Approximately 100 passengers from the USARAF command and control element would stay in two local hotels that included meals and laundry as part of the contracts. A small fleet of rental vehicles and minibuses would transport personnel from billeting to the military airfield at Entebbe, where the command post would be located.

In Kitgum, we contracted for the construction of a temporary life support area with showers, latrines, a dining facility, and sleeping facilities for 500 Soldiers. The Defense Logistics Agency would provide meals and bottled water, and the 21st Theater Sustainment Command would provide two reverse osmosis water purification units (ROWPUs) for bulk potable water. Three days of reserve rations and water would be stored at Gulu, which would also be used as an intermediary airfield to transfer passengers and sensitive items to Kitgum.

Changing Plans and Making It Work

No plan survives first contact, and Natural Fire 10 was no exception. The first hurdle was the airfield at Gulu. Although Gulu was listed as capable of accommodating C–130s and C–17 Globemasters, an airfield survey determined that Gulu’s runway strength actually was unsuitable for C–130s. The 17th Air Force had no further part in the exercise and could not provide aircraft support, and the Ugandans preferred that we not bus several hundred Soldiers and Marines through Kampala and up to Kitgum.

We contacted the Reserve component 11th Tactical Aviation Command about the problem, and after some planning and coordination, they agreed to bring three CH–47 Chinook helicopters from the United States into Entebbe by strategic lift. The 21st Theater Sustainment Command provided an aircraft assembly team at Entebbe and set up a class III (petroleum, oils, and lubricants) retail point at Kitgum using certified fuel from a Defense Energy Support Center contract. This extremely effective solution allowed us to bypass Gulu and deliver personnel directly into Kitgum. The only problem was the cost of the strategic lift from the United States.

When we started the contract-bidding process for construction of the life support area, we were already working on a short timeline. Exacerbating the time crunch were the requirement by African contractors for upfront payments and our internal procedures to procure funds through U.S. Army Europe.

The contract solicitation produced two bidders, and only one was African. Despite the contractor’s efforts, the completion of the life support area was delayed by several days. Because of the delay, no place and no personnel were available to download surface cargo—much of which was already on the road from Mombasa—on its projected arrival date.

After a call to the SDDC representative in Mombasa, the contractor diverted the trucks into his own holding yard at Kampala with the stipulation that they could be delivered to Kitgum in 72 hours once we called them forward. This was accomplished with no direct intervention by USARAF or other exercise participants.

During the exercise, the continued maintenance of the ROWPU systems used for daily water purification at Kitgum was particularly challenging. During the peak water usage period of the exercise, when roughly 1,100 personnel were located at Kitgum, the ROWPUs were purifying up to 11,000 gallons of potable water daily, including water for consumption in the dining facility and for showers. ROWPU water was also being used to support the septic system because a well that was dug on site to support the portable toilet system was not producing the quantity required.

After several days of heavy use, the ROWPUs began to have significant maintenance issues. To keep the ROWPUs functioning, repair parts had to be shipped from Germany. After a water pump that transferred purified water from a ROWPU to the water tower (which supplied water to the shower systems) failed on several occasions, 21st Theater Sustainment Command Soldiers decided to replace the pump with a civilian swimming pool pump from a local Safari hotel until a replacement pump arrived from Germany.

An additional challenge was the difference in voltage between the military systems that were transported from Germany and the systems that were supplied by contractors. All military equipment was 110 volt, and all local equipment and power was 220 volt. The base camp was able to work around this using transformers and military power generation systems to power the field-feeding systems.

In keeping with our adaptive logistics concept of using existing assets and procedures and making use of relationships with other logistics providers, we had initially coordinated with the AFRICOM Deployment Distribution Operations Center (ADDOC) to use the C–17s of the Hungarian Airlift Wing (HAW) to redeploy the AFRICOM Deployable Joint Command and Control (DJC2) system back to Europe from Entebbe.

The day before the flight, ADDOC informed us that HAW would be unable to fly the mission because Libya denied the fly-over clearance. By shifting some of the DJC2 enablers (generators and environmental control units) to surface transport, we reduced the lift requirement to two C–130 loads. Unfortunately, the lack of available airframes resulted in a delay of over 30 days to retrieve the cargo. Despite these challenges, Natural Fire 10 was successful by all measurable standards and provided tremendous lessons for continued operations on the African continent.

Lessons Learned About Operating in Africa

In African operations, we must be comfortable with more uncertainty and greater flexibility when it comes to timelines. Not being able to see a status on a computer screen does not mean that nothing is happening. A plan or concept that requires rigorous adherence to precise timelines is likely unsuited to African scenarios.

Mobility is the key to success, so infrastructure and distance challenges require thoughtful, adaptive, innovative solutions. The need for reliable, flexible intertheater airlift cannot be overstated. U.S. standards for aircraft operations are unlikely to be modified to accommodate the African infrastructure, and the African infrastructure will not quickly improve. These facts preclude major reliance on Air Force assets. Future intertheater air mobility on the continent is likely to be a combination of assets from the United States, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and commercial contractors.

The cultural differences in the way business is conducted in Africa and in the U.S. Army caused some notable problems. In many African cultures, business is a face-to-face affair and Internet access is not an important part of commerce. Furthermore, printed specifications of a requested product are good, but actual samples of what you need are far better.

Contracting in Africa is slightly different as well. One particular challenge was the issue of prepayment upon awarding a contract. Many African vendors expect a 50-percent or higher prepayment, which is not feasible under current contracting regulations. Many vendors also do not understand the solicitation and bidding process for contracting opportunities.

To prevent this problem in upcoming major Joint Chiefs of Staff exercises, USARAF will conduct vendor conferences to teach prospective vendors about U.S. contracting policies and procedures. By working with small businesses, embassies, and potentially local Rotary clubs, USARAF will reach the businesses that may not be aware of how to do business with the U.S. Government.

SDDC’s Universal Service Contract for surface movements works phenomenally well. The professionals should be allowed to do what they do best. SDDC has the contacts and the experience to move cargo, clear customs, and cross borders better than USARAF ever will in Africa. Through the contract, Maersk diverted shipments, maintained accountability, delivered supplies on time, and provided ITV of cargo moving on five vessels and numerous trucks from multiple locations.

Africa, with its challenging infrastructure, vast distances, and variety of politics and cultures, provides a tremendous proving ground for logisticians supporting military operations. The lessons learned and solutions developed to overcome the challenges in Natural Fire 10 are already paying dividends for USARAF as it plans future operations on the continent in collaboration with African militaries, nongovernmental organizations, and commercial partners. Certainly, Africa has many more lessons in store as USARAF seeks to expand its capabilities and increase its presence there. But based on this exercise, it has an auspicious beginning.

Todd L. Johnston is the mobility division chief, G–4, for U.S. Army Africa in Vicenza, Italy. He is an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel and currently commands the 772d Civil Support Team. He is a graduate of the Sustaining Base Leadership Management Course and the Army Intermediate Level Education Course.

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