South African soldiers are currently training with their American colleagues, honing the military skills so essential to successful peacekeeping and peace support operations at the SA Army Combat Training Centre (CTC) in Northern Cape.
A report posted by US Army Africa gives an insight into one part of the extent of Exercise Shared Accord.
“Patrolling across an open field in the African bushland after reports of a kidnapping by insurgents, Staff Sergeant Donovan Sweet unknowingly led his squad toward a looming ambush,” wrote Sean Kimmons of the US Army News Service.
“Moments later, two devices exploded followed by bursts of enemy gunfire. The 26-year-old leader quickly shouted commands to his 101st Airborne Division squad to fire back as they sought the only cover available behind small, thorny shrubs.
“One by one his squad members, along with other soldiers in his platoon, were shot as part of a mock scenario during the two-week Shared Accord exercise, which ends August 3. Held at different African training sites each year, the joint exercise enhances peacekeeping capabilities of US and African forces in support of UN and African Union mandates.
“More than 230 soldiers from the division’s 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment are participating in the bilateral exercise, along with about 300 South African Army soldiers, 100 US and South African marines and 50 soldiers from US Army Africa headquarters.
The simulated attack, led by South African soldiers posing as insurgents, was specifically drawn up to inflict heavy losses. While they succeeded, it also served as a tough lesson to the defeated.
“They need to be able to learn to communicate better and notice what’s around them, not just in front of them,” Sweet said of his squad. The exercise also gave him the opportunity to refine his own leadership skills.
“Realising one’s strengths and weaknesses was a goal for Captain Christian Radulesco, who helped devise the attack. Radulesco and three other observer-controllers left Germany to join the exercise from the Joint Multi-national Readiness Centre, the Army’s Europe-based combat training centre,” the US Army said.
“They still walk away with an important lesson learned,” said Radulesco (36) of Atlanta, Georgia. “And that is what’s key here, even if the whole platoon is wiped out.”
“To each challenge, there is a correct doctrinal answer. If the leaders follow the correct doctrine … and their junior leaders take initiative, then they’re successful.”
In Sweet’s squad, there was at least one positive when the simulated gunfire rang out across the field. As he gave orders, an enemy fighter popped out of the bush and ‘fatally’ shot him, which sounded off his multiple integrated laser engagement system, or MILES gear. When that happened, one of the younger soldiers took charge of the squad, which had also lost a team leader.
“That was probably an eye-opening moment for him as well as it was for me,” said Sweet, of Mooresville, North Carolina.
At just 20 years old, Private First Class Zachary Pullen, an M249 squad automatic weapon gunner, became the squad leader as he and the rest of the soldiers still in the game went on to complete the mission.
“All that muscle memory kicked in and you just had to go,” said Pullen (20) of Rapid City, South Dakota. “If you sit there and think about it, you might get people killed.”
“Having not been in combat yet, Pullen also thought the real-world training in a foreign country could better prepare him and others for when that time comes.
“It’s a different experience from what we do back home. There the opposing force knows our tactics and we know theirs. But we don’t know South African Army tactics.”
One of the South African soldiers shooting at Sweet’s squad was impressed with the soldiers’ movements, despite their losses.
“Actually, they are more organised than us,” said South African Army Private. Albert Mkhabela. “They move more in buddy pairs and they secure each other, so they really did well.”
“This is our terrain. We do training here most of the time, so we are acclimatised”.
Sweet and the other 101st Division Soldiers are expected to get another shot against their South African counterparts later in the exercise when it evolves into more complex force-on-force training scenarios. The unique training with the South Africans is just one of many training events the soldiers will go through to improve their readiness, the US Army said.
“We don’t know where we’re going next,” Sweet said of potential deployments. “You have to be able to diversify yourself and your soldiers to be successful wherever you go.”
So far Shared Accord has practiced things such as UN peacekeeping procedures, detecting roadside bombs and “bush craft.” The peacekeeping component involved mock demonstrations, logistical ambushes and food riots at an internally displaced persons camp.
Major Jeremy Passut, a US Army Africa spokesman, said the goal of Shared Accord was to build partnership and interoperability between the two militaries and served as “yet another brick in USARAF’s foundation of being a trusted and respected partner in the region and on the African continent.”
SANDF Brigadier General Gustav Lategan told the Diamond Fields Advertiser that “We have been sharing lessons that we have learnt from our current peacekeeping experiences in the Democratic Republic of Congo and utilising 2 SAI in particular for training on this exercise as this is the next battalion to be placed on standby for peacekeeping as part of the African Union Standby Force.”
The exercise, which started July 17, also provided USARAF and its regionally aligned forces an opportunity to plan deploying and sustaining troops to Africa, rehearse setting up a command post, and practice deploying equipment pre-positioned for contingencies in Livorno, Italy, Passut said.
“When factoring this in with the training that took place at the exercise, it makes for as realistic scenario one could hope for in a training event,” he said.
Shared Accord concludes next week with a live fire exercise involving both South African and US soldiers.
The exercise also had a softer side, with US and South African troops performing community service on Nelson Mandela day, partnering with a local animal shelter to provide free exams and medical treatment for Postmasburg pets on 18 July.
Nelson Mandela International Day was first recognized in 2009 by the United Nations General Assembly in recognition of Mandela’s contribution to the culture of peace and freedom.
“As part of Nelson Mandela day, we came out to kind of engage the community and give back to the community,” said Brigadier General William J. Prendergast IV, the USARAF deputy commanding general.
U.S. and South African troops collaborated with local animal shelter, Diere Forum Postmasburg, and set up a free, outdoor dog clinic for residents living in the shacks of Postmasburg. Residents lined up for their dogs to receive free vaccinations, flea treatments and de-worming medicine.
Shared Accord returns to South Africa every three years and will be held in Rwanda in 2018.