SADC brigade proves mettle

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The South African Development Community has held its first standby force exercise with commanders saying the month-long field training endeavour has laid a firm foundation for the future.

South African National Defence Force chief director of operations Rear Admiral Phillip Schöultz says the brigade has its origins in the founding documents of the African Union (AU).

“One of the founding provisions was that there had to be a force capable of acting anywhere on the continent, should the need arise,” Schöultz told a recent media briefing at the SA Army Combat Training Centre at Lohatlha in the Northern Cape where the exercise was being conducted.  

The admiral added the founding fathers of the AU very much had the 1994 genocide in Rwanda on the mind, when about 800 000 people were killed while the world stood watching.

The AU mandated the creation of an African Standby Force (ASF) made up of five brigades, the number corresponding with the continent`s development regions.

The inclusion of civilian as well as police components has since led to these being renamed Standby Forces, but their mission remains the same, namely to act at short notice where a crisis arises and intervention is needed. The force design of the military component remains a brigade.

Schöultz said AU planning requires each of the five regions to certify its force operational by next June. “By June next year we have to be fully capable to deal with any crisis that arises.”

Extensive planning

The planning further requires each regional standby force headquarters – for the SADC in Gaborone, Botswana – to maintain a list of forces pledged by member states that can be mobilised at short notice and deploy for up to six months, the length of time it typically takes a United Nations peacekeeping mission to arrive in a trouble-spot.

The SANDF admiral noted planning for the exercise started last year with the aim of holding it this month. “This exercise was conceived last May as a brigade exercise in September, which then gives us nine months should there be other problems to iron out prior to June so we can by June 2010 tell the AU the brigade is ready.

Early on in the process the exercise was dubbed Golfinho – Portuguese for dolphin.

Brigade commander Brigadier General Lawrence Smith added that the September 1-26 field training exercise involving 7000 troops from 12 countries was preceded by a map exercise in Angola in January and a command post exercise in Mozambique in April.

“This is the culmination of a series of exercises to prepare an AU Standby Force based on the pledges of the various member countries,” amplified Schöultz, “each country made pledges should an eventuality arise and we are now exercising the current pledges per country and at the end of the exercise we will give detail feedback to our principles at the SADC.”

The SADC exercise is not the first. West Africa has held at least two exercises and East Africa one. But these all involved some outside support. “You will see no foreigners,” Schöultz said. “This is a totally home-grown exercise from the writing of the scenarios onwards. That was a deliberate choice by SADC that we will do this exercise and if there are naysayers who say we will fail, we will prove them wrong.

“At the end of the day SADC will stand or fall on its own ability, and no-one will be able to say we were a success because we were propped up. That`s very important.”

Schöultz noted SA had pledged a brigade headquarters and for this reason 43 SA Brigade headquarters was made available for the exercise. He added that Smith, who has extensive experience in peacekeeping, is “responsible under the head of mission for the full execution of this exercise,” as would also be the case in a real operation.

Complexity

Smith said the AU foresaw six mission scenarios, ranging from simple observer missions (Scenario 1) to full-scale opposed interventions (Scenario 6).

In planning Golfinho, the SADC elected to exercise the two most difficult scenarios, Smith said.

“We elected Scenario 6, the intervention, as a Chapter 7 operation as defined under the UN charter, to kick off this operation. We then followed that with a Scenario 5 multidimensional peacekeeping operation…

“From the outset when we started designing the exercise that we wanted to pose extreme challenges to the participants, so from the outset we decided to make this as difficult as possible because we want to expose ourselves so we don`t get surprises in the future,” Smith said.

“We used multiple modes of transport to assemble the force (air, road, train and sea). We also structured the force in such a way that it challenges interoperability, so we didn`t put all the Portuguese-speaking nations together. We made a spread and each of the battalions is composed of as many countries as possible.

“If we can overcome these difficult circumstances and challenges we can basically deal with anything thrown us in the future,” he said of the approach.

“Also, the exercise is unique regarding throwing the military police and civilian component together in one exercise. Some of the other regional economic community standby forces have tried this and their reports indicated that they were not successful in achieving the aims. So that obviously stimulated us to plan better to prepare better to get this right.”

The exercise area was divided into three sectors exclusive of a fourth, naval sector off the Namibian coast. To exercise complexity, one sector had a military, one a police and one a civilian commander.

“Sector commanders are there to coordinate the activity of all three components in that specific sector. Another interesting aspect is the deployment of the joint naval force as well…, Smith said.

“It increases the level of complexity of the operation specifically for the military force headquarters.”

That headquarters had its own complexity challenges also, Smith observed. While 43 SA Bde provided about 80% of the force headquarters, the rest of the personnel including key positions were provided by other countries.

“For instance the deputy force commander, Colonel David Kgomotso is from Botswana. The SSO Operations is from Tanzania. So we are integrating all these staff officers within the headquarters to form a multinational headquarters to command the military force of this operation.

“You will find the same principles apply to the police and civilian components…”

Speaking towards the end of the exercise where all belligerent action and timelines were coordinated by an independent observer-controller organisation, Smith said he believed the brigade was “achieving the objectives we have set ourselves.

“I`d be lying if I said it was without hitches; obviously there were a couple of challenges we faced on a daily basis that we have to iron out – but that`s the reason for this exercise … to make it as difficult as possible in order to expose these problem areas so we can deal with them. So far there has been no ‘show stoppers`.”

Standby Force police commissioner, Zimbabwean senior assistant commissioner Faustino Mazango added that he had no doubt as a result of Golfinho that SADC can respond if called upon.

“What we have proven is that at SADC we have the capability. It is possible, it is realistic, that we can deploy to any place in Africa or even outside to assist”, provided the strategic lift is available and logistical support can be sustained.



Pic: Tanzanian troops (foreground) and a Zimbabwean (beret, bavkground) secure an area around the Lohatlha airstrip during an Ex Golfinho media demonstration.