South Africa

Just practising: Joint US-SA military training exercise in Eastern Cape winds up

By J Brooks Spector 5 August 2013

Some years ago, one of South Africa’s senior securocrats explained the need for those new, very expensive German-built submarines, saying they would come in handy, indeed, if the United States ever decided to invade the Eastern Cape coastline to take over South Africa’s strategic minerals. Really. There was more than an echo of some distinctly old-style feelings about the predatory nature of American policy towards South Africa in that comment. Ironically, in some military exercises that have just ended this past weekend, the American military and the South African Defence Force did engage with each other. In the Eastern Cape. But on the same side. And then they met over a braai or two to mark the successful conclusion of these drills. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a closer look.

South Africans and Americans did in fact fight on the same side of things in both World Wars One and Two, and in the Korean War as well. Perhaps it was the vague memory of these efforts that had led Ronald Reagan to praise Apartheid-era South Africa as a country that had fought with America in every war it had ever fought. Despite Reagan’s awkward half-memory – for a while there was in fact a tacit half-alliance with South Africa during much of the Cold War era. In particular, this came during South Africa’s struggle with SWAPO in Namibia. One found Cuban, SWAPO and Umkonto we Sizwe forces on one side, while the US, South Africa and UNITA were effectively grouped on the other. Eventually, however, Apartheid trumped pretty much everything else. Arms embargos became tighter and, eventually, virtually every form of military-to-military cooperation between the two nations ended before the onset of non-racial democratic rule.

Still, in the immediate aftermath of the advent of this non-racial democratic order, military-to-military cooperation was only tentatively revived. Early moves in this regard came in 1997 under the umbrella of the US-SA bilateral commission that got its energy from enthusiastic efforts by US Vice President Al Gore and SA Deputy President Thabo Mbeki. In more recent years, South African involvement in the African Great Lakes region, under an international umbrella to be sure, has led to further cooperation – especially in terms of heavy airlift capacity to get men, equipment and resupply capabilities into that region.

But this kind of cooperation also implies the kind of joint interoperability and mutual understanding of operational standards and approaches that are difficult to establish and accomplish in an ad hoc, “on the fly” manner, following once an agreement on a particular operation is decided for an emergency humanitarian (or politically motivated) intervention. It is in the DNA of military establishments, after all, to crave practice together when such possibilities seem increasingly likely. They seek an understanding about how they will cooperate going forward – and even in sorting out the type of language they will use in describing what they will be doing together.

Think for a minute about the problems inherent in mismatches between forces that, alternately, parse things out in the metric system versus the yards/feet/inches measures for artillery fire, landing zone operations, measures of supplies, and so forth. (There was that famous zillion dollar interplanetary probe, after all, that had a disastrous problem that went embarrassingly public once it was revealed NASA and various subcontractors had used both measuring systems simultaneously – to the fatal detriment of computer coded landing instructions.)

And so, now there has been this latest exercise – Shared Accord 13. There was one before between the US and South Africa a couple of years ago, and on the basis of preliminary success in training terms it seems more such efforts are planned for the future. What’s all this for? What did it involve?

Since 24 July, over 2,000 SANDF personnel have trained together with more than 700 US military personnel drawn from units across the US, in which the personnel involved bring a variety of specialised skills that range from the ability to carry out amphibious assaults to medical and veterinary specialists. These troops have joined in with South African counterparts for their various drills. Travelling to South Africa for this exercise, the US military units included the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, based at Ft. Riley Kansas; C Company, of the 1-325 AIR (Airborne Infantry Regiment), of the 82nd Airborne Division; A Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment of the 2nd Marine Division; the Military Police Company, 4th Law Enforcement Battalion, of the 4th Marine Division; as well as units from the Rhode Island and New York National Guards. The National Guard is the country’s various state militias that are now thoroughly integrated into the national defense structure. According to a US Embassy media statement on this exercise, “US military personnel will work side by side with South African partners as service members from both nations will teach and train each other to enhance knowledge and understanding of both nations’ capabilities … US Army Africa (USARAF) is conducting the exercise on behalf of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM)”.

Africom? Some years back, during the Bush administration years, when the US African Command – Africom – was first proposed, it was, at first, automatically assumed its headquarters would be based on the African continent even if it would have no military units assigned to it directly meaning there would not be a real military establishment based on the continent either. Instead, Africom would call on a range of units for various Africa-based missions in an as-needed basis. Along the way, Africom’s mission would be to forge closer US cooperation with the defense establishments of nations on the African continent.

As is well known now, the distrust levels on the continent were sufficiently high towards cooperation with the US military beyond obtaining equipment and training – in part as a result of the military’s activities in Iraq and Afghanistan and in part from fears such cooperation would be the camel’s nose under the tent in increasing the militarisation of the continent’s nations more generally – that no nation was prepared to accept the apparatus of Africom’s command structures on its soil. That, however, has not prevented an alternative strategy from evolving. This now seems to include the presence of small, elite units carrying out training and cooperation with local armies in pursuit of armed irregular groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army; a growing use of drone surveillance craft (often operated by civilian contractors for the Pentagon) based in small, scattered spots in West Africa to monitor fundamentalist Islamist and other rebels in the region; limited participation in similar efforts and other kinds of patrols in the Horn of Africa region; and joint training exercises such as this Shared Accord 13 effort.

The Daily Maverick asked Africom about future efforts that could arise from exercises like Shared Accord, asking, for example, that if one looked more broadly, how should other nations and groups such as China, Zimbabwe or even non-state actors such as “al Qaeda in Africa” respond to these exercises? Further, is this joint training in the Eastern Cape – as part of a larger series of joint exercises – an effort to send a specific message to others? Responding from Germany, Africom’s headquarters replied, “Shared Accord 13 is part of a broader series of military-to-military activities that we conduct with our African partners. These activities demonstrate the commitment to strengthening the relationship between the U.S. and our African partners. In support of U.S. foreign policy, we are committed to partnerships that advance mutual security interests, thereby contributing to regional security and stability. Today more than ever, collaboration and coordination are increasingly important, and our ability to work together is key to the effectiveness of multinational peace support, humanitarian and disaster response efforts. Multinational exercises like Shared Accord provide opportunities to learn from each other and strengthen our interoperability.”

Then asked if Shared Accord was related to possibilities for future joint efforts in East Africa, in the Great Lakes district of Africa, or elsewhere, Africom replied, “Shared Accord 13 is not related to any specific or potential future effort. It is part of our larger goal of advancing peace and security through enduring partnerships that reflect our growing convergence of values and interests.”

Africom was then asked how the shape of US-South African military cooperation might change in future; that given the expressed intention to prepare the two nations to operate jointly in certain roles with a greater sense of inter-operability, how would lessons from these exercises be translated into cooperation under multilateral or international flags such as the UN? They responded that, “These exercises always result in lessons learned for both sides, and Shared Accord 13 has been no different. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are working side-by-side with their South African counterparts on a variety of missions and will incorporate what they learn into procedures and doctrine. Exercises like Shared Accord promote regional relationships, increase capacity, and further cross training and interoperability between participating militaries.”

Still, some veteran South African observers are rather less convinced of the benefits that may lie behind exercises like this. University of Johannesburg political scientist Peter Vale, for example, argues, “By participating in exercises like this one, South Africa is buying into the American vision for international security and actively training to participate in this approach towards the rest of Africa”. Vale adds, “Such joint military cooperation inevitably means the further militarisation of the region, despite the fig leaf of humanitarian activities like veterinary services and health clinics associated with such drills. In layman’s terms, ‘follow the money’ to figure out the real intentions of such efforts.” Vale went on to say the deeper geopolitics of such exercises are not truly offset by any humanitarian activities that offer veterinary services, eye exams and spectacles to local inhabitants, even if such activities have merit for those who receive them as a byproduct of these military exercises.

By contrast, taking a more supportive position for both theoretical and practical grounds, Cape Town-based international relations specialist Martha Bridgman argued, “Off the cuff, I would say this is an example of cooperative diplomacy in which the US and the SA troops can mutually engage in their areas of strength [such as uMkhonto we Sizwe African warfare experience]. Obviously, the US military has seen a bit more action than SA troops of late, CAR notwithstanding [although that may prove the need for this training]. South Africa does need to beef up its military readiness if it is going to participate effectively in UN or AU peacekeeping missions – especially with peacekeeping morphing into potentially offensive action, per the DRC. And if South Africa wants to silence the naysayers that believe Pretoria has lost the initiative in Africa relative to Abuja, they have every incentive to do the beefing up…. But I do not have a kneejerk reaction against joint military exercises as some do. The preparation of an on-the-ground, in-the-neighbourhood troop readiness to deal with humanitarian crises in SADC, for instance, has merit.”

Longtime international affairs journalist Peter Fabricius argued that even though South Africa’s official position towards Africom was well and widely stated, and that such a view had helped stall the possibility Africom could be based on the continent, “The Zuma administration has decided to use the SANDF much more assertively, to counter rebel insurgencies destabilising the continent. The SANDF lost 15 soldiers in the Central African Republic in March. Very soon it could clash with the tough M23 rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. This is an ambitious and hazardous new role President Zuma has set for the SANDF. It needs all the help it can get to be fulfilled. When the bullets start flying it’s important to know who your real friends and enemies are.”

Putting it into operational perspectives, South African Major General Ephraim Phako, Deputy Chief of Joint Operations, told the media, “This particular exercise is aimed at specifically providing collective training for the United States and the South African National Defense Force, while building interoperability and mutual understanding between the two armed forces,” Echoing this wave of good feeling, ??the senior US officer on the ground, Brigadier General Peter Corey said he hoped the exercise would enable his forces to better themselves and learn new ways of doing things by watching their counterparts.?? Corey noted, “We are here also to learn how [South Africans] conduct their day-to-day operations, airborne operations and peacekeeping operations and in turn show them how we conduct those same operations. We will improve our own skills by training with them in a different environment.”?? In that regard, General Phako added, ??“The exercise will include training in peacekeeping operations and joining with sister services to conduct humanitarian aid in the form of local medical, dental and veterinary clinics.”

With all this geopolitical good will and realism being tossed around – and it continued well down into the ranks between the two forces – it is curious to read these statements of good will and brothers-in-arm sentiment in parallel with the ANC’s International Relations statement from its 2012 Mangaung conference. That reads, “The ANC reaffirms its position that African states should be resolute against AFRICOM presence in the guise of fighting terrorism and need to mount campaigns against US military presence on the continent…. The ANC recognises that the AFRICOM programme is more than just the building of American bases on the African continent; it includes the involvement of US and NATO military on African soil, either through the prosecution of the so-called War on Terror or through ‘promotion of democratisation’ ”.

The actual cooperative elements of Shared Accord 13, then, seem to be putting the ruling party’s predilections about the US military on a far back burner. In his evaluation, Fabricius says this “exposes that policy for the ideological posturing – or should that be cognitive dissonance – which it really is. This is just the latest in many joint military exercises and other forms of cooperation between the US and the SANDF which have been going on for years, including the training of SANDF soldiers in US military academies.”

Security affairs specialist Scott Firsig, meanwhile, goes on to point to a larger effort by South Africa to extend military cooperation with other nations as well, including those in the BRICS grouping, as well as other nations. As Firsig explains, “Some examples include joint military exercises by Mozambique, France and South Africa in October 2011 in terms of piracy in the Mozambican channel. In March this year there was a two-day joint defence committee meeting between the SANDF and the Russian Federation forces in Moscow. There have also been discussions with Brazil. The Brazilian military showed ‘interest’ in its members attending courses at the SANDF peace support training centre, as well as cooperation on military science courses, Portuguese language training and joint submarine training. SA-China military relations have also increased in recent years, by constant high-level reciprocal visits, increasing exchanges in professional fields and constantly expanded personnel exchanges at various levels.” Firsig argues, in fact, none of these other cooperative arrangements have yet approached the defense relationship that is now evolving between the US and South Africa.

Put another way, what with the example of South Africa’s participation in the UN-managed Congo force, all of these joint exercises would seem to be part of a growing recognition by South African policy makers that it is firmly determined to assert (or re-assert) a “boots on the ground,” active presence in Africa. And, in spite of some long-held positions that have rested on real suspicions towards the US on the part of some governing party and government leaders, it now seems increasingly clear US-South African military cooperation is moving forward – and that it is in line with South Africa’s own growing awareness of its current place and future role on the continent. And some of this is going to be wearing camouflage gear. DM

Read more:

  • Cohen Tightens Defense Ties Between U.S.-South Africa at the Pentagon’s website (for historical background);
  • US Army Africa command Post Soldiers Train with South African Forces at the Africom website;
  • Statement of General Carter Ham, USA Commander, US Africa Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 7 March 2013 at the Africom website.

All photos by SANDF.

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