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Come spring, soldiers from the Army's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, will begin deploying to parts of Africa under a pilot test with U.S. Africa Command.
Based at Fort Riley, Kan., the "Dagger Brigade" will be the first regionally aligned brigade the Army will field as part of a new initiative to keep nondeploying units engaged globally now that rotations to Iraq have ended, deployments to Afghanistan are winding down and the service is looking for ways to stay globally engaged.
Army officials have stressed that the plan for the regionally aligned brigades isn't to deploy a fully loaded combat brigade to a particular region, but instead to train a brigade in the cultural and security issues of a particular region — be it Western Africa, Colombia or Southwest Asia — and then make that brigade available to the local combatant commander.
The plan looks like this: When the commander needs more troops, he can request a detachment from the brigade assigned to his command for rotations that will last weeks or months to assist with everything from partnering missions or engineering projects to training efforts or security projects.
The effort with AFRICOM is the first of several planned regionally aligned brigades, two more of which are tentatively scheduled to be attached to European and Pacific commands in 2014, while a third will follow the 2/1's rotation in Africa.
The aligned brigade concept signals a potentially huge shift in how the Army understands its mission, and its global role in a postwar environment. It also signals a shift in how the Army views itself.
Meanwhile, moves such as this one and others planned for fiscal 2013 underscore the reality that as the Defense Department and the White House talk about the strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific region — and the Army follows suit — the nation's ground pounders are actually also making a quieter, but no less significant, strategic shift to Africa. The idea is that training local military and police forces to handle their own security, while also building military-to-military relationships, will not only help professionalize local security forces, but also make future American intervention less likely.
When it comes to regionally aligned brigades, as much as Pentagon leadership says it doesn't want to fight the last war, the concept is shadowed by some of the critical failures of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gen. Robert Cone, commander of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, alluded to the issue when he told reporters Sept. 14 that "when you talk to this generation of young war fighters, the biggest lessons that they have learned are really about the importance of the people … the human terrain in an increasingly populated world that we're going to go in to. This must be the centerpiece of our future efforts."
In remarks at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington that day, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said the Army "now also ha[s] to do a variety of other tasks which [enable] us to shape" conditions on the ground before military actions may be required.
"You have to have an adaptable force that can operate across the spectrum of capabilities" to do this, he added. "That's why it's important to understand the dynamics of the world that we're going to have to live in. That's why when you talk about combined arms capability, it's not just firepower.
"We have to think in dual ways: We always have to be prepared to fight our nation's wars if necessary, but in my mind, it's becoming more and more important that we utilize the Army to be effective in Phase 0, 1 and 2."
The need for more forces is especially critical in parts of Africa, where the Army has been working to increase its influence as hot spots on the continent are starting to assume greater importance on the geopolitical stage. As radical elements have been pushed out of safe havens in parts of Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere, they have taken root in the Sahel region in northern Africa and along the Somali coast. The recent murder of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and the killing of three other members of the embassy staff Sept. 11 by heavily armed and well-organized Islamist radicals has underscored this threat.
But U.S. military officials are hardly calling for large deployments.
"We don't need big forces. We don't want big forces in Africa," AFRICOM chief Gen. Carter Ham recently told reporters at the Thebephatshwa Air Base in Botswana. "We want tailored forces for specific purposes, for specific periods of time, to partner with our African counterparts. And that seems to work pretty effectively."
The activation of 2/1, while perhaps not a game changer — the vast majority of the brigade will remain at Fort Riley at any given time during its one-year activation as an aligned brigade — will still provide much-needed force thickening for AFRICOM, since the Pentagon's newest combatant command has had no troops assigned to it since its inception in 2007.
The command instead has been relying on a mix of reservists and service components such as the U.S. Army Africa, based in Vicenza, Italy, as well as units such as Germany-based U.S. Air Forces Africa and U.S. Marine Forces Africa. As a result, the command has called up reservists to backfill many of its most urgent operational requirements.
"We in Africa Command rely on members of the Army and Air National Guard every day to accomplish our mission," Ham said during an address at the 134th National Guard Association Conference on Sept. 10, adding that the Guard "will remain a vital part of our strategy in Africa."
AFRICOM has held or will hold 14 major joint exercises in 2012, many of them led by U.S. Army Africa. Officials with the Army's 414th Contracting Support Brigade based in Vicenza said they are already planning at least nine more joint exercises on the continent in fiscal 2013.