RENO, Nev. – The National Guard is essential to Africa Command, the combatant commander said here Monday.
“We in Africa Command rely on members of the Army and Air National Guard every day to accomplish our mission,” Army Gen. Carter Ham told attendees at the 134th National Guard Association of the U.S. General Conference. “The National Guard – its soldiers and airmen – are essential components of all our engagements.
“The National Guard will remain a vital part of our strategy in Africa.”
Ham cited the National Guard’s role in operations in Libya earlier this year, its contributions to Africa Command exercises and a joint task force in the Horn of Africa and – in particular – its 20-year-old, 65-nation State Partnership Program as force-multipliers for his combatant command.
“Today, … around the globe, … the men and women of the National Guard are making a difference for our country wherever they serve,” Ham said. “America’s armed forces cannot do all that is expected of us without the major and absolutely essential role of the National Guard.”
Operation Odyssey Dawn enforced a no-fly zone over Libya and Operation Odyssey Guard monitored the end of hostilities.
“It wouldn’t have been possible to have achieved the successes that we have had in our operational missions – most notably over Libya in Operations Odyssey Dawn and Odyssey Guard,” Ham said. “We could not have done that without the National Guard.”
Multiple states provided aircraft and crews to conduct air refueling missions for coalition forces, Ham said, noting that, “Air National Guard members were involved in planning, execution and served in key leadership roles. Due to their long-established relationship with U.S. Air Forces Europe and U.S. Air Forces Africa, these air guard members were able to quickly step in where needed. … The National Guard was there every step of the way.”
Defense Strategic Guidance released earlier this year calls for innovative, low-cost, small-footprint engagements overseas and building partnerships.
“To me, the words in that Strategic Guidance tell me ‘use the [National Guard] State Partnership Program’,” Ham said. “It’s unique in its ability to foster relationships and partnerships that are enduring – and they benefit both partner nations.”
Eight of the SPP partnerships between states and foreign nations fall within Africa Command’s area of responsibility and Ham said he is angling for more.
“In Africa, more than anything else relationships matter, and one of the true values of the National Guard is the relationships that are built up over time with our African partners,” he said. “The greatest impact that the National Guard has on contributing to long-term stability in Africa is through the State Partnership Program.”
Almost half – 46 percent -- of all military-to-military engagements in Africa fall under the auspices of the SPP, which has about 100 distinct engagements on the continent every year.
“It fosters enduring, sustainable relationships between a state and its national leaders,” Ham said. “These partnerships transcend politics. They transcend boundaries. They open the door to engagements in other areas that might not be possible without the State Partnership Program.
Ham said he hopes for two more SPP partnerships in the near-term and another two within a couple of years.
“Outside the State Partnership Program, Guard involvement has steadily increased since Africa Command was stood up – and in some very creative ways that really made the best use of the skills and knowledge resident in the Guard,” Ham said.
Examples include the National Guard’s contributions to Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa, based in Djibouti, which sees about 700 citizen-soldiers rotate through every eight to nine months.
“This task force provides a very significant amount of the manpower which CJTF-HOA holds, and the mission, frankly, in East Africa – the Horn of Africa – could not be accomplished without it,” Ham said.
The Guard’s role used to be a force protection mission, but has now expanded to support Department of State program mentoring and training forces of Burundi, Djibouti, Rwanda and others, Ham said.
“As these African nations prepare to deploy their forces to Somalia and other places, it is the soldiers and airmen of the National Guard who help prepare them for their operation,” he said.
Guard members deployed to CJTF-HOA also have shared vehicle maintenance and other expertise with partner countries and participated in humanitarian missions such as the Medical Civic Action Program, or MEDCAP.
“In just June of this year, the Texas National Guard medical professionals conducted MEDCAP events with the local Djibouti residents,” Ham said. “The MEDCAP was not designed simply to provide care for the local population, but more importantly to share best practices with the Djibouti medical professionals.
“Any engagement conducted in East Africa is almost certainly going to involve members of the National Guard, who have the skills necessary to accomplish any mission.”
Guard members contribute in large numbers and small in numerous venues across the continent, Ham said. Sometimes, humanitarian projects planned with U.S. embassies call for well-drillers or engineering teams, “All skills that are resident in units in the National Guard,” he said. “The difference that a small team of Soldiers or Airmen can make to a community or to an African military force is powerful. It is a huge return on investment.
“When I travel around and visit with African leaders, both military and civilian, they are constantly thanking me for assistance and they are constantly asking me for more. The positive impact of the National Guard is felt everywhere I go.”
AFRICOM also hosts about 20 exercises per year. “The National Guard is involved in each and every one of them, ranging from a small number of planners to being the predominant force engaged in that exercise,” Ham said. “Our exercise program simply could not be executed without the continued support of the Army and Air Guard.”
Ham, whose own service started with enlistment as an infantryman and who was commissioned in 1976, also had a message of thanks to every guard member:
“Everyone in this room and every other member of the National Guard has chosen this way of life,” Ham said.
“You’ve chosen this life of service. When others turned aside, you didn’t. You stepped forward to serve our nation in its time of need. You could have chosen another, easier path. But you didn’t. You chose the harder [life] . And America is better off for you having done so.
“Everyone [of you] either enlisted or re-enlisted, accepted a commission or voluntarily extended your service knowing the operational requirements that you would face, yet you still chose to serve.
“ ‘Thank you’ is wholly inadequate. But, for an old soldier, please know that my ‘thank you’ comes from the heart – you are, simply, the best our nation has.”