Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Africa Exercise Strengthens Communications

By Marine Corps Sgt. Rocco DeFilippis, Special to American Forces Press Service

LIBREVILLE, Gabon - Nearly 200 people from 26 countries and three international organizations came together in Gabon to participate in Exercise Africa Endeavor.

The annual exercise, sponsored by U.S. Africa Command, aims to help African militaries improve their communications capabilities. The exercise this year began Sept. 29 and ends tomorrow.

The exercise focuses on two important areas of military communications: data, which includes the hardware and software of computer networks, and radio, used to send voice and data transmissions.

Marine Corps Sgt. Zach D. Zapotoski, exercise data chief/lead planner, said the purpose of the exercise is to bring communicators from throughout the various economic regions of Africa to evaluate and standardize communication plans.

"We are testing to ensure that all of the different kinds of gear that each participant uses is compatible," Zapotoski said. "Through this process we are collecting data, identifying gaps and shortfalls, and then working to address the areas where those gaps occur."

According to Marine Corps Capt. Dave Fuller, exercise technical director, the effort to standardize is one of the main goals of the exercise.

"The first goal is to increase the interoperability with the countries that are going to be working with each other in the different African Standby Forces," Fuller said.

Because each nation brings different capabilities, experience levels and operating methods, establishing standard operating procedures is key to future success, said Marine Corps Sgt. Ryan Kish, exercise test network coordinator.

"The most important thing is that we are establishing [standard operating procedures]," Kish said. "It's important because as the African nations work together in the future or when we work with them in the future, we can have that data to look at to see what worked and what needs a solution."

In addition to the technical and professional aspects of the exercise, Fuller said, another important goal is to build and strengthen relationships.

"Our second goal is to pair up these nations to not only build up partner relations between us, but also to create and bolster partnerships between the African countries as well," Fuller said.

The exercise is broken down into phases in order to establish the standard operating procedures and collect all of the necessary data. Both the radio and data portions have three phases of execution throughout the exercise.

In the first phase of the radio portion of the exercise, each nation uses internal testing to ensure that everyone's equipment is compatible and functioning properly, Marine Corps Sgt. Christian Valencia said.

"Each nation generally has the same types of gear, but brands and capabilities vary," he said. "So, in this first phase we are ironing out compatibility issues to get the ball rolling for the next phase."

During the first phase, Valencia said, all of the internal testing happens between radios on the site here.

From the testing phase, the radio communicators move to the second phase where they reach back to their home nation to establish communications. During the third phase, participants communicate from the host site to sites within other countries.

"We are taking the results of the various tests and compile them into a single package that can be used for future reference," Valencia said.

The phases for the data portion of the exercise run along similar lines as the radio portion, Zapotoski said.

During the first phase, each nation partnered with one other nation and constructed and tested their network.
For the second phase, the nations are building and testing a series of interconnected computers that share data within their associated economic region. And in the last phase, the regional networks will be tied together to simulate a wide-area network.

"Our goal is to be able to identify and configure a routing protocol that can be used to communicate on a basic level," Zapotoski said.

A quick visit to one of the tents or buildings on the site reveals that the exercise involves even more than technical exploits and data gathering.

The exercise has provided the U.S. and African participants with an opportunity to build professional and personal relationships, Fuller said.

"It's a rare opportunity to interact with military representatives from 25 different countries at one time," Kish said. "So there have been plenty of chances to interact with each other and share in each other's culture."

"The whole experience has been tremendous," Zambian Warrant Officer 2 Lufuma Augustine added. "In the sense that we are all Africans and we each face similar problems, being able to cooperate and work together to solve some problems is very nice."

Various events designed to increase interaction and cultural sharing are built into the exercise itself, Fuller said, including traditional meals, social gatherings, team sports and even the exercise's location, which is held in a different country each year to promote cultural exchange.

For this year's exercise, even the initial and mid-planning conferences were held in different countries.

"That's what this exercise is really all about," Fuller said. "Getting on the same sheet of music, as far as communication is concerned, and building those relationships so that these partner nations can work together in the future."