Air Forces Africa commander shares challenges, concerns

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Karen J. Tomasik
  • Air Force Public Affairs Agency
The 17th Air Force and U.S. Air Forces Africa commander discussed Africa operations during the Air Force Association's 2011 Air & Space Conference and Technology Exposition here Sept. 20.

Major Gen. Margaret Woodward emphasized the importance of America's partnership with the people of Africa and the relationships built around the common bonds Airmen share, despite differences in culture and language.

"Peace and prosperity in Africa are inexorably linked with peace and prosperity in America," said Woodward. Though Africa has many of the natural components required to sustain and grow even the world's largest economies, the African people are truly the continent's greatest resource, she added.

Africa also faces many challenges that threaten peace, prosperity and stability on the continent, said Woodward. Ideological differences, long-standing tribal disputes, drought and famine are destabilizing entire regions.

"Coupled with large ungoverned or loosely governed spaces, this instability provides a fertile breeding ground for violent extremist organizations that threaten consequences well beyond the African continent," she explained.

"To help us meet these challenges and also leverage the incredible opportunities available in Africa, [U.S. Africa Command] was established in February 2007," said Woodward. Air Forces Africa and 17th Air Force were established Sept. 18, 2008 at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, to serve as the Air Component to AFRICOM.

"Our Airmen promote air safety, security and development on the African continent every day as they work with the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and many other organizations," said Woodward. "They conduct theater security cooperation events and work to build the types of partnership capacity that will inevitably lead to enduring relationships, Airmen to Airmen."

The general explained how the African Air Chief's conference hosted by AFAFRICA brought together Air Chief's from 24 African nations, and that partnership, along with the establishment of U.S. Air Force air advisor units, reflects the service's commitment to building stronger partnerships in Africa.

Those partnerships have enabled the U.S. to help African partners to counter terrorism, provide humanitarian assistance, supply disaster relief and carry out non-combatant evacuations when necessary.

"In fact, in just a two-month span, our Airmen planned five non-combatant evacuation operations for citizens in Tunisia, Cote D'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Egypt and Libya," said Woodward. "Now, every one of these efforts was a test for a very lean command of only 300 people ... but nothing was a greater test than the Operation Odyssey Dawn air campaign, the Air Force-led effort in Libya."

Woodward's command began six weeks of monitoring the unfolding situation and preparing to support the State Department with non-combatant evacuations and humanitarian assistance after political protests in Tunisia dubbed the "Arab Spring" started Dec. 18, 2010.

While also planning for combat operations, the command developed options to provide humanitarian relief for the tens of thousands of refugees who were fleeing Libya and who had fled Egypt earlier in the spring. Humanitarian relief missions began when the State Department formally requested assistance in delivering aid to Tunisia.

"These operations were important not only because they helped provide relief for the people of North Africa, but also because they provided a very visible reminder of American resolve and concern," said Woodward.

As conditions deteriorated in Libya, AFAFRICA's mission grew in scope and urgency because it called for a sustained no-fly zone, and included a mandate to "protect civilians."

Though resources presented the most challenging constraint in the strategy development, U.S. Air Force's Europe and Air Mobility Command provided the essential support AFRICOM and AFAFRICA needed for combat operations, said Woodward.

"This was not just a joint operation; it was also a coalition operation and one of the most challenging aspects of Odyssey Dawn involved coalition integration," said Woodward. "The speed with which this coalition grew was extraordinary and presented a major integration challenge, since each partner came with unique employment caveats. However, each partner also came with unique capabilities that made us much stronger than we would have been as individuals."

The general explained that Odyssey Dawn was significant but emphasized the impact of a long-term commitment toward Africa.

"It is absolutely critical to the relationships we've built over the last several years that our commitment remains strong, for there is probably no place on the planet where more Nations stand at political, diplomatic, and military crossroads...than in Africa," Woodward said.