Monday 23 July 2018

Africa's New Force (2015)

By Michael Schmidt
Ogojiii, Nairobi/Johannesburg
December 2015

It is approaching twilight in the veld of the war-torn Republic of Carana, a fictitious country created for the Amani Africa II live-fire manoeuvres of the African Standby Force (ASF) held in South Africa over October and November. A lone zebra runs though the bush with a herd of wild horses and their foals. Rebel radio chants a mixture of Afro-pop and the rebel leader’s haranguing of the terrified population to join his newborn and bloody coup.

We have driven in a camouflaged ASF armoured personnel carrier (APC) all the way from the beach-head at the “ocean port,” through the ASF-reclaimed “capital city” of Galasi, past its airport which ASF forces liberated from the rebels along with a group of relieved hostages yesterday, and into the dangerous thorn-bush country to the north-east. Within an hour, we are stopped in our tracks by a long line of South African mechanised and motorised infantry, led by a squadron of tank-like eight-wheeled Rooikat armoured fighting vehicles. They are headed for the front-line for a lightning strike deep inland where the rebels have their headquarters in the city of Kale, resupplying their forces in the field by air from the nearby Tata Airport.

A short while later, on a straight stretch of dirt road, we are stopped again, this time by a section of Mozambican troops who fire warning shots into the air, causing our driver to slam on anchors. An officer packing a pistol and his adjutant with an assault rifle check our journalist credentials before allowing us to inspect the forward positions. As field ambulances and Angolan armoured vehicles position themselves, most of these soldiers are settling in for a nervous night on the frontline, their green tents arrayed close to a defensive trench. Grouped together as Portuguese-speakers to enable swifter battlefield communication, though the ASF’s lingua franca is English, they are shy and proud to be photographed, but their minds are clearly on the battles waiting ahead.

Under the exercise scenario, just over two weeks ago, the African Union mandated the ASF to be formed to counter the gross human rights violations being committed by the “Caranese rebel forces”. The ASF is mandated under Chapters 4 (h) and (j) of the AU Charter which allows the AU to intervene in cases of crimes against humanity, and grave human rights violations; the first mandate is military-heavy in suppressing violators, then switches to a civilian humanitarian mandate. The ASF is convened and its commanders appointed by the African Union’s Peace & Security Council in Addis Ababa which upstream is in turn endorsed by the United Nations. The following countries fielded soldiers for Amani Africa II: Angola, Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Uganda. The following countries contributed staff officers and observers: Algeria, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, and Rwanda. The month-long exercise cost US$15-million, excluding in-kind support from South Africa and airlift from Algeria and Angola. NATO, the EU, and the UN’s mission to the AU observed. 

The ASF is divided into regional Standby Forces (SFs), which fall under the command and control of one of five regional economic blocs: North African Regional Capability (NARC) SF; Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) SF; Economic community of Central African States (ECCAS) SF, known in French as FOMAC; Eastern African (EA); and Southern African Development Community (SADC) SF. At full strength – if sufficient funds are available – the SFs are projected to be each of division size, comprising some 10,000 soldiers each, usually divided into about four brigades, including motorised infantry (infantry transported into battle by trucks), mechanised infantry (infantry transported into battle by armoured personnel carriers), artillery (field guns, mortars, rocket batteries and air defence), command (ASF Field HQ), and support (logistics, engineers, medics and signals). Being too heavy for rapid deployment, there will be no tanks, but this role will be performed by armoured fighting vehicles. Ideally, these ground forces would be given air superiority by attack helicopters such as the South African Rooivalk which used their 70mm rockets under UN mandate to great effect against M23 rebels in the eastern DRC in November 2013. 
In addition, said Addis Ababa-based ASF training officer Assistant Commissioner Dr Sayibu Gariba of Sierra Leone, each SF division would have about 1,000 police and civilian personnel attached: the police units being “self-contained with riot-control, canine, SWAT, intelligence, facility guarding and VIP protection capabilities, plus police investigators who gather evidence of mass graves and human rights violations; the civilians would include humanitarian aid workers, as well as political and civil affairs personnel.” 

At the moment, the ASF is 90% funded by AU partners such as the UN, the EU, and countries such as the UK, the USA and Kenya, but the AU has proposed to the UN that the ASF in the immediate future be 25% AU-funded and 75% UN-funded, with the intention for it to be gradually weaned off UN support, said the African Union’s head of peace support operations, Sivuyile Bam. One of the ASF field commanders warned that some legal, procedural wrangles lay ahead before the ASF could be fully operational – to achieve which Bam said that the total bill would amount to US$2-billion. The advantage of the ASF over UN peacekeeping operations, he said, was that while the UN took about nine months to deploy, as a pre-existing force, the ASF could deploy within two weeks, but he admitted that maintaining the force on standby and supplying it in the field were challenges still to be met.

An interim force called the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC) was formed in 2013 by Algeria, Chad, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda before the full ASF becomes operational in December 2015 (after which it is likely to be absorbed into the ASF), this is a micro-version of the SF, being of brigade size with about 2,000 soldiers, and small detachments of police and civilians. This force is faster and more mobile than a full SF and will be easier and quicker to deploy against rebel forces usually armed with no more than “technical” (jeeps mounted with heavy machine-guns), rocket-propelled grenades and increasingly, improvised explosive devices. An element of ACIRC was involved in the Amani Africa II exercise in the centre of Carana with the capture of Ferrali Airport. 

According to exercise observer Assistant Professor Thomas Mandrup of the Royal Danish Defence College, because ACIRC is committed to by some 20 African countries that have a proven capacity to deploy forces, with a rotating chair nation, it is less likely to fall foul of regional prejudices than the regionally-controlled Standby Forces. Unfortunately, as with the SFs themselves, Mandrup warned the ACIRC is vulnerable to budget constraints: South Africa, the current ACIRC chair, has already spent up to 80% of its contingency budget for the following year on Defence Force salaries, so it could not itself contribute forces to an ACIRC/ASF mission during that time.

Insertion of these intervention forces into the field of operations can be by: cross-border land invasion (most vehicles would be self-driven except for armoured fighting vehicles which would be transported on flatbed trucks); by air transportation (usually by Hercules C-130 or Antonov An-12 transports, though ideally in future by modern military transports such as the Airbus A400M); or by establishing a beach-head from the sea (ideally via multi-role landing-ships that double as pocket helicopter carriers – African armed forces do not yet possess such vessels, though the South African Navy and others are keen to acquire some).

Fast and mobile – like using a flyswatter instead of a hammer to kill flies – a portion of the ASF rapid-intervention force of 5,000 soldiers and 300 police and civilians entered Carana by road from the south at 5am on 27 October: the force’s Rapid Deployment Capability (RDC) 1 secured the port, capital and airport by 11am the same day, allowing the restoration of Caranese civilian administration in the free zone, while RDC 2 moved swiftly inland eastwards to protect refugee camps. Back in Galasi, Brigadier Ramanka Josias Mokaloba of Lesotho, the tactical level co-ordinator at the ASF’s Mission Headquarters – which remains in constant contact with the AU’s Strategic Headquarters in Addis Ababa – had shown me a sand model of the country, explaining how ASF forces had penetrated and deployed. The fighting unfortunately spooked the civilian population, he said, with an estimated 200,000 refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries, complicating the battlefield.

A full moon is rising into the twilight when we take leave of the Mozambican-Angolan encampment, its soldiers now lying in a defensive perimeter 200m out into the veld. Meanwhile, the RDC 1 armoured column we’d encountered earlier crosses a key river barrier, pushing the rebels into a long retreat. Jackals and hares are picked out in our headlights, engaging in their nightly dance of life and death. Exhausted, we manage to grab a late supper and hit the sack at 10pm. At 2am the following morning, however, we are up again and by 3.35am, we are moving out, this time following the trail of RDC 1 to the frontline to witness a pre-dawn assault on the approaches to the rebel capital. After several hours on the road, our vehicle climbs a steep whalebacked hill and there we find RDC 1’s South African Battle Group Alpha field command post, its camouflaged armour bristling with signals antennae. From our elevation we can see the sprawling lights of the city of Kale on the horizon. Between us and the rebel positions lies a winding river with a crucial bridge crossing. On our left flank are the Ugandan Battle Group Bravo, while to our right are the Rwandans’ Battle Group Charlie.

At 5am sharp, the pre-dawn gloom is spangled with the glare of 1,000-foot flares fired from South African forward artillery positions in the valley below, lighting up the bridgehead target. As the veld illuminates, there comes the sudden deep whoomp of our 120mm mortars discharging their rounds. Within ten minutes, the enemy positions across the river are ablaze as wave after wave of explosives rains down on them in parabolic arcs. Because the rebels at the bridge put up resistance, the Ugandan artillery and motorised infantry open fire on the rebels defending Tata Airport, their 80mm and 60mm mortars lighting up at 5.15am, while 9 South African Infantry Battalion closes on the bridge, but save for the muzzle-flashes, and the mortar-ranging flares, nothing else can be seen in the dark. 

By 5.54am, the sky is lighter so civilian Kobus Zietsman at the RDC 1 command post launches a DJI Inspire surveillance drone to give the commanders a birds-eye view of the theatre of operations as the Ugandan Battle Group straffs the airport with their heavy machine-guns, the red streaks of the rounds pinpricking their targets. Within an hour and five minutes of the commencement of firing, the bridge and the airport belong to us, while the rebels surrendered the eastern town of Gorma to the Rwandans without a fight. Alpha and Bravo troops now start passing their rebel POWs to rearwards military police custody to free them up for the fighting ahead, a Ugandan-South African pincer assault on Kale. 

As the sun breaches the horizon, Zietsman lands his drone and the ASF Forces consolidate their positions on the far side of the river. RDC 1 force commander Brigadier-General Trust Mugoba of Zimbabwe tells me that he is very satisfied with the interoperability of the Ugandan, Rwandan and South African battle-groups, saying “We have mounted two major attacks and that has gone very well; we are now conducting joint patrols. Using live ammunition, with APCs and heavy equipment, sometimes the terrain was frustrating… but they managed to secure their objectives. The communication also worked very well though we initially had [technical] hiccoughs at operational level but we sorted it out and it is now working well.” He said despite teething problems, he was also very satisfied with the artillery and mortar fire-control and co-ordination with frontline troop movements, and with the way his troops dealt with rebel ambushes and mines; the column only sustained minor injuries.

By 8am, we are ensconced 200m behind the eastern flanking frontline of Battle Group Alpha’s six-Rooikat squadron from 1 Special Services Battalion. At the strike of the hour, the ASF 120mm artillery opens up north-westwards on the rebel encampments defending Kale in the valley below. Almost immediately, the Rooikats open fire, their 76mm guns sometimes blowing perfect smoke-rings, then alternating with their twin machine-guns’ stutter. The valley below explodes in silently flowering devastation, the sounds of the detonations delayed to our ears by the distance. Pungent clouds of cordite drift across our position. Thirteen minutes later, the artillery bombardment of the far side of the city commences, blocking the rebels’ escape. 

By 8.42am, the valley comes alive with small-arms fire from the advance detachments of Alpha and Bravo, and their first APCs roll into view, mopping up rebels on the approach to Kale. The fight gone out of them, the rag-tag rebels are on the run. The following morning, RDC 2 defeats the last remaining rebel holdout in the far east, allowing the ASF military commander, after consulting with leaders of the local population, to hand over the country to his superior, the civilian mission commander, who, under a fresh AU mandate, orders implementation of peace-keeping operations – and aid, development and human rights organisations begin to flood into the hinterland. In only three days, the “Battle of Carana” is over.

Key equipment of the African Standby Force 

1. Armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs): Instead of being tracked like main battle tanks, AFVs are not as heavily armoured, but with their multi-wheeled design are capable of crossing rough terrain – dense bush, sand, rivers, etc – at higher speeds of around 50km/h. The sole ASF example – referencing the top five African armed powers according to Global Fire Power’s 2015 rankings – is the South African-made Rooikat AFV.  

2. Armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs): APCs are used to transport infantry into the battlefield in safety, but also perform command-post, signals, ambulance, mine-clearance, and reconnaissance roles. They are mostly defensively armed with smaller canon and machine-guns. In contrast, IFVs perform an offensive role and so are more heavily armed, are often used in phalanx to penetrate enemy defences and can serve in anti-tank and anti-aircraft roles. ASF examples include the Egyptian-made 4x4 Fahd APC in service with the Egyptian and Algerian armies, and the Soviet-made BMP-1 amphibious IFV, carrying eight soldiers, used by the Algerian, Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Nigerian armies.

3. Artillery batteries: Infantry explosive weapons used to give advancing troops the ability to suppress enemy positions prior to direct engagement, especially those not available to line-of-sight fire as they are usually fired in a parabolic arc: mortars come in a variety of calibres from light troop-carried 37mm to heavy towed 240mm weapons; howitzers can be light and towed, or heavy and self-driven; and unguided rockets are similarly used, but are sometimes fired by line-of-sight while missiles are guided to their targets – both also have anti-aircraft applications. ASF examples include the Egyptian-made Helwan UK-2 120mm mortar which fires nine rounds a minute, the South African G6 self-propelled gun which can lob 155mm shells up to 67km, and the Egyptian Sacr-45 multiple rocket launcher which can simultaneously fire 12 rockets up to 70km.

4. Attack helicopters: These choppers are used in a ground-attack role in close support of ground forces to achieve air superiority over the enemy. Lightly armoured to protect them from small-arms fire from the ground, they are usually armed with rockets and high-speed multi-barrel rotary canon to destroy enemy ground positions. ASF examples include the South African Rooivalk, and the Soviet-made Mi-35 Hind helicopter gunship in service with Algeria, Ethiopia and Nigeria.