This past February marked 15 years since the start of FLINTLOCK, the multinational Special Operations Forces exercise in the Western Sahel sponsored by U.S. Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA). In the last week of August 2020, participants from State and the Department of Defense along with international partners from across the globe gathered—or dialed-in—to continue planning for future FLINTLOCK exercises, incorporating lessons learned from previous years while factoring in the current needs in the region and addressing a new element impacting countries everywhere – COVID-19. At the closing ceremony in Nouakchott, Mauritania, State Department Assistant Secretary R. Clarke Cooper delivered remarks underscoring the United States’ commitment to the region, emphasizing continued engagement “with our African partners to advance peace and security through bilateral, regional, and multilateral channels.”
FLINTLOCK 2020 was co-hosted by Mauritania and Senegal in February. The exercise brought together 30 African, European, and other partner nations along with U.S. personnel to strengthen the ability of key partner nations in the region to counter violent extremist organizations (C-VEO), protect their borders, and provide security for their people. FLINTLOCK not only focuses on strengthening capabilities but also exemplifies the United States’ interest in Africa.
FLINTLOCK planners and participants gather soon after the completion of the current year’s exercise to discuss ways to improve FLINTLOCK and to address evolving security concerns for the next year’s iteration. To help with exercise improvements, over the past few years SOCAFRICA has integrated an interagency assessments component – the Interagency Assessment Team staffed by SOCAFRICA and the U.S. Department of State – to capture the effects of the exercise in terms of advancing partner nations’ tactical capabilities to counter violent extremist organizations and enhancing military-to-military relations.
For the first time, FLINTLOCK planners are using key takeaways from the joint assessment to inform planning for future exercises. Military exercises are an ideal opportunity for the State Department to gain insight into both the political and military return on investment of military grant assistance programs such as the Foreign Military Financing, International Military Education and Training, and Peacekeeping Operations programs. Analysts can observe first-hand recipient units’ military professionalism and better assess the impact of U.S. military assistance in multiple recipient countries while simultaneously assisting Department of Defense colleagues in providing an analysis of the exercise. After FLINTLOCK 2020, State Department personnel from the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs and the Bureau of African Affairs produced a joint assessment that compiled key observations and recommendations for both SOCAFRICA and the State Department.
SOCAFRICA planners shared the joint assessment with all FLINTLOCK 2021 participants ahead of the initial planning event in August 2020 to discuss the key findings and recommendations. Participants included representatives from African, European, and even South American countries that plan to take part in FLINTLOCK 2021. Notable recommendations highlighted in the assessment included ways FLINTLOCK could be a key event in promoting women’s engagement in counterterrorism operations across Sahelian countries as outlined in the U.S. Strategy on Women, Peace, and Security. Planners are exploring opportunities for more female participation in future exercises. Another recommendation identified the need to enhance communications with tactical units that will execute the training to ensure they are appropriately prepared ahead of the exercise. One of FLINTLOCK’s goals was to exercise command and control from the operational to the tactical level. Often, tactical units were not always informed of scheduled events ahead of and during the exercise due to the complexity of operations. Multinational exercise integration is largely dependent on country points of contact sharing information and the means of relaying the information varies largely. This problem highlights the difficulty of operating across nations. This year, SOCAFRICA is emphasizing the importance of integrated communication to all participants and are further exploring ways to include exercise participants in the planning events.
COVID-19 is on everyone’s mind and was a primary topic of discussion at the planning event— how will COVID-19 impact next year’s exercise? Scenario writers are including COVID-19 response into the training scenarios. With the exercise being scaled back for 2021, FLINTLOCK 2021 planners decided to take advantage of the extra time to plan the ideal exercise for 2022.SOCAFRICA will integrate several operational enablers into future exercises, further diversifying participating units and better preparing them for future operations. Written into future exercise scenarios are intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, including aviation assets; maritime security training; civil affairs scenarios; law enforcement engagement; and medical support to operations. Plans for FLINTLOCK 2022 go beyond the scope of previous exercises and takeaways from the next exercise will pave the way for continued improvements in the future with assessments being an integrated, strategic element to inform planning.
The FLINTLOCK Interagency Assessment Team is an example of interagency collaboration between the Departments of Defense and State and ways assessments can be used to inform planning of the exercise to improve the integration of State’s monitoring and evaluation efforts of military grant assistance programs. Due to the precedent set by this exercise, the State Department is looking to replicate this effort in other multinational exercises. For example, the State Department is coordinating with combatant commands to integrate into other multinational exercises. The State Department will continue to look for opportunities to work with the Department of Defense to further pave the way for better interagency collaboration on exercises.
About the author: Varshabhanavi Williams serves as a Monitoring and Evaluation Analyst in the Office of Security Assistance, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs