KAOLACK, Senegal --
For many nations across the African continent with air forces, building Airman skill sets and improving capacity within their air domain two are key objectives they often engage with U.S. Air Forces Africa. Those were the key sentiments echoed by U.S. Embassy and host nation defense officials during the latest Air Forces Africa senior leader engagement in Mali and Senegal Oct. 26-30.
Brig. Gen. Mike Callan, Air Forces Africa vice commander, spent the week visiting with key leaders and touring facilities for a first-hand look at the capabilities of the two nations' air forces, accompanied by Air Forces Africa Command Chief Master Sgt. Steven Scott, Maj. Sean Mizell, plans and programs desk officer for the Western Region, and Maj. Paula Kurtz, public affairs officer.
"It's important for us to hear directly from the host nation what their priorities are as we work to develop a sustained engagement strategy," General Callan said. "While there may be tactical differences in the assistance desired in each nation, the overall themes are the same -- increasing capacity in the air domain and developing a corps of professional officers and NCOs."
Forces in both of these West African nations perform a variety of military operations, ranging from support to peacekeeping operations to internal border defense to humanitarian assistance. Air mobility is a necessary component if they are to execute these missions successfully, according to U.S. Ambassador to Mali Gillian Milovanovic.
"Air capability plays an important role in moving people and forces and projecting security here," Ambassador Milovanovic said. "Security governs everything here, so we have to be flexible and realistic in the kinds of capabilities we invest in."
Topping the list of Theater Security Cooperation objectives between Mali and U.S. forces are enhanced aircraft maintenance and logistics systems, increased interoperability with U.S. and other regional partners, and further professionalizing of their defense forces.
"We are working with the Mali Ministry of Defense on a 10-year plan," said Lt. Col. Marshall Mantiply, defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Mali. "We want to execute a smart plan that will lead to real capacity rather than putting a band-aid on a short-term problem."
Malian defense leaders agree, noting that a long-term strategy that improves their capability will benefit other nations in the region and around the world.
"Our common framework is combating terrorism," said Gen. Poudiougou, general chief of staff of the Mali air force. "More engagement and discussion will allow us to build a better common operating picture in combating terrorism at a worldwide level." During his visit, General Callan toured the facilities of the 33d Parachute Regiment -- a unit that carries out operations using tactical vehicles and communication equipment provided by the Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.
"These vehicles give us the capability for doing pursuit actions and convoy escorts," said Lt. Col. Louis Somboro, deputy commander. "Ninety-five percent of our soldiers were trained by the U.S, and we've engaged with you in exercises like Flintlock, Joint Planning and Assessment Teams, and special bilateral training. We're very satisfied with this training, but we are always looking to improve and hope to have opportunities for advanced training in the future."
Similarly, in Senegal U.S. Ambassador Marcia Bernicat described the small but capable defense forces as a "shining example of fellow professionals."
In addition to meeting with the Air Force chief of staff and touring operations and maintenance facilities, General Callan and Chief Scott served as guest speakers at the graduation ceremony of the first class of instructors for the Senegalese NCO academy.
Since its inception in 1971, the academy has trained over 2,100 NCOs, and now has produced the first 12 instructors trained in-house. In his comments, Chief Scott lauded the new instructors for being "out front, leading and shaping the future of your enlisted corps." He noted that while the new instructors will face challenges, they will also reap great rewards. "You will actually watch as your students learn and grow and become better enlisted members right before your eyes."
Currently, many officers and NCOs attend training courses -- ranging from pilot training, to core skill training, to professional military education -- in other African and European nations as well as the U.S. The first Senegalese female officer is currently in her second year at the U.S. Air Force Academy, for example. With a well-developed NCO corps already established, the Senegalese Air Force is looking to expand its capability to train forces at home.
"We want to depend less on training and resources from other nations," said Maj. Elhadji Diene, a recent graduate of U.S. Air Force Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell AFB, Ala. "There is a need for us to develop the capability to do it by ourselves, for ourselves."