COVID-19 in Africa: Measuring success by lack of contingency response

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Ryan McCaughan
  • 818th Mobility Support Advisory Squadron

Personnel from the 621st Contingency Response Wing are capable of deploying in response to humanitarian crises or in preparation for large-scale operations all over the world. They are the force that sets the stage for a larger, sustainable U.S. military presence and very often are the conduit through which interagency and non-governmental aid can be provided to a beleaguered nation. Within this unique wing of force enablers, you would also find two units that, at first glance, do not naturally fit.

Air advisors from the 571st and 818th Mobility Support Advisory Squadrons (MSAS) contribute to the larger building partner capability, or BPC, mission of the geographic combatant commanders in U.S. Southern Command and U.S. Africa Command, respectively. It is in the throes of the global pandemic and the shared fight against COVID-19 that the role of the air advisor in the CRW can be seen most acutely. Contingency response begins long before a contingency, and the success of the air advisors, and the broader BPC enterprise, can be measured by the lack of deployment of their Devil Raider brothers and sisters.

The CRW has gained prominence due to their rapid response to open airfields and establish the ability to sustain airflow and coordinate air mobility operations during wartime as well as during humanitarian operations. Some key operations include Operation Unified Response where, immediately following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, these Airmen staged from Port-au-Prince where they landed and supported nearly 160 aircraft per day at the height of the international response.

They have also reinforced ongoing combat operations like in 2015 and 2016 by establishing contingency airfields in support of specific mission requirements in Iraq. In this way, battlefield commanders are not limited by movement and maneuver options for their forces in pursuit of specific objectives. In 2014, CRW Airmen responded to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa with aerial porters, and logistics readiness officers helped to establish a hub for the global cargo distribution network. In doing so, the CRW enabled the delivery of approximately 170,000 pounds of cargo, mostly humanitarian supplies, vital to frontline providers of medical care. As extraordinary as this capability is and despite a constant readiness to respond, the CRW has not been called upon to support the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic on the African continent.

Several African nations have responded forcefully in a coordinated manner to confront the ongoing crisis. They have been able to do so largely as a result of U.S. multi-year BPC programs, heavily supported by CRW air advisors.

Senegal and Ghana represent two African nations that have adeptly employed lessons learned through BPC efforts to combat COVID-19. Both of these nations have been recipients of the Department of State’s African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership Program, or APRRP, designed to promote peacekeeping operations by institutionalizing security forces’ enabling capabilities, which includes engineering, medical, and airfield operations training. The MSAS and others have provided direct training in Ghana to support the very personnel leading that nation’s response effort which is critical for two reasons. First, U.S. aircrew who have landed in the country with vital medical supplies are met on the ramp by U.S.-trained Ghanaian aerial port personnel and are able to seamlessly integrate to download their cargo. Second, Ghana has launched Operation COVID Safety in which they have provided organic air transport to distribute essential logistics and personnel from Accra, the capital, to multiple potential hotspots throughout the country. The material benefit provided by the air advisors is on full display, yet they are not alone.

CRW air advisors play an integral part in a much larger BPC picture. For example, AFRICOM has leveraged APRRP in both Senegal and Ghana to also provide each a United Nations level 2 field hospital as well as training on employment. Very early on, each nation independently made the decision to deploy this capability in support of the outbreak. These hospitals can fit 20 beds and can perform a variety of functions to include intensive care, dental, and orthopedic surgeries.

Another clear indication of African development is the deployment of Cameroonian C-130 aircraft to provide medical airlift support to Uganda, Angola, Algeria, and South Africa on behalf of the African Union and Africa Centers for Disease Control. The African Strategic Lift Concept has been in development for several years and air advisors have had the opportunity to play a role in advancing the effort. The consistent engagement by U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa, the U.S. Department of State, and AFRICOM, and by force providers like air advisors, medical professionals from all services, and others has prepared African partners to be responsive to this crisis.

Of course, there are a multitude of reasons that Africa is experiencing a different outbreak patterns than European nations, and the correlation between U.S. engagement does not equal causation of fewer cases and fewer deaths from the disease. Africa has an extremely young population with a median age of 20 years. While not ideal in some instances, this youthfulness provides some barrier against a virus which primarily targets the elderly.

Conversely, there is the question of testing. While Senegal, Ghana and others continue to do extremely well, they struggle to increase testing numbers to a level that would provide confidence that the threat is behind them. Lessons from the Ebola outbreak are serving many nations well, yet there remain significant risks to the continent, particularly in certain countries and regions with a distinct lack of mobility, hospital beds and ventilators. There may come a time when the CRW is called upon to respond. At this point, however, the continent has weathered the initial storm without the deployment of CR forces and follow-on U.S. boots on the ground that one may have expected based on recent history.

Air advisors play a critical role in the CRW deploying on a near continuous basis as part of the broader BPC strategy of the U.S. Their craft is often bemoaned by its practitioners because it is inherently difficult to measure effectiveness. Typically, one struggles to know if a partner has absorbed and institutionalized a capability enough to be able to rely on it when the need arises. So far, the current global crisis has not demanded a response from the CRW in Africa or South America as partners have managed the burden themselves and that fact reveals a possible measure of BPC success.