By Joseph Steigman
Twenty-Four Soldiers from 426th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) were deployed to Mogadishu, Somalia from June through August 2017. Nine of the 24 Soldiers were logisticians of various occupational skills and the remainder comprised the security platoon. This deployment marked the first time conventional forces were sent to Somalia since 1993 – and logisticians commanded it. Being the first in Somalia often meant being on our own and it would later be likened to Romans sent to the “edge of the empire.” Our primary mission set was to train the Somali National Army (SNA) on basic logistics tasks such as driving heavy vehicles, preventative maintenance checks and services and the safe operation of fuel and water trucks.
While our primary mission was to train Somalis, our team was also involved in many other logistics operations such as running a supply support activity (SSA) site and maintaining vehicle fleets. In Somalia, how you interact with your environment, subordinates and superiors requires much more ingenuity, trust, and a willingness to depart from conventional science of command techniques than in most conventional theaters.
In this article I will first discuss Somalia’s operational environment and the parameters of my team’s mission. I will then go over how ingenuity, trust, and a willingness to depart from conventional science of command techniques is needed to operate in the Somali environment. To clarify terms between colloquial and doctrinal understandings of them: by ingenuity this article means general creativity and any sort of non-doctrinal thinking, by trust this article means the same trust described in mission command principles where subordinates are trusted to execute commander’s intent, and by science of command techniques this article is referring to the conventional means through which we disseminate commander’s intent and orders such as secure radios, blue force tracker systems, command post of the future systems, and the almighty PowerPoint.
When discussing the environment, the article’s focus will be on the team’s interaction with its physical space as well as the various people and players in Somalia. After discussing the environment, the article will then review interactions between myself, as the officer in charge (OIC), and my subordinates. In other words, we will discuss the small team leadership dynamics involved in the Somalia deployment. Finally, the article will discuss the way the team interacted with various higher headquarters operating in the horn of Africa.
US Flag at the team’s training site.
The newly constituted Somali federal government elected its first president, President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Formaajo, in February 2017[i]. President Formaajo is the head of state and the head of all defense forces. In terms of national and international recognition, President Formaajo is the most visible political leader in Somalia.
There are two key things one needs to understand about the political climate of Somalia. First is that clan alignment dominates politics and many other facets of Somali life. One in four parliamentary seats are automatically allocated to each of the major clans in Somalia.[ii] Second is that corruption is rampant in Somalia. The New York Times after the presidential election hailed the achievement as a “milestone of corruption” with about $20 million exchanging hands in Somalia leading up to the election.[iii] In fact, Transparency International rates Somalia as the most corrupt country in the world – with a world ranking of 176 out of 176.[iv] Clan politics and corruption dominate an operational environment in which most western-aligned powers are trying to either improve security and stability, fight terror, or a combination of the two. Any time expensive vehicles purchased by the US State Department were being moved for the Somalis it was amazing how many people showed up to see “what was happening.” When it comes to equipment given from foreign governments to Somalia many in the Somali Army have trouble understanding the difference between “for me” versus “for my army.”
The Somali military, like its government, is newly established and immature in its development. Somalia’s conventional force, the Somali National Army (SNA), exists but the health, discipline, and organization of its force varies greatly. For example, when trying to muster a group of 80 SNA soldiers for training Somali military coordinators were not sure where some soldiers were coming from and if they were even in the military.
Many SNA soldiers have received training from foreign militaries. SNA soldiers that have received formal basic military training, either at home or abroad, are not anywhere near the majority of the force. Generally speaking, the SNA requires foreign military assistance to be combat ready.
Furthermore, the Huawiye tribe dominates the military forces while the Darod tribe dominates the government. This creates external and internal conflict within the military. There is some disdain towards the government due to clan differences. There is also disdain towards Darod officers in the military. During our mission I chose to discontinue an officer’s only small-group training program because SNA leadership would only send Huawiye officers to the class despite there clearly being capable officers from other clans.
The SNA is not the only military force in Somalia. “Elite” Danab force are a subset of the Somali military in which the United States has invested heavily in compared to the rank and file SNA. While the Danab see themselves as the Somali version of special forces, a more accurate assessment of them would be better equipped SNA soldiers. However, one notable difference is that Danab units integrate members of all clans into their ranks. Another component of Somali military forces are the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA). Conflict between these different military organizations can often be as violent as their clashes with Al Shabab. There are multiple instances of NISA getting into firefights with Danab.[v]While deployed, my team was able to hear the gunfire between the two by a checkpoint near Mogadishu’s airport.
The economy of Somalia is mostly agrarian but severe draught is causing starvation. Moreover, poverty is pervasive and most SNA soldiers have not been paid in months. Money would become an infrequent point of friction when my team would be asked to provide cash handouts to SNA soldiers that had rarely ever been paid.
Somalia is located off the Gulf of Aden and has several ports along the coast. Roads offer inland transportation, however, much of the road system leading from the coast inland are threatened by or in Al Shabab territory making inland military movements at risk to attacks and pilferage.
Our mission in Somalia as described by US Army Africa (USARAF) was simply to go to Mogadishu International Airport (MIA), and train two classes of 120 Somalis on basic logistics tasks. We were given a list of tasks and equipment to train on but we were also given wide latitude on how we wanted to accomplish our training. The wide latitude given was also due to the fact that no conventional forces had ever taken this mission on before.
We chose to divide our training into two phases: driver’s training and military occupational skills training. In the first phase all trainers were on-deck to teach Somalis how to drive heavy vehicles. In the second phase, each trainer taught Somalis about their particular logistics specialty: specifically fuel operations, water operations, medical first responder, supply activities, wheeled vehicle maintenance, and generator maintenance.
In true form to the unpredictable nature of the operational environment, little of the training equipment was available when we arrived. Additionally, the Somali Army had difficulty resourcing 120 soldiers for a single class and only mustered about 80 per training cycle. It took several days into the beginning of training for group of 80 trainees to be solidified. The question marks surrounding the attendees of the course presented security concerns of who we were even providing training to.
Our security team did an excellent job of screening everyone and everything that entered the training site. While the Mogadishu International Airport (MIA) is considered one of the safest areas in the country, Somalia is still an inherently violent country. At the time of this article’s writing Mogadishu suffered its largest bombing in its history with over 350 casualties. The bombings occurred outside of the airport installation but within five miles of the team’s training site. It was critical to screen and secure any non-US personnel in the training area.
After roughly two weeks we were able to settle into a comfortable training rhythm. However, that was not to say that our days were predictable. We knew how to execute the training mission but any day we would have to deal with trainees being sent to jail by their superiors, trainees arriving while having a seizure and foaming blood at the mouth, or a even dead body being driven around our site in the back of an ambulance.
What did not fit into our routine was just about every other operation surrounding our mission. These “other” operations included establishing and running an SSA of $37 million of US State Department purchased equipment, running and maintaining a motor pool of 45 five-ton variant vehicles, and planning for and preparing myriad equipment for inland movement and distribution. These operations would drive the need to use ingenuity, utilize trust, and adjust typical science of command techniques.
A photograph of the first set of trainees in formation. The two SNA Majors, the 426th BSB Battalion Commander and Command Sergeant Major, and the Detachment OIC and NCOIC are in the foreground. The trainers, interpreters, trainees, and security platoon are in the background.
The Environment – Physical Space
The space we took ownership of was our training site that was about the size of a football field. We made it into a multifunctional logistics hub. In addition to being an outdoor space with classroom trailers for training, it was also our personnel search area, field SSA, motorpool, maintenance bay, fuel point, wash rack, and unit supply room.
When managing this space we had to be clever at how to place items out of each other’s way, but also how to manage multiple operations going on at the same time. In order to maximize the space we always tried to keep one group of trainees in a classroom setting while another conducted driver’s training outside. This reduced the number of people at risk walking around while heavy vehicles were moving in and around the training area.
On many days we would also have one of our Soldiers operating a forklift and loading SNA vehicles with their equipment from our field SSA. By loading one vehicle at a time in the back corner of the site while keeping driver’s training up front we were able to run multiple operations at once and minimize the risk of vehicle collision or, even worse, a vehicle and pedestrian collision.
When we first arrived, there were $37 million of military materiel and vehicles left unorganized in the training site.
This photograph shows the same materiel previously pictured after the training team established a field SSA.
Typically to run a multi-faceted operation like the one we created would require a large amount of staffing. An accountable officer would inventory every detail of each piece of materiel in the yard, utilize automation systems, and track data metrics as equipment moved in and out of the yard. A safety officer would inspect the barrels of fuel in the site. Leaders would create diagrams of the vehicle-parking plan for the motorpool. Whether in garrison or deployed, as a full brigade or higher, we would undoubtedly use powerpoint to track everything as it happened. In an underdeveloped theater like Somalia we either could not do those things, or chose to forgo the conventional science of control planning processes.
While we were conducting operations that might typically be monitored at a battalion level or higher, we were not capable of conducting battalion level staffing – only platoon or company level troop leading procedures. How we handled the field SSA was a good example of this. A battalion could certainly have conducted the military decision making process (MDMP) but our team had neither the time nor the personnel to go through that. We did, however, realize we had a problem requiring troop-leading procedures to. We let the team know that we were going to start organizing the equipment in the next 24 hours. My NCOIC, SSA NCO and I came up with a pen and paper sketch of how to organize the training site and then issued the complete plan the next morning. By using a little ingenuity to organize the space around a training mission, trusting Soldiers to execute their role unsupervised, and by using troop-leading procedures we were able to create a sustainable system to store and issue equipment to three different African militaries.
The Environment – The People
Beware the westerner that believes Africans will bend over backwards with graciousness to learn from you and revere the training you are there to provide. Relationships in Somalia must be based on power and not just goodwill. This realization takes ingenuity to realize, trust with translators to utilize, and is not something taught in formal military education.
Somalia has been in a constant state of conflict for decades. War and western aid in the region create challenging social dynamics. The difficulty in simply surviving creates toughness in Somalis: a toughness that reinforces their general belief that while the Somali Army may not be as strong as the American Army, the Somali soldier is equally tough to the American Soldier.
Our team avoided discussions of geopolitical matters and we always approached conflict resolution carefully with the Somalis. Three examples of relationships based on power being critical to our relationship with the SNA are discussed.
The first example was an issue that became an ongoing point of contention: personnel searches. In order to ensure that no one was entering out site with a weapon we conducted a search in addition to the one already conducted by the Ugandans at the gate. While we never found anything of concern from the trainees besides a ceremonial dagger or two, we felt the no-exceptions search policy to be necessary since we would frequently confiscate pistols from other SNA personnel visiting the site. Many of the SNA trainees, on the other hand, felt that we had learned who they were and therefore searches were unnecessary if not humiliating. It is, after all, Somalia and who were we to search Somalis in their own country?
At first we tried to shrug off complaints by simply reminding with SNA leadership that we said from day one that everyone gets searched. However, it quickly became an issue that was not going to go away since we noticed that the trainees were becoming more irritable if not outright hostile when being searched. In one instance, an SNA soldier slammed his vehicle’s door back shut in order to resist a vehicle search – a dangerous proposition that fortunately we were able to de-escalate.
In this conflict we were able to negotiate from a much more powerful position; we had the power to remove trainees, stop training, or be more aggressive doing searches. As a matter of force protections we were under no obligation to cease personnel searches. The SNA on the other hand demonstrated that they had the power to make searches difficult and potentially sour the positive relationships we had developed. Ultimately we found an appropriate resolution wherein we did not compromise on the thoroughness of our searches but agreed to simply search vehicle drivers inside the training site away from any public view, then escort them back out to their vehicles. While this compromise was made during an amiable discussion it was not settled upon because of positive personal relationships but based on the present power dynamic between our two positions. Another critical piece of the resolution was a trust translator that understood where we were willing to compromise and when to translate adamancy.
In a second instance I wanted a trainee removed from the program because previously had a seizure and I did not want someone with medical complications in the hot sun training under our supervision each day. The SNA disagreed, and felt that he was fine, and wanted paperwork from me stating in writing why I was using my authority to remove the trainee. SNA leadership did not want to do it for internal political reasons. I was able to convince them that we did not need paperwork to remove the trainee since I removed an unpopular translator earlier that week without adding the red tape of paperwork. Their desire to match my power in this area drove them to agree and remove the trainee the next day.
The third example is when the officer in charge of the first set of trainees wanted to end training at noon each day for “security reasons.” I was suspicious that the actual reason was simply to leave training early. I asked for details on the security reasons and he quickly recanted his request as merely “a suggestion.” In this instance there was no power or credible reason to consider the request in good faith and the request was denied and dismissed rapidly.
When resolving conflicts with the SNA it was key to understand the power dynamics between the training team and the SNA trainees. Coming in peace is only part of the puzzle – power is the rest of it. Our team was successful because we utilized some ingenuity to realize this, trusted our translators to support the mission, and we were able to handle these issues on the spot on our level instead of debating every issue with higher headquarters.
The command structure for our team was slightly irregular. Two battalions within the brigade contributed Soldiers: an infantry battalion and the BSB. While the security force from the infantry battalion was the larger element, a logistics captain was placed in charge to ensure success of the logistics training mission. An additional challenge was that the BSB’s Soldiers came from multiple companies, with no organic chain of command transferring to the new task force.
Creating task force capable of executing the assigned USARAF mission required ingenuity and the BSB was tasked the analysis to solve the problem. An early consideration was to build the team out of a single infantry battalion. This would require an entire squad from a forward support company (FSC), medics from the headquarters company, and a security platoon leader from a line company. Additionally, the team would still likely need a logistics captain resourced form the BSB since the only logistics captain available in an infantry battalion would be the FSC company commander. The chosen course of action of resourcing from the BSB and an infantry battalion avoided that possibility and kept the FSCs fully operational to support ongoing readiness training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. A single unit was not able to meet the required capabilities of the mission, but with a little ingenuity and mission analysis a successful task force was formed.
This article has already mentioned several examples of how trust between myself as the officer in charge and subordinate Soldiers was critical to mission success but this cannot be emphasized enough. Every Soldier on the team had a specific skill set with a specific task and purpose. While the dynamic operational environment required multi-purpose everything each Soldier was a subject matter expert in his or her function on the team, and in some cases like generator maintenance, perhaps the country.
The need to trust subordinates was only compounded by the fact that we limited communications assets to rely on. We were equipped with two Motorola handheld radios on the unsecure United Nations network and a full set of secure communications from Multiband Inter/Intra Team Radios (MBITRs). While the MBITRs were secure, they did not have adequate range to communicate across the airfield, which spans an area of several miles. When an element from the team was working at the site while others were having lunch at our living area they were on their own unless they had one of two of the Motorola’s we had. The lack of reliable communications meant that trust had to compensate for the lack of command and control systems.
The command relationships in Somalia between our team and other higher headquarters could be described as convoluted. While deployed, our team was still officially under the command of the 426th BSB at Fort Campbell while only tactically controlled by the Mogadishu Coordination Cell (MCC). USARAF supervised the progress of the mission and the Army Command Element (ACE) at Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in Djibouti took care of any administrative needs while also serving as our unofficial advocate to the rest of CJTF, a subordinate command of AFRICOM. To summarize, 426th BSB and the MCC were our two bosses, but many other entities across USARAF, AFRICOM, and CJTF-HOA were interested in our mission.
The same way our team had to use ingenuity to negotiate our environment and truly trust subordinates in order to function efficiently, the same principles applied when dealing with our higher headquarters. They had to trust that we were going to figure out how to solve problems on our own. The major difference as we move from the tactical to operational level is how we had to depart from typical systems of command and control.
Africa is a land of shorter planning cycles. The first thing we learned to do was to throw PowerPoint away. We submitted two PowerPoint slides weekly. The first was only sent to commanders to give an unfiltered report on how things were progressing. The second was a storyboard back to 426th BSB to highlight the good things we were doing while deployed. No other concepts of operation slides about training, current vehicle maintenance, or other deployment activities were produced with the exception of our redeployment plan which was handled by our liason officer in Djibouti. It is possible to operate a unit without the almighty PowerPoint. Handwritten and hand copied maintenance slants, diagrams, and commander’s intent can be sufficient.
The main report that was sent through typical command and control systems was the daily situation report (SITREP). This report was sent to approximately 60 recipients and a broad range of stakeholders. To my frequent chagrin the report was not and could not be tailored to a specific stakeholder. What it lacked in terms of direct audience it made up for in simplicity. I only had to submit one report instead of dozens to each entity with an interest in my mission.
The single SITREP was also critical when faced with our frequent lack of connectivity to the rest of the world. Even as the OIC I only had connectivity when at our living area or when at the MCC. There was even a month-long period when the country’s internet service was severed and satellite connection at the MCC was our only source of connectivity. Simplifying the reporting process was critical; simply logging on and sending one e-mail could take up to two hours.
The relationship to our superiors around the world became very similar to the way I as the OIC interacted with my environment and subordinates. The difficulties with communications required a higher level of trust that my team would safely and effectively execution the mission unsupervised.
Somalia is a highly dynamic, violent, and as yet undeveloped theater of operations. Training, maintenance, and materiel management were just some of the more substantial of the plethora of problem sets we had to resolve. We succeeded because we trusted each other to use our ingenuity with the resources we had on-hand, not the resources we would expect in garrison or in a more developed theater.
Divorcing ourselves from typical command and control systems such as PowerPoint, e-mail, radios, and even phones did not inhibit our ability to accomplish the mission. While it required some adapting to not get an immediate status update on every minor task, it allowed us to demonstrate that the principle of trusting subordinates in mission command works. Alone, unafraid, but with a task and a purpose; we accomplished our primary mission set and more.