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Mideast edition, Sunday, May 27, 2007

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Air force leaders from 14 African countries met in Germany last week in the first conference to talk about how their militaries can improve relations and coordination.

U.S. Air Forces in Europe and the Africa Center for Strategic Studies co-sponsored the small summit at Ramstein Air Base. The Pentagon-funded center consists of civilian African experts with the mission of helping U.S. policy makers and supporting democracy on the continent.

Some of the topics discussed at the conference included air security and surveillance, search and rescue capabilities and airlift — especially in regards to peacekeeping operations.

Air Vice Marshall Julius O. Boateng, chief of staff of the Ghana air force, said the chance to meet some of his African colleagues was one of the most valuable benefits of the conference.

“The interesting thing is that this forum has afforded us the opportunity of getting to know each other,” said Boateng, who had met only two or three of his colleagues before the session. “So, I think improving on that networking can help us address all of the issues confronting us.”

The continent’s regional conflicts, vast resources and terrorism fears have made Africa a priority for the Pentagon.

Military planners at Stuttgart’s Kelley Barracks are standing up a new Africa Command — expected to be established next year — to focus on missions and operations on the continent.

The military’s U.S. European Command and Central Command currently handle U.S. military operations there.

U.S. Air Force leaders came up with the idea of having the conference a little over a year ago and molded it into a program similar to the conferences the Air Force has with its air chiefs.

Brig. Gen. Michael Snodgrass, director of plans, programs and analyses at USAFE headquarters, said one of the primary reasons for having the conference was to get feedback from the African air force leaders on the creation of the new Africa Command.

“A big part of the conference was putting out different ideas and getting their feedback and having them tell us what’s important and where we should be thinking,” Snodgrass said.

Many of the African air chiefs expressed a desire for the Africa Command to help them train their airmen.

“They want to be as good as they possibly can be, as all of us do,” Snodgrass said. “And they recognize that the United States has a great wealth and depth of training capabilities across the board for their air forces. They want as much of that as they can get.”

USAFE sends dozens of teams from Europe to nations across the African continent annually to train airmen, build hospitals and treat patients at makeshift clinics. Airmen traveled to Morocco a couple of months ago to teach units how to load and unload cargo aircraft, and explosive ordnance disposal technicians are in Guinea-Bissau in western Africa helping clear land mines.

Although most African nations do not have the same military resources as Western nations, Boateng said cooperation among the continent’s militaries could allow them to overcome some of the challenges. “Certainly we can enhance the cooperation among ourselves, especially if one looks at the comparative advantage each country has,” he said.

Some of the countries that participated in this past week’s meeting were Senegal, Uganda, Rwanda, Tunisia and Algeria.

There are plans to have a similar conference every other year.

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