Telephone Press Briefing with U.S. Air Force Col Ricardo Trimillos, Chief of International Affairs for Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces in Africa and Botswana Defense Force Air Arm Col Hendrick Rakgantswana, Thebephatshwa Air Base Commander.
Africa Regional Media Hub
Telephonic Press Briefing with
U.S. Air Force Colonel Ricardo Trimillos,
Chief of International Affairs for Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces in Africa, and
Botswana Defense Force Air Arm Colonel Hendrick Rakgantswana,
Thebephatshwa Air Base Commander
OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by and welcome to the Department of State’s African Air Chiefs’ Symposium Conference Call. At this time, all participants are in listen-only mode. Later, we will conduct a question and answer session and instructions being given at that time. If you should require assistance during the call, please press * followed the 0. As a reminder, today’s teleconference is being recorded. And I would now like to turn the conference over to our first speaker, Brian Neubert. Please go ahead, sir.
MODERATOR: Thank you and good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub. I’d like to welcome our participants who have dialed in across the continent and media gathered at missions in Africa. Today we are joined by the co-hosts of the African Air Chiefs’ Symposium 2017, U.S. Air Force Col. Rick Trimillos, Chief of International Affairs for Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces in Africa, as well as Botswana Defense Force Air Col. Hendrick Rakgantswana and we have a correction in the spelling of his name for the record, R-A-K-G-A-N-T-S-W-A-N-A. And he is the Air Base Commander of Thebephatshwa Air Base.
Our speakers will discuss the importance of the Air Chiefs’ Symposium, U.S. and African Air Forces partnership and U.S. commitment to strengthening security and stability across the African continent. Our speakers today join us from Kasane, Botswana.
We will begin with opening remarks from Col. Rakgantswana, followed by remarks of his colleague, Col. Trimillos. We will then open it up to your questions. If you’re listening in English, you can press *1 on the phone to join the question queue. If you’re on a speaker phone, you may have to pick up the handset.
For those of you listening in other languages, please submit your questions in English via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to follow the conversation on Twitter, we’re using the hashtag #AFAfricaPress and you can also follow at @AfricaMediaHub and @hqusafepa. Today’s call is on the record and will be about 30 minutes. And with that, I will turn it over to Colonel in Botswana. Thank you, sir. Go ahead.
COL HENDRICK RAKGANTSWANA: Thank you, sir. I want to thank Department of State Africa Media Hub for hosting this interview. And secondly, I would like to thank the media for participating and taking time out of your busy schedule to listen and report on this very important event. The African Chiefs Symposium, which is the forum (02:25 unintelligible) officially kicked off yesterday, 16th May, with an opening ceremony where the Deputy Commander of the Botswana Defense Force, Major General Gotsileene Morake welcomed the Air Chiefs to Botswana and spoke about the importance of interesting African Air Chiefs to create affinity among themselves (. During the opening ceremony, we are also honored to have the U.S. Air Force’s Africa Commander General Tod Wolters as well as the Botswana Defense Force Air Commander, Major General Innocent S. Phatshwana.
As you may know, the African Air Chiefs Symposium is an annual conference that brings together air chiefs from across Africa for open dialogue to discuss and develop cooperative solutions to regional and continental challenges and threats. This year air chiefs from 30 nations have gathered here in Kasane, Botswana for the largest African Air Chiefs Symposium in its seven year history. That of course is a tremendous feat for us. We recently celebrated at the Botswana Defence Force 40th anniversary, where we reflected on the past, present and the future.
This Symposium is our brothers’ path to the partnerships, solutions and ideas and goals we build during this Symposium is our future, as well as our continent’s future. The dialogue from this conference will most certainly play a role in ensuring a safe and secure Africa for tomorrow. This year’s Symposium focuses on the training aspect of force development. This is something that is important to every air chief here. Every Air Force must continuously build and train their airmen to maintain readiness. This is important to addressing the security issue and keeping our countries safe.
Thus far, the discussions are going extremely well and the level of cooperation and enthusiasm from the fellow African countries is encouraging. We have had several roundtable discussions and breakout sessions, giving air chiefs opportunities to discuss regional issues together. Some topics discussed were mobility strategies, force development and air field management.
The discussions are ongoing this afternoon in various settings and will only enhance what has been discussed. It is worth noting that one of the signature moments of the Symposium is the signing of the Association of African Air Chiefs Charter, which encourages members to take opportunities to cooperate and collaborate, to improve and support air operations across Africa. And,we are aware, (unclear) I’m here with my colleague Col. Trimillos and I want to thank you Colonel for participating as well in this roundtable discussion. Thank you.
COL RICARDO TRIMILLOS: Thank you very much. I appreciate that. And Col. Rakgantswana, I just want to say thank you for the thought-provoking discussion that you just had in introducing the Symposium. It’s exciting for us to see where this Symposium has come since 2011. As he has stated, there are 30 countries that are involved, including the United States. This is by far significant, not only because it’s the largest one that we’ve ever had, it’s the first time that we have been in the south of the continent. But really, the most important thing I would say, from a U.S. perspective is, and probably our partners would appreciate it, you’re not listening to the Americans do all the talking.
In the early days, the Americans would do all the planning, they would bring the briefs and we would talk to friends. The reality is, today a majority of the briefs are given by partners, our partner nations coming in and giving African solutions to African problems as they discuss training and force developments as we have gone through today.
I will tell you, just in the discussion that I have heard today, they have touched on everything from how does one recruit, what are the right ages for people to recruit, gender issues, how do we recruit and retain women, how do we recruit and retain families as they come through. The reality is these are all problems; these are all challenges that every military, particularly even air forces across the world have a wonderful opportunity for the air chiefs to come, at the very most senior level, talk to their peers. At the peer level, you can discuss your issues and see where other people have had similar issues and how they solved it. Or sometimes it’s just good to know that you’re not alone.
And so those friendships and partnerships allow the regional cooperation within the area. And we have seen successes of our regional cooperation within AMISOM and Somali, the G-5 Sahel and the Multinational Joint Task Force of the Lake Chad Region. We recognize the need for ISRs [Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance] to ground forces that are in those areas that are supporting peacekeeping operations. There are a lot of challenges that we all equally share and the ability to just pick up the phone and call your neighbor or pick up your phone and talk to somebody else that’s in the region about the challenges that you have. Maybe it’s because you have a small military or a small air force and it’s too expensive to have your own training venue.
Sharing or borrowing or bartering training from across, allows you to be more efficient with the resources that you have. The reality is, we know that each of us individually don’t have all the answers. And so we rely upon talking to each other to come up with these answers so that way we can go in and assess our current forces, identify the needs that are out there, to work together and to build solutions. And so that’s the exciting part about us coming together during this forum as we move forward and seeing the progress over the last seven Symposiums growing from a small group of airmen to a professional organization of senior executive leaders that are moving the entire African continent forward on the use of air power.
MODERATOR: Thank you both for your introductory remarks. I’ll remind everyone to join the question queue, please press *1 on your phone and we will move to the question and answer session. I have a question for both of our Colonels on the line that was sent to us by e-mail from Geoff Hill, with the Washington Times, related to one of the things that Colonel just mentioned about mobility. If you could speak to the importance of helicopters to air mobility strategies and with particular comment on the importance or the potential use of helicopters for humanitarian work.
COL RICARDO TRIMILLOS: Absolutely. Is that for Col. Trimillos?
MODERATOR: As appropriate as questions come in, feel free to tag-team, or one or the other of you answer the question. Thank you.
COL RICARDO TRIMILLOS: I’ll defer to you first.
COL HENDRICK RAKGANTSWANA: All right, thank you very much. This is Colonel Rakgantswana, Botswana Defense Force. One thing that we have to appreciate is that Africa may be like the rest of the world, but us being worse, is that we have limited resources. So helicopter, air mobility is very crucial for us to undertake our operations.
If I take my country, for instance, you find that other, most areas in the country are not accessible through fixed-wing transport. That is, maybe by means of C-1 type aircraft and such. So helicopter mobility is one of the crucial issues that is making our operations successful in this country. Thank you.
COL RICARDO TRIMILLOS: This is Colonel Rick Trimillos from the U.S. Air Force. And so while the use of helicopters within the U.S. Air Force is mostly for personnel recovery, which is part of the humanitarian assistance, disaster relief mission set and we use our Army as the one who’s the lead for that. I will tell you that air mobility is not a luxury item. It is a generation-hopping capability. Just like the cell phone tower removed the need to put up telephone wires across the continent, helicopters allow you to bypass the need to develop infrastructure to really get to places quickly, to be able to provide national services.
And so one of the things that is talked about today during the conference is the ability to provide national services to your citizens and how we develop a force to be able to meet the needs of your citizens and the government as they go forth and try to make sure that not only is the government ready day-to-day, providing economic engines, but also when disaster strikes. And helicopters are going to be foundational to any humanitarian assistance operation.
And whenever the United States has assets that are in the area of a disaster, that we work through the Department of State and they make them available as requested by those nations.
MODERATOR: Thank you both. I’ll remind our participants to join the question queue by pressing *1 on your phone. We’ll go to our first question from a journalist. If you could start with your name and outlet, please. Go ahead.
QUESTION: This is Jennifer Svan from Stars and Stripes.
COL RICARDO TRIMILLOS: Hello.
QUESTION: And -- hi. And my question is for Colonel Trimillos. Could you tell me, what are some of the most important resources that the Air Chiefs are saying that they need to improve training, force development, things like that?
COL RICARDO TRIMILLOS: Sure. In my opinion as I have heard the Air Chiefs talking, the resources that they’re actually looking the most for is training venues. It is very expensive to maintain an aviation training venue on your own. They are looking to either partner with other folks that are in the region to be able to cost-share. They’re looking for economical options to go with a contractor and they also are looking to partner with the United States.
There are other folks that also provide services in terms of pilot training, maintenance training and logistics training. And I will tell you that if you get those three taken care of, almost in that opposite order, if you get the logistics right and you get the infrastructure right then training your pilots becomes the next important thing.
And so they’re focusing in on how can we, in a very resource-constrained environment, be able to share assets so that way we can all reach the same goal. And the other piece, is the side note to that, they’re all going to similar schools or the same schools with the same standards. They find themselves being interoperable. So that way when they go and do combined operations, either sending to the African Union or as a part of a coalition operation that they easily understand how each other works. And it becomes seamless and more effective.
QUESTION: Okay. And it sounds like I might be the only one on the phone so is it okay if I ask a couple questions?
MODERATOR: Hang on. We’ll come back to you in just a moment.
QUESTION: Okay, that’s no problem.
MODERATOR: We do have a couple others, thanks
QUESTION: That’s no problem. I wasn’t sure if it was just me or not.
MODERATOR: Thank you for that, Colonel. We do have other question that was written in to us. If you could, both of you Colonels comment on a little more detail on the importance of the Association of the African Air Forces Charter that Colonel mentioned just a moment ago.
COL HENDRICK RAKGANTSWANA: Let me just start by mentioning the importance of the Air Chiefs Symposium, the Air Charter, the accomplishment of the Air Charter is one of those. The Symposium is aimed at discussing these important regional and regional issues. And how us as Air Chiefs can best work together to respond to the challenges that are common to the continent.
And like we said, we are focusing this time around on training aspects and force development. Before I continue, let me just squeeze in Colonel Trimillos, he will add something.
COL RICARDO TRIMILLOS: Sure. So membership in the Association does not come with any cost or fee. It does not come with any responsibilities or requirements. What membership does is it shows a commitment. And so we have a commitment by their air chiefs not only to attend these symposiums, but a commitment to maintain relationships and to continue the discussion throughout the year. And so what this allows us to do, is it’s a formal way of saying ‘yes, we’re friends’ and that we understand each other’s business. And so it’s a professional organization, but it doesn’t commit a country to any sort of resource outlay.
And so by having this brotherhood of professional senior executive airmen, it allows an easier way to make introductions and to have frank and open discussions on topics that are important to all of us.
COL HENDRICK RAKGANTSWANA: Back to -- this is Colonel Rakgantswana again. During the discussions, we both realized that we have common problems. Common problems that need us to attend a forum like this one and the chiefs were actually emphasizing that we should not wait until 11 months and then we call for a conference like this one. Actually, they are advocating that we have to have frequent meetings in between. And of course we pointed out that the importance of the charter is that encourages members to seek opportunities to cooperate and collaborate, to improve and support air operations across the continent. We mentioned that maybe a country will have a certain platform which another country will also have. So this can be a part of the coming exercise, if we have common platform to address our needs, then this is how I think we can address these challenges that the whole continent is facing. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Next we’re going to go to our colleague from Radio France International. I understand he’s having a little trouble with the question queue. I think we can bring him on the call. Please introduced yourself sir, and pose your question.
QUESTION: Thank you. It’s Michel Arseneault from Radio France International in Paris. My question is for Colonel Trimillos. What can the U.S. do given the reorganization of jihadist groups in the Sahel?
COL RICARDO TRIMILLOS: Okay, sir, so thank you Michel up in Paris. Glad to talk to you. Your question as I understand it, is what is the U.S. going to do or plan to do about the reorganization of jihadists in the Sahel area. Is that correct?
COL RICARDO TRIMILLOS: O.K., so, sir, right now, we are continuing to focus in on how can we support the Sahel G-5 group that is there. We are helping to foster exchanges of information either through intelligence exchanges. We are continuing to help advise and conduct either training in the areas that the host nations are requesting as they go into it.
When it comes to the type of operations that I think you may be alluding to, I’m not privy to those at this point and we usually don’t talk about our operations that are going on in the area. But we do recognize that when it comes to ties to the violent extremist organizations, the humanitarian crisis with the refugee movement, piracy and criminal activity, these are all top priorities within the United States to try to help our African partners address. Did that answer your question, sir?
MODERATOR: Thank you. Go ahead, sir.
QUESTION: That was true two months ago. I’m just wondering if the reorganization of the jihadist groups poses a different threat or do you not see, is this as stepping up of the threat? Is it more dangerous now than it was, let’s say, two months ago?
COL RICARDO TRIMILLOS: So when it comes to ties before -- when we talk about these types of organizations, a reorganization is almost on a daily event. What we have come to find is that these are very fluid relationships between clans, between organizations and groups. They come together, they disburse, depending upon the time of the year, the weather, the economics, their alliances and different leaders that are in place.
And so as of right now, I would say that we probably are not seeing this as any more of a threat than it has been in the past.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much for that. We’re going to turn back to another question we have in the queue now, thank you. Do we still have Ms. Svan on the line from Stars and Stripes? I think she had a follow-up question. We had her in the queue.
QUESTION: This is kind of along the same lines as the previous question. But I’m just wondering, I realize that you’re meeting in the southern part of the continent, but with the continued rise of the Islamic State group in Northern Africa, how much is that driving this week’s discussions on force development? Is that a major focal point?
COL RICARDO TRIMILLOS: Well, this is Colonel Trimillos and I’ll turn it over to my counterpart to say something here in a moment. Any time you are talking about needing to build a force within your country or within a coalition, the training that is required to prepare that force for that mission set is foundational. We don’t -- I don’t think I know an Air Force out there who does not want to have a properly trained and equipped force to go out and to meet the needs of their national leaders.
So, from that context, the training is very foundational. On the side note, what I have also noted is that a lot of the -- particularly up in the Sahel, they have given us some of the vignettes that they have where they’re doing bilateral or multilateral cooperation along their borders. But that doesn’t happen without discussion, without planning and without some level of training. So if you want to talk about a specific situation in a specific region, those are not coming up because we are very much focused on the training.
Sir, can I ask if you have any perspective on that?
COL HENDRICK RAKGANTSWANA: Thank you so much. This is Colonel Rakgantswana again. I would also like to emphasize the issue of training, especially the joint training. Which in Botswana, we are benefitting from this relationship that we have with the U.S. Government as well. But within Africa itself, we find that due to this (unclear), we end up failing to address all our own issues that are related to training.
So it is important to undertake this joint training. Of course, the aim being to achieve interoperability. So that when we’re faced with a situation where we have to assist certain regional economic communities, maybe Air Force in West Africa for instance, we know that when we get there, there’s not going to be that miscommunication, there’s not going to be that gap in the systems that are operating this side and how they do their operations that side. So then training is one issue that all the air chiefs are emphasizing so that we manage to achieve the overall safety in the continent. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you both. I think we have time for just one last question. If we could remind our participants, if you press *1 you can join the question queue. I’ll just give that one more minute with our two colonels joining us from Botswana from the Symposium, talking about partnership of 30 countries who have come together. This is the seventh such meeting. We do have just one last question from Botswana. We’ll take that one and then we’ll turn it over to our speakers for any final words.
Please go ahead, sir. Introduce your name and your outlet, please.
QUESTION: Hello, my name is Phillimon from the Patriot on Sunday. My question is related to the safety of our air ,(unclear) recently we see there are military crashes, what is the Symposium trying to do to help the African countries that are there at the Symposium to try to upgrade their equipment on the runway, because it is (something that is really see similar aircraft crashing (unclear). And then the last question is about, is South Africa one of the participants in the Symposium, as it is one of the superpowers. Thank you.
COL HENDRICK RAKGANTSWANA: Yes, you wanted to know -- this is Colonel Rakgantswana. You wanted to know what we are doing to address the issue of safety in the air regarding the aircraft and that seems to be happening a lot recently. That’s your question, confirmed?
MODERATOR: Yes, that’s correct. His line is closed. He asked a question about air safety if you could address that, sir.
COL HENDRICK RAKGANTSWANA: All right. Safety is a very crucial issue in flying. After an accident happens, in some further investigations that have to be carried out to make sure that that accident does not occur again. But the thing is, one thing that happens, maybe the committee wants to know immediately what the cause of that accident is. But it’s a problem that, you know -- that is very laborious because it’s maintained in the other area , you know, having to take some components to what it’s called original manufacturer, so that they actually assessing what really happened. Was it an instrument reading correctly? And all the issues, was it crew error and stuff like that? So these are the issues that the air chiefs are concerned about. The issue of safety in the skies, the issue of joint collaboration and trying to address these issues.
And from my seat actually ) in Southern Africa, I wonder if South Africa is responsible to help assist other countries in the issue of flight safety. This is why they talked to us during the Safety Aviation Conferences that all these countries that have been there should submit their candidate to undertake, that t is a very important to prevent these unclear air crashes. The other question is whether South Africa is participating. Yes, South Africa is participating and South Africa of course was also active in making a presentation today to (unclear) during the conference today. Thank you.
COL RICARDO TRIMILLOS: This is Colonel Trimillos. If my notes are correct, three years ago, safety -- the air domain safety and security was the topic. And every year, at the end of a conference, they talk about what topic they want to talk about in the future. Training is very foundational to ensuring safety. Because well-trained maintenance crews, well-trained air traffic controllers, well-trained air crews, you know, they contribute to a safer air domain. And so safety is always foundational and paramount to all activity just because of the nature of the fact that there are people on the ground and in the air that are at risk with a flight.
But you can see that by the professionalism of all the participating air forces that are here, that they’re rates of accidents are very low that are into it. And I just want to go on to say about the South African presentation that was given yesterday, it’s very encouraging as I mentioned, there is a lack of training venues because it’s so expensive. And South Africa discussed about their training venue, their ability to bring in their regional partners and other members to train them. And that is contributing to this interoperability and standards that are in the Southern region and that also contributes to the safety of the air domain.
Do you have any other questions or follow-ups to that?
MODERATOR: No, thank you very much. We’ve gone just over time. Colonel Rakgantswana and Colonel Trimillos, do you have any final words before we conclude?
COL HENDRICK RAKGANTSWANA: Let me once again thank you for offering us this opportunity to just let the whole world know what is happening in Botswana. And I think it’s comforting to see that we really see this conference as very, very important and that is reflected by the numbers of the air chiefs that have shown up today or this time around for this Symposium. Thank you so much.
COL RICARDO TRIMILLOS: This is Colonel Trimillos with my final thoughts. We just want to say that the U.S. considers Botswana an excellent partner, an advocate and a model for stability in Africa. Our bilateral relationship is strong and we have a shared commitment to democracy and good governance and human rights. And I will tell you that we are very appreciative of our co-hosts bringing us down to this beautiful venue and allowing us an opportunity to not only commune together, work together, play together as we discuss very important topics. But to also, I’m very encouraged that I will be bringing my own family back here because of how gracious and wonderful our hosts are.
So I just want to say thanks once again to my good friend and colleague over here for all the work that they did in allowing this to happen and for making this happen. And so Media Hub, I appreciate you producing and allowing an opportunity to share about this historic event.
MODERATOR: Thank you. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank Colonel Rakgantswana and Colonel Trimillos for joining us today from the Thebephatshwa Air Field. I want to thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact my team at the Africa Regional Media Hub at email@example.com. Thank you very much.