Following an increase in uprisings and various crisis situations in parts of Africa, officials at U.S. Africa Command are taking steps to remind service members assigned to the command and other Department of Defense personnel that a theater clearance is mandatory when traveling to Africa whether in an official capacity or as an active duty service member on leave.
According to the Defense Department's Foreign Clearance Guide, all DoD-affiliated and sponsored travelers, including military, DoD civilians and contractors, are subject to the clearance process. All DoD members are required to submit a request for clearance, regardless of where they are stationed.
When traveling to Africa, members and their leadership are urged to always check and be familiar with the Foreign Clearance Guide (FCG), which outlines specific requirements for each country and type of travel. Official travel, leave and approval levels differ for each country and travel type. The FCG is the authoritative document that shows the country-by-country requirements for travel to a foreign country.
"For the AFRICOM affiliated countries, clearance is required for all official travel," said Marla Mann, U.S. AFRICOM theater clearance manager. "What some are surprised about is that it is also required for all military leave travel and recommended for civilian leave travel."
Mann said there are consequences for violating this directive.
"Members that travel without appropriate clearance are in violation of DoD and AFRICOM instructions, and are subject to disciplinary action by their chain of command," Mann emphasized. "If something happens to them while gone, it also could be considered in a line-of-duty determination if the traveler is hurt."
Foreign travel clearance isn't required for civilians on non-official travel, family members and civilians going on leave to the continent, but they are encouraged to request clearance and follow the U.S. AFRICOM area of responsibility travel preparation instructions. Civilians on non-official travel can also submit their travel information via Aircraft and Personnel Automated Clearance System (APACS) and the State Department registration website for each country on their itinerary.
"If traveling with the sponsor all can go on one request," said Michael Nosek, U.S. AFRICOM theater clearance specialist.
Nosek said the program is in place for safety and accountability and isn't meant to deter anyone from visiting the African continent.
"The criminality, medical and in some countries, terrorism threats are real and preparation is the best way to stay safe," he said. "One of the ways they (civilian travelers) could be affected is in terms of medical coverage and evacuation purposes. Before traveling they should check whether they have medical coverage and how to access it. While no one expects a medical emergency, they need to be prepared and know how to react to one, whether it is a broken ankle or diarrhea."
Africa Command Manual (ACM) 3000.02A, which governs theater clearance procedures within the U.S. AFRICOM area of responsibility, states that the FCG instructions should be followed. The FCG tells the traveler what should be in the request and which organizations need to approve it.
"There are three levels of clearance which could be required, and all three have separate approval authorities," said Nosek. "The good news is when the traveler submits the request within APACS, it is simultaneously processed on all three levels. Country clearance informs the ambassador via the Defense AttachhÃ; theater clearance informs the AFRICOM commander, his staff and component commands; and Special Area Clearances provides information to Office of the Secretary of Defense in Washington, DC."
The Force Protection Condition (FPCON) level only addresses the terrorism threat level in Africa, it is not a measure of every threat at every location in Africa. U.S. AFRICOM Theater Clearance Office officials consider it crucial for members to do their own travel research before traveling, and emphasize that the clearance process is just one aspect of travel planning.
"There are real threats in Africa," said Mann. "The FPCON level only reflects the terrorism threat, but it does not reflect medical issues, health risks and threats associated with food, water and other environmental conditions in Africa. It's really incumbent on the traveler not just to look at the FPCON level. If you weren't looking out for the health threats, if you weren't aware of crimes, you'd make yourself a target."
Mann said there were several other reasons for requiring a clearance.
First, it allows different levels of command to have visibility over what is happening on the continent. Second, it gives a means of controlling and influencing the preparations of the travelers and engaging the chain of command in risk assessments. Third, it assigns Force Protection responsibility in most cases to the AFRICOM commander or one of his component commanders. The commanders rely on the input and approval of the sending organization's leadership which is a required element in the clearance submission. An officer in the pay grade O-6 or equivalent from the traveler's organization is required to approve travel to a FPCON B country, like Ghana or South Africa, while, an O-7 or equivalent is required for an FPCON C country, like Kenya or Nigeria.
"The U.S. AFRICOM leadership wants travelers to be safe and to have their chain of command engaged in their safety," said Nosek. "Too often, the clearance process is viewed just as a bothersome administrative requirement without thinking about what is behind it."
After an applicant completes all the required training and has created a Force Protection plan, the actual APACS web-based submission process takes about 20-30 minutes.
Some of the training requirements include: Anti-terrorism and Force Protection (within one year of travel), Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE 100.1 completed within two years of travel) and a current electronic Isolated Personnel Report (ISOPREP).
"If they are trying to complete all the required training while they enter APACS obviously the entry is not 30 minutes," Nosek added.
This is where the FCG comes in; members could check the requirements for the country and put together the information they need. The FCG tells members details like whether they need a passport or if they can travel on their ID card and orders or if they need an entry visa before traveling to the country.
"Travelers should submit clearance requests via APACS web-based system 30 days prior to travel and must verify clearance approval prior to travel," Mann said. "First-time users should factor in a couple of days to apply for and get an APACS account, and extra time to read and digest the requirements as explained in the FCG."
It is important to realize that clearance approvals are a collaborative process. In 2011 the U.S. AFRICOM theater clearance office received about 13,000 APACS requests that covered more than 31,000 travelers. Timely submissions help the theater clearance staff properly review and approve travel clearance requests.
"Late or incomplete submissions may result in delay or denial," Mann said. "Doing things early makes a big difference; it takes out the stress to the traveler, approving officials and the entire system. If members give lots of time, it allows the system to work and will alleviate stress for everybody"
To access the FCG, members should visit https://www.fcg.pentagon.mil. More information and guidance are also available on the AFRICOM home page at www.africom.mil, under "Important Links." (Theater Clearance Coordination Center)