The Staff Ride as a Security Cooperation Tool

The U.S. Army Center for Military History’s The Staff Ride: Fundamentals, Experiences, and Techniques describes a Staff Ride as an educational tool whose, “purpose is achieved through the development of critical thinking, creative problem-solving and decision-making skills.”



By LTC James A. Anderson, Foreign Area Officer, USAFRICOM United States Africa Command Stuttgart, Germany Aug 25, 2023
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On the morning of 26 November 1942, below the Chouigui Pass northwest of Tebourba, Tunisia, M3 Stuart tanks of Lieutenant Colonel John Waters’ 1st Battalion, 1st Armored Regiment engaged elements of the 190th Panzer Battalion in the first U.S.-German tank battle of the Second World War.  Facing the hereto unknown and vastly superior Panzer MKIV’s of the 190th Panzer Battalion, Water’s less capable Stuarts scored an early American victory due to his superior deployment of forces.  While Waters’ lost six tanks, at the end of the day he held the field.

The site of this little known U.S. - German engagement in the fields of North Africa served as the first stop on the May 2022 US Africa Command (AFRICOM) J5 Tunisia Campaign Staff Training. On that warm and sunny Tunisian morning, 34 personnel from the AFRICOM staff stood alongside Tunisian military officers and NCOs in the same field, observing the same terrain, and discussed the battle alongside military historian Dr. John Greenacre.  This Staff Training represented the first such event executed by AFRICOM on the African continent and covered a number of timeless warfighting themes to include initiative, unity of command, morale, and centers of gravity. The discussions and analyses of the Tunisia Campaign, planned and executed by personnel from AFRICOM J571 (Campaign Plans), focused on 18 overall themes at nine stand locations and provided exceptional insights for the participants.  While there is no doubt that Staff Rides are, “a versatile educational tool designed to deepen the participants’ intellectual foundations in the military profession,” the focus of this article is on using of Staff Training/Staff Rides as a Security Cooperation tool.

Joint Publication 3-20 Security Cooperation states that Security Cooperation, “encompasses all Department of Defense (DOD) interactions with foreign security establishments that build and develop allied and partner security capabilities and capacity for self-defense and multinational operations, provide the Armed Forces of the United States with access to the foreign country during peacetime or a contingency operation, and build relationships that promote specific United States security interests.” As laid out above, Security Cooperation includes a myriad of activities and authorities, to include Military-to-Military Events, Joint Combined Exchange Training, Building Partner Capacity, and military exercises to name a few.  However, this list does not traditionally detail Staff Training or Staff Rides as a Security Cooperation effort.  

The U.S. Army Center for Military History’s The Staff Ride: Fundamentals, Experiences, and Techniques describes a Staff Ride as an educational tool whose, “purpose is achieved through the development of critical thinking, creative problem-solving and decision-making skills.” While this handbook provides 18 objectives for a Staff Ride, it does not include Security Cooperation as an objective. Yet, if properly planned and coordinated, Staff Rides can and should be executed as a Security Cooperation event to maximize partner engagement. 

By utilizing personnel across the staff, to include the author who served previously in Tunisia, key Staff Ride stakeholders developed a Staff Training event which incorporated a traditional Staff Ride into a Security Cooperation effort.  

During this five-day event, multiple elements of the AFRICOM staff interacted with a key North African security partner while examining a historic military campaign.  Working closely with US Embassy Tunis’ Office of Security Cooperation (OSC), the AFRICOM J571 and J521 (North Africa Branch Regional Engagement Division) coordinated for the reconnaissance of proposed stand sites, lodging, and transportation requirements with an enthusiastic and committed Tunisian Ministry of Defense. 

Key battles came alive as officers assigned to the Tunisian Military Museum, including PhD candidates in military history, participated in stand discussions, sharing the Tunisian specific points of view, and expertise.  This training provided AFRICOM staff officers an exclusive chance to interact with counterpart military members, sharing experience and knowledge as peers while studying the campaign and enriching the shared event.

Opportunities for higher-ranking engagement occurred as well, when the AFRICOM J5, Maj Gen Kenneth Ekman, and Deputy J5, Brigadier General Mark Hovatter, led the staff in a visit to the Tunisian National Military Museum.  Museum military personnel gave a detailed tour through Tunisia’s military history from Hannibal to the Crimean War, and even recent battles against the Islamic State.  Here the AFRICOM staff officers saw how the Tunisian military views itself and its proud military history and professionalism they espouse to the present day.

This portion of the Staff Training also provided an opportunity for the AFRICOM J5 and D/J5 to meet with the Tunisian Military Museum leadership.  Their discussions focused on Tunisian desires to establish contact with U.S. military museums in order to conduct subject matter expert exchanges and learn best practices.  This meeting encapsulated the depth and breadth of the U.S.-Tunisian military relationship, ranging from traditional Security Cooperation activities to collaboration on military history and preservation.

Of note, the form and function of the Staff Training contrasted strongly with the normal Distinguished Visitor (DV) visit to the continent.  DV visits historically involve moving the DV via partner escorted motorcade from palatial meeting/conference room to the next palatial meeting/conference room and finally to the secure hotel. In this scenario, the DV interacts only with other higher-ranking partner nation counterparts, moving from engagement to engagement in a self-contained bubble.  The Staff Training by comparison contained numerous instances where US personnel, regardless of rank, interacted with Tunisians of all ranks, while traveling to and through traditional villages on winding country roads.  If one truly wants to get to know the partner and their country, there are few better opportunities than the time spent together during a Staff Ride.

As a Combatant Command not physically located on its assigned geographic area of responsibility, the J5 Staff Training represented an occasion for staff officers to work alongside a critical partner, see a segment of Africa, and develop lasting relationships, all while expanding their professional knowledge. Participants witnessed this partner in action, from executing competent security operations, to showcasing their military heritage, while demonstrating continued apolitical professionalism during a time of political transition. This event clearly aided in the Security Cooperation task to “build relationships that promote specific United States security interests,” by engaging to “improve relationships, interoperability, and decision making”.

Commands should view Staff Training and Staff Rides as a way to deepen relationships, reinforce ties, and increase mutual understanding. Simply put, they should be viewed as an additional tool of Security Cooperation and partner engagement.  The Staff Ride environment creates conditions for professional military exchanges among equals, focused on a historic campaign, and provides unparalleled opportunities to see terrain, discuss lessons learned, and consider our modern day responses to our shared security challenges.  By deliberately incorporating Staff Training/Staff Rides into Security Cooperation plans, Commands can create unique opportunities, utilizing this tool to fortify key relationships with our partners, together on their terrain, while continuing to advance U.S. objectives and goals in the present day. 

To learn more about Staff Rides watch this video: 

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