By Alistair Thomson
DAKAR, Jan 13 (Reuters) - Communications specialists from Africa’s armies and the United States are working out how units from different countries can talk to each other as part of a future continental peacekeeping standby force.
African armies use a patchwork of official languages, military conventions and communications methods left behind by European colonial rule and decades of Cold War conflicts.
But the 53-nation African Union hopes to forge a unified force from their ranks so as to be able to nip conflicts in the bud and take a greater role in peacekeeping on the continent.
Communications experts from around 25 African armies and the U.S. Africa Command (Africom) are meeting in Senegal this week to plan a continental exercise in Gabon in July, the third of its kind and intended to pave the way for a common communications platform.
"The aim is to devise a transmission architecture for control, command and coordination, as well as an information system, for an eventual African Union peacekeeping force," Captain Mouhamadou Sylla, of the Senegalese army, told Reuters.
"Everybody needs to speak the same language," he said.
However, U.S. Air Force Major Eric Hilliard, of the Africa Command (Africom) in Stuttgart, said it was unlikely the programme would simply recommend the adoption of English — as, for example, is done in international air traffic control.
While English is widely spoken in southern and East Africa, many West and Central African countries speak French and others Portuguese, while Arabic is spoken across much of North Africa.
But regardless of the language being spoken, the exercise known as "Africa Endeavor" will ensure military units can exchange information and orders with units from other countries by ensuring equipment and communications methods are compatible.
"We’re looking not just at communications within countries, but also between countries, military to military as well as military to civilian agencies," Hilliard said.
"Could it be used for sharing information on counter-terrorism? Natural disasters? ... outbreaks of viruses and disease? That’s where it really comes into play," he said.
"This exercise supports a lot of U.S. goals ... helping the African countries work together to help each other," he said.
Africom was created last October from three U.S. commands which previously covered Africa.
After early plans to locate a headquarters in Africa met stiff resistance from some African countries suspicious of American ambitions in Africa, Africom commanders have emphasised their ambitions to develop African military capacity and improve stability, including by helping set up the AU standby force.
With U.N. peacekeeping operations already stretched trying to stifle conflicts in Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan’s Darfur and elsewhere, the African Union has come under pressure to put more troops in the field, including into Somalia.
For years U.S. forces have given counterterrorism training to armies in Africa’s Sahel region, stretching from Senegal to Djibouti, hoping to reduce the threat from armed Islamist groups like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. (Editing by Giles Elgood)