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STUTTGART, Germany -- In the politically charged aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi, in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed, it emerged that something crucial was missing from the structure of U.S. Africa Command: a rapid reaction force.
Not anymore. In response to a question during a recent speech at George Washington University, AFRICOM boss Gen. Carter Ham said his command is now outfitted with a new capability.
"With regard to a response force, when the command was initially formed there was a sharing arrangement with what's called the Commander's in-Extremis Force with European Command. That was a good relationship that up until the 1st of October of this year was a shared arrangement," Ham said. "And now we have our own."
Why did it take so long for AFRICOM, which became fully operational in 2008, to get its own quick strike force like other Combatant Commands?
"It was just a matter of availability of forces, principally because of commitments in other parts of the world," Ham said.
However, when it comes to rapid response, location is key. Particularly in Africa, where AFRICOM is responsible for U.S. military interests in a territory roughly three times larger than the United States. So where will AFRICOM's new Commander's in-Extremis Force be located? In Fort Carson, Colo., according to an AFRICOM spokesman.
"Distance is a major factor for doing anything in Africa, and we regularly work with EUCOM," which has its own Commander's in-Extremis Force, said AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson when asked whether it would make more sense to have the Special Forces unit located in Europe or Africa. AFRICOM declined to comment further about the placement of its elite Special Forces team, whose movements are generally shrouded in secrecy.
For AFRICOM, the stationing of troops on the African continent has long been a sensitive issue, which could explain the command's reluctance to discuss the idea of a forward presence of Special Forces troops in Africa. However, former special operators say they don't expect the new rapid reaction force to spend much time in the U.S., as the long travel times to Africa would make the team ineffective as crisis responders.
While AFRICOM says the unit will be based in Fort Carson -- home to the 10th Special Forces Group -- it is more likely that the team of operators will spend most of its time forward-deployed in Africa, according to a recently retired Green Beret who served on multiple Commander's in-Extremis units.
"The capability we bring to a COCOM (Combatant Command) is that it is a certified counterterrorism unit at his (the commander's) disposal on short notice. That's the reason why we exist, and we are forward-deployed for that reason," said the former special operator, who asked not to be identified.
Jim Gavrilis, another former Green Beret and now a security consultant, said, given the U.S. military's small footprint in Africa, it is likely that the rapid response force will deploy on rotational missions.
Permanent Change of Station orders to Africa are probably not a viable option, Gavrilis said. Meanwhile, operational requirements would demand that the operators are forward deployed most of the time.
"The idea of a CIF is that these guys are on a short string somewhere in the region," said Gavrilis, a retired lieutenant colonel. "When a command matures, it has to get these things."