WASHINGTON -- Combatant command senior enlisted leaders discussed operations against terrorists in their areas, the state of forces and what noncommissioned officers bring to the table internationally during a Pentagon news conference yesterday.
Army Command Sgt. Major John W. Troxell, the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hosted the event at the end of the second day of a Defense Senior Enlisted Leader Council conference.
The senior NCOs discussed the global fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Ramon Colon-Lopez said ISIS is a problem in U.S. Africa Command's area of operations.
"With regards to the spread of ISIS, pretty much everything that you're getting on open source is what we're seeing," the chief said. "You have flows of foreign fighters that went from Africa to fight in Iraq and Syria, and they're coming back. And our job right now is to be able to contain them and keep the pressure on the network to prevent further spread."
The continent is an attractive area for the terror group. Colon-Lopez noted that more than 50 percent of Africa's population is under 24 years old, and many have no viable future. Also, he said, many African countries have weak governments that are unable to extend control into all parts of their nations, and ISIS is drawn to those areas.
Africom is concerned about the spread not only of ISIS, but also of other violent extremist groups, Colon-Lopez said.
Reporters asked U.S. Special Operations Command senior enlisted leader Army Command Sgt. Maj. Patrick L. McCauley on the possible overuse of special operators in the last 16 years of war. McCauley said the force is at a sustainable level across the globe now, "but that doesn't come easily."
Always Evaluating Mission Sets
Socom officials always are evaluating the mission sets, McCauley said, explaining that the command studies all the requests and allocates forces to meet geographic combatant commanders' requirements.
"Right now, we feel like we're in a pretty good place with that, but again, it's a constantly ongoing process," he said. "We're evaluating, divesting of some missions we may or may not be doing, and then moving into other areas."
Troxell addressed the transnational and transregional aspects, saying nothing can really be limited to one area or region any more and noting that threats such as ISIS -- born in the Middle East -- have spilled over to Africa.
"We've seen attacks in Europe, but we've also seen them in the Pacific as well," he said. "So when we talk global integration, it's key that all of us here work together and from a perspective of by, with and through our partners in building partner capacity."
One aspect that is truly important, he added, is to help partner nations develop small-unit leaders, specifically NCOs who can execute disciplined initiative within their commanders' intent to accomplish the mission.
The combatant command senior enlisted leaders said they understand that fighting a transregional threat requires transregional cooperation. Colon-Lopez spoke about the first continent-wide gathering of African NCOs that Africom sponsored in Garmisch, Germany.
He said it was a positive experience "just to be able to have a dialogue over four days on what are some of the things and initiatives that we need to be getting more aggressive on, and what methods we need to further utilize to ensure that they have professional forces," he said.
Being together like that impressed on the African NCOs that they must work together, Colon-Lopez said. "I will quote the African partners when they stated at the end, 'We came here as NCOs of our country. We leave here as NCOs for Africa. We need to tackle these problems together,'" he added.
Troxell acknowledged that the U.S. force and its combatant commands face readiness challenges.
"Sixteen years of high operational tempo and unstable budgets have caused us to defer some modernization programs that we needed to get after," he said. "It's caused us not to be able to get after maintenance programs. And it's caused some of our service members to use worn-out equipment."
The military needs a stable budget to address these issues, he said.
The senior enlisted leaders act as the eyes and ears of the combatant commanders. They are at the side of four-star generals and admirals, and they have a voice at the military's highest levels. And the fact that enlisted service members have that kind of experience and influence sends a powerful message to partner nations, Troxell said.
It is tough for some nations to empower enlisted personnel, either through culture or tradition, he told reporters, and those nations also haven't had the combat experience of the U.S. military.
"We've learned over the last 16 years that you can expand the commanders' reach and their area of responsibility by empowering enlisted leaders," Troxell said. "But that has to come through with training, education, and then you have trust. And when you have trust, you can empower those enlisted leaders."