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CENTCOM Group Plans Future Operations

By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla., Feb. 3, 2006 – A group of military officers huddles closely around a computer monitor at U.S. Central Command headquarters. The officers all weigh in on the issue, offering their opinions, and each of them is heard.

The discussion is lively - undivided attention is given to the person who has the floor. And after all have expended their thoughts, the group breaks and begins to take action.

Such scenes are repeated in the U.S. military many times each day. What makes this group different is that they are all from 25 different countries and from those countries' various branches of service.

"It's a unique entity within the U.S. armed forces," Netherlands army Lt. Col. Richard Van Harskamp said. "It is one of the only entities within combatant commands ... where coalition experience is being integrated into operations," he said.

Harskamp is a member of U.S. Central Command's Combined Planning Group, an international team of military officers charged with examining future global counterterrorism issues and future military and political issues in CENTCOM's area of responsibility. The group employs estimates or assessments and then develops future campaign plans and strategies.

Then-CENTCOM commander Army Gen. Tommy Franks, founded the group, known as the CPG, in 2002, Marine Col. Michael Greer said. Greer is one of three deputy directors who lead specialized operational planning teams.

"We work things that don't require high-level diplomatic review," Greer said. "We're the source of expertise inside of CENTCOM on developments outside CENTCOM that may influence things inside the CENTCOM area of responsibility," Greer said.

Although the group uses open-source information to perform its work, its product, Greer said, is classified. Currently, Greer said, he and his team are working on the "coalition way ahead," or a plan on how the coalition will continue to be used in the war on terror and other operations.

"The coalition is very important. It's our goal to have a very healthy organization," Greer said. "The importance the coalition places on the global war on terror is represented by the quality of the officers that are here," he said. Three Australian officers have led the CPG. Australian navy Commodore Simon Cullen, currently chairs the group.

CPG members pride themselves on their knack for dissent. Issues cannot be fully examined without members playing devils' advocate, group members said.

"The beauty of us being here as international officers is that we can say when we disagree," Canadian air force Col. Yvan Boilard said. He is a deputy director with the CPG and leads a team responsible for the Horn of Africa. "We provide the yin to the yang," he said.

Americans are indoctrinated in their way of thinking, Boilard said. The coalition offers a fresh way to look at issues, he added, a way that Americans may not look at a given situation.

"Here, it is encouraged to deviate," Greer said, noting that ordinarily military minds are sticklers for regulations, procedures and uniformity. Membership on the CPG requires officers to "think outside the box," Greer said.

"The experiences are different," Greer said. "They have a different way of viewing the world," he said of the coalition officers on the CPG. Coalition officers are "thoroughly integrated" in operations, Greer said. The group each quarter produces the commander's estimate - a "what's happening" of sorts, Greer said.

"We try to advise the commander (Army Gen. John Abizaid) on what the future of our contribution should be," Van Harskamp said. "It is our look to the world," he said. "That definitely gives the commander another point of view on the decisions he has to make." Abizaid solicits membership in the group, asking coalition nations supporting the global war on terror for nominees. A board examines each candidate and then makes recommendations to the CPG director, Greer said.

But while flexibility is encouraged from CPG members, their qualifications criteria are distinct and selective.

"The selection process here is very rigid," Van Harskamp said. "Most of us have some international experience," he added. And English skills must be honed.

"It's very enriching," Van Harskamp said about serving with the CPG. "It helped me to understand some of the orders I got in Iraq, the genesis of things I had to do," he explained.

Van Harskamp served as a mechanized infantry battalion commander in Iraq. He is currently a strategic planner with the CPG.

Though security considerations don't permit revealing much detail, Greer said his team was examining the courses of action an unidentified nation might take if a particular global scenario developed. "We're an alternative think tank," Greer said. "We look at the long-range, strategic view of things," he said.

In the cubicle next to him, Boilard and his team discuss plans for an African region. "The things we're doing now are developing a concept of operation for U.S. and coalition forces in the Horn of Africa," Boilard said. "The Horn of Africa is still lively. In the Horn of Africa you never know what will happen from one day to the next," he said.

Boilard's team is as diverse as the issues that surround his region of responsibility. Diversity, he said, is key to planning operations in complex environments.

"The reason we have such a diverse team," Boilard said, "is that Africa is afflicted with such strife ... that we each bring a different point of view to the table," he added.

Although coalition nations have senior national representatives located at CENTCOM, the CPG members do not discuss their group's long-term plans with their nations. This, Boilard said, prevents nations from prematurely inducing preparations for plans that may not have been approved.

"We see the global war on terror getting more and more global," Van Harskamp said. "A common approach is the only thing that will create success. Elements like the CPG have more impact than they did three years ago. That is a first step to building a coalition."

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