Vince Crawley's Africa Blog

Downrange vs Africa

Posted in Uncategorized by Vince Crawley on February 28, 2012
Google search results: Downrange vs Africa

Our uniformed military folks, including AFRICOM personnel, likes to use the word "downrange" for any deployment, including to Africa. But the two words conjure very different images.

I put this slide together a couple of years ago, so its exact results might differ with an updated Google search.

For a lot of good reasons related to diplomacy, politics, funding, and access to continent-wide transport, communications and logistics infrastructure, U.S. AFRICOM won’t have its headquarters in Africa. Stuttgart, Germany, actually is a sensible place for an organization with an Africa-wide charter, because Germany is approximately at the center of African time zones, and Stuttgart is an hourlong flight from most European capitals, where you can get a direct flight to nearly every African capital. Hardly any location in Africa would offer those kinds of transport advantages.

However, one downside is the fact that Africa is then viewed as remote for Europe-based staff, the majority of whom don’t often travel to the grand continent. Members of the U.S. military use the word “downrange” for a deployment location away from home, and they commonly use this term when referring to Africa.

The word downrange, of course, is a term used during military training, usually to identify a place inside of a target area used for live ammunition. Those who’ve been through military basic training will recall drill sergeants ordering them to keep their weapons pointed downrange, for example.

Google search of "downrange" vs "Africa communities"

Here's the results of a Google search of "downrange" compared to "Africa communities" - Our military generally works in and near communities.

I first heard the phrase “downrange” used as a geographic  reference in late 1995 and early 1996, when the Germany-based 1st Armored Division deployed on the NATO mission in Bosnia. For military deployments into potential danger zones, U.S.-based troops have long said they were deploying “overseas,” and that was sufficiently accurate. However, Germany-based troops already lived overseas with their families in relatively secure communities, so they needed a different phrase to distinguish their deployment locale. A few years earlier, the deployments to the first Persian Gulf War were usually referred to as “the desert,” a phrase amplified by the operational names of Desert Shield/Desert Storm. The 1995-’96 Bosnia mission needed a different phrase for a deployment into an austere environment, potentially in harm’s way, and far from the comfort and security of family and overseas military communities. Hence “downrange.”

However, the problem with downrange is that it doesn’t really create an accurate visual picture of Africa. Unlike classic “downrange” locations of the past two decades, nearly all of Africa is at peace, with stable U.S. Embassy communities and permanent staff assigned with their families as part of large international communities. A couple of years ago I sat in on a briefing in Djibouti in which a seasoned NCO was preparing troops for a mission outside the camp. He repeated, more than a dozen times, the phrase “We are not at war in Africa” as a way of exhorting military people to set aside their deployment mindsets developed outside of Africa.

With the departure of most forces from Iraq, and a plan to depart from Afghanistan, I expect the deployment vocabulary gradually will shift. Until that happens, I’ll continue my quiet campaign of helping to remind uniformed military folks of the images they convey when they speak of going “downrange” when they really mean they want to visit African communities.

Washington, D.C., and New York City have come under attack. So perhaps those are the places we should be referring to as “Downrange.”