VICENZA, Italy – Working primarily from Caserma Del Din in Vicenza, Italy, members of the U.S. Army Africa intelligence directorate waded into unfamiliar territory as the new coronavirus spread throughout Italy.
Typically, intelligence operations consist of finding opportunities for engagements to build on relations between USARAF and partner nations across Africa. The section also analyzes threat assessments and force protection measures for troops conducting operations on the continent.
Don Houghton, a USARAF current operations intelligence analyst, explained that his section’s responsibilities include looking at the requirements for what and how things are happening on the continent.
“We are U.S. Army Africa, so we focus on Africa,” Houghton said.
But when COVID-19 became a pandemic, the directorate had to quickly redefine its mission objectives.
USARAF senior intelligence analyst Brett Woodward explained the challenges in shifting mission focus during the first few days of the crisis included asking the question, “What exactly is COVID-19?”.
That was just the beginning.
“With COVID not being an ‘Africa’ thing, but something affecting everyone, no matter where we are, we started changing our focus to how COVID-19 is affecting Africa and how COVID-19 in Africa is affecting us,” Houghton said.
Another challenge for the directorate was basing analysis on a new virus with very little and sometimes conflicting data on transmission, symptoms and treatment.
“One of our main jobs is being able to help contextualize COVID for our equities and to communicate what the implications are on our operations, as well as on our partner’s operations, and what that might look like in the future,” Woodward said.
Since the novel coronavirus is a medical threat, the intelligence community had to brace for additional challenges in their research.
“We don’t have any medical professionals in the intelligence directorate,” Woodward said. “However, we quickly had to navigate the learning curve to speak functionally about it.”
Overcoming that obstacle includes working closely with representatives from the host nation, organizations in the surrounding area, and medical professionals from the USARAF and U.S. Army Garrison Italy communities.
Woodward broke down the analytical process to assessing what they readily knew about the novel coronavirus when they first started hearing about it and then asking questions and hunting down the specific answers needed. His team constantly needs the updated information to ensure they are giving the USARAF commanding general the newest data as he makes decisions for the road ahead.
“We have Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier here, who is the senior responsible officer,” Houghton said. “His job is to make decisions to safeguard the Americans as well as safeguarding the people around us, our host nation.”
Because of the teamwork across the board, Cloutier has been able to make decisions to help protect the members in his area of responsibility. Working together with host nation representatives and partner nations has kept the forces ready to go if called upon due to the strict measures.
“Our job has always been to work with our partners and allies to gather information to figure out what’s happening, regardless of who the opposition is,” Houghton said. “Right now the opposition is a virus.”
“You can’t see it, you can’t touch it, but it can change your life very quickly,” he continued. “It’s more about working with the Italians and sharing information to figure out what’s going on now and what’s going to happen in the future.”