Operation Firm Response
Civil unrest in Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo (not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of Congo and also referred to just as Congo or Congo-Brazzaville) in the middle of 1997, led US European Command (EUCOM) to direct Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) to prepare to deploy an European Survey and Assessment Team (ESAT) and follow-on forces for an embassy reinforcement and possible non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO). Twenty-two American and 6 Marine guards remained in the embassy as the security situation deteriorated quickly in June 1997. French forces stationed in the country also had approximately 1,500 troops on the ground with armored vehicles and commandeered private vehicles outfitted for mounted patrols.
On 10 June 1997, Brigadier General Geoffrey C. Lambert, the Commander of SOCEUR, sent a 12-man ESAT with 6 support personnel in a 7th Special Operations Squadron MC-130H to Brazzaville to link up with the Defense Attaché and French forces at the airport. The team would then proceed to the embassy, and assess the embassy's security. Arriving at Maya-Maya Airfield amidst heavy gunfire, the ESAT unloaded the aircraft, and French paratroopers put 56 evacuees on the MC-130. The team moved to the embassy and began to harden their areas and improve living conditions at the embassy. During their 9 days in Brazzaville, Lieutenant Colonel David Mamaux led the team on multiple trips outside the compound to retrieve much needed supplies and sensitive materials, and to coordinate with the French military.
On 18 June, the team loaded the 12 remaining embassy personnel, their baggage, all sensitive items, and one dog, onto a chartered DC-3 aircraft. The ESAT members and one Peace Corps volunteer departed Brazzaville later that same day. The assessment team provided crucial assistance to the US ambassador when rebel forces attacked Brazzaville. The team conducted route reconnaissance, coordinated with the French military, provided communications support, and organized the embassy staff for the NEO. Amidst considerable violence and looting, the special operations forces team insured the safe evacuation of 69 Americans.
Operation Firm Response proved again the obvious value of engagement, area orientation, and situational awareness. Firm Response also illustrated the good and bad of command and control. The Commander in Chief of EUCOM directed that this would be a low profile mission. The decision to deploy only an augmented ESAT on a single aircraft constrained how the special operations forces ground commander conducted the operation and, ultimately, put special operations forces at risk on the ground. Moreover, Brigadier General Lambert had to accept responsibility for the mission, but gave up control to the EUCOM J-3. In stark contrast to EUCOM's handling of the operation, Brigadier General Lambert picked the team leader for all the right reasons: experience, Africa time, and warrior and diplomatic skills. He then empowered the team leader to operate in the fluid circumstances in Brazzaville. Lambert's trust and confidence in his subordinates paid off.
Operation Firm Response demonstrated what special operations forces brought to the "fight," rapid planning and force sizing; an integrated package of air, ground, and maritime capabilities; mature, motivated, and well-trained military personnel; and an ability to operate in an ambiguous environment. Firm Response exposed the dilemmas and opportunities confronting special operations forces leaders and operators as they faced the complex battlespace, which characterized the post-Cold War era and the early 21st century. It had a "classic merging of all levels—tactical, operational, strategic and diplomatic," where a bullet or a word or a gesture could have had ramifications far beyond Brazzaville.
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