US Military to Maintain Low-Key Presence In Africa – Official

US military Ethiopian drone
The U.S. operates numerous military drone bases across Africa

AFRICANGLOBE – US military efforts in Africa will remain low-key and “small footprint,” and will be geared toward building relationships with African nations, a senior Defence Department official has been quoted as saying.

US Africa Command is maturing and running a variety of exercises and operations with allies to continue the trend, the official said, speaking to reporters on background at the Pentagon this week.

The command really has a two-fold mission on the continent, the official said. First, there is a very active approach to countering threats to U.S. citizens and U.S. interests in Africa. Second is the development of “effective partnerships to prevent and respond to conflict and [other threats to] stability wherever it manifests,” the official said.

The continent is very much a “glass-is-half-empty, glass-is-half-full” place, the official acknowledged. In East Africa, there has been tremendous success with Somalia. The nations of the region, under the African Union (AU), banded together to stop extremism and to give the Somali people some stability. The AU mission, coupled with Combined Joint Task Force 150, the multinational counterpiracy effort, has given the failed state of Somalia a new chance, the American Forces Press Service reports.

Across the continent, “there’s a lot to talk about in terms of what went wrong with Mali and how might we as a US government and as an international community learn from that,” the official said.

The prerequisites for a successful policy include having “a shared view of a threat environment, having shared values, being willing to engage in capacity and capabilities development, and then being willing, as a partner government, to employ your capabilities vis-a-vis the threats in your environment,” the official explained. “I think we can kind of disassemble those elements and point to some areas where this did not work out well in Mali.”

The effort on the continent is diverse because the continent itself is diverse. Africa is not a one-size-fits-all place, the official noted. It has 54 nations with hundreds of languages, thousands of ethnic affiliations and a great disparity among the haves and have-nots.

The U.S. military relates to each country differently, the official said, and maintains a small footprint. “We have one enduring location on the continent in the form of Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti,” the official said. “It’s critical to our counterterrorism operations and our security and cooperation activities in East Africa.”

Camp Lemonnier is the only official US military base in Africa (Africa Command is headquartered in Germany), and is home to more than 2,000 American military personnel – around half of the total on the continent. According to the Washington Post, there are around 300 Special Operations personnel at Camp Lemonnier who plan and coordinate missions from the base. The US is expanding the base to accommodate more aircraft and troops.

Last year the Washington Post, citing a letter to the US Congress sent by Deputy Defence Secretary Ashton B Carter on August 20, said that every day, 16 unmanned aerial vehicles and four jet fighters take off or land at Camp Lemonnier as they take part in US military counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.

A variety of aircraft fly out of Camp Lemonnier, including RQ-1/MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, U-28A surveillance aircraft, F-15E Strike Eagles and C-130 Hercules transports.

Air Force Special Operations Command flies 21 U-28A reconnaissance aircraft, which are modified Pilatus PC-12 airframes and are maintained by contractors.

In addition to the UAVs and U-28s, US forces are also flying F-15s out of Djibouti, with a squadron arriving in October 2011. Two former US defence officials told the Washington Post that the F-15s were flying combat missions over Yemen in an effort to counter al Qaeda there.

Apart from Lemmonier, the United States has “cooperative security location” arrangements on a rotational or intermittent basis with a number of other countries, the official said, and other access arrangements develop over time on an as-needed basis, consistent with what’s happening in the security environment.

In June the Washington Post article stated that the United States has established a dozen air bases in Africa since 2007, mainly for surveillance purposes. Most are small operations run out of secluded hangars at African military bases or civilian airports.

Surveillance is overseen by US Special Operations forces but relies to a large extent on private military contractors and support from African troops. This allows these operations to fly below the radar. Using U-28 surveillance aircraft rather than unmanned aerial vehicles also keeps the profile of these operations low. Some of the bases are in Ethiopia, the Seychelles, Burkina Faso and Uganda.

Africa has emerged as a greater priority for the US government because terrorist groups there have become an increasing threat to US and regional security. The US is concerned about al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), insurgents in Mali, Boko Haram extremists in Nigeria and al Shabaab militia in Somalia. In central Africa, around 100 US special forces are assisting in the hunt for warlord Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

The United States has signed a status-of-forces agreement with Niger, and a unit is flying remotely piloted aircraft from the country. This helps the United States and allies in the region better understand the situation in the Sahel and in northern Mali in particular, the official said.

A number of unarmed Predator UAVs arrived in Niger’s capital Niamey in late February. The last of 100 US military personnel supporting the deployment arrived in Niger on February 20, including aircraft maintenance personnel and UAV pilots. Officially, they have been deployed to provide intelligence collection support and facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces in Mali, who intervened in Mali in early January. At present the Predators in Niger are unarmed but could be fitted with weapons at a later stage.