Sunday, 10 February 2013

Special Series: Part 4 - Exploring U.S. military presence in Africa

This is a special report on the United States military involvement in Africa. The report will explore the changing militant landscape of sub-Saharan Africa, American motives for creating military bases, and a look at where and how those bases are functioning.

Part 4 outlines the use of drone technology as the rapier weapon preferred by the U.S. government, explains the importance and pervasiveness of inter-governmental military training, and collates the various African nations currently cooperating with the American military or seeing operations conducted inside their borders and in what capacity.

U.S. current and planned African military bases

United States military bases in Africa are positioned address a number of reasons, the most overt of which is housing UAVs for surveillance and interdiction efforts against Islamic militants infecting the North and West Africa. Justly or not, the employment of drone technology in warfare has changed the way military leaders approach conflict.

Alongside interdiction tasks, the United States are in Africa to monitor the rise of Chinese investment on the continent.

Drone bases will certainly become more popular over the next decade as they offer strategically larger opportunities for their operators. And it is only a matter of time before other technologically advanced countries such as China or Russia begin to use drone technology to support their own military operations. American drones have spread from the badlands of the Afghan-Pakistani northwest to the vast stretches of desolate North Africa and everything points to these weapons being used more and more.

But drones aren’t the sole focus in Africa. American military training and advisory roles are becoming more widespread on the continent as well. A number of African countries either currently have or are planning to receive U.S. Special Forces training teams to increase the competency of indigenous militaries. The main goal for these teams is for successful offloading of future and current military operations onto the local forces, removing the need for direct U.S. engagement.

One example is in Somalia. It is still fairly common knowledge that the United States is involved in the on-going, messy conflict in the Horn of Africa.

MQ-9 Reaper USAF
But Somalia isn’t the only place you can find American soldiers. The U.S. is engaged in around 26 different African countries using a special blend of spies, the diplomatic corps, Special Forces, drones, and indigenous proxy soldiers to gain better footholds in Africa. The aim is to create a region with overlapping circles of surveillance to monitor the spread of militancy and foreign interests in Africa, with an estimated 5000 U.S. troops on the continent at any one time.

To accomplish this task, Washington created a military group responsible for U.S. interests in the 53 African nations called Africa Command (AFRICOM). Headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, the command was formed in the year 2000. AFRICOM will continue to strengthen ties with regional militaries and governments by teaching military tactics, medicine and logistics, as well as combating famine, disease and terrorism in secure environments.

At present the United States appears to be focused on international terrorism in Africa, but the rise of Chinese influence in the continent is adding reasons for continued U.S. military presence. American energy and resource investments, especially in Nigeria and other West African countries, are also becoming increasingly important for Washington to protect. The United States is turning to military means as first option to secure these goals.

Some of the most active countries with U.S. cooperation include Nigeria, Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and of course Niger. Even the isolated Seychelles hosts a U.S. drone base which send “hunter-killer” missions over the Indian Ocean against Somali pirate activity. The differences and similarities in characteristics for each U.S. engagement in these countries are worth exploring.


Boko Haram, Nigeria’s own Islamic militant group has come under close attention to the United States military after a surprising technical leap in the past year or so. Coming from simple improvised explosive device attacks (IED) targeting mainly Christian institutions and small government buildings or state workers, to quickly employing large, capable vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED) within a few short years is suspicious to say the least.

One likely possibility explaining such a technical leap, involving many evolutionary steps, is increased cross-pollination between AQIM and Boko Haram. This cooperation is drawing U.S. surveillance flights from nearby Burkina Faso meant to assist Nigerian government forces in their efforts against the group.

This technical leap and the constant threat of violent escalation in the country are pulling Abuja and Washington closer. At the moment, U.S. troops are training Nigerian security forces to deal with the militant threat from Boko Haram. Around $US300 million of funding has been supplied to the Nigerian government to tackle the militancy as part of an AFRICOM initiative. Some reports indicate Boko Haram members may have made their way into Somalia to work with al-Shabaab members in 2009.


American drones regularly conduct surveillance flights over Somalia, launching targeted missile strikes on militant leaders suspected of belonging to the al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group al-Shabaab. Drones are perfect for use over Somalia because deploying troops into the instable country risks a repeat of the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident.

At least 400 U.S. troops have been training Somali soldiers in preparation for Somalia’s transitional government’s upcoming first true test of control of the war-torn nation. Drone strikes are very common, as are the constant sound of propellers from the remotely piloted aircraft as they conduct constant surveillance over Somalia.

Earlier in January, the White House officially spoke in a report about launching concerted deadly attacks in Somalia as part of its campaign against the al-Qaeda militant group. Special operations forces are leading the push against al-Shabaab in Somalia, but the CIA also has significant presence on the ground. As well as the media-friendly drone attacks, the U.S. Navy has participated in launching guided missile strikes on militants.


Camp Lemmonier is the largest of all current U.S. military bases in Africa, operated by the U.S. AFRICOM and leased for $US38 million per year. The encampment is situated on the old French-built Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport. The French Foreign Legion once used the base, who still operate in a limited form from there, but after September 11, 2001 it has been an important staging base for U.S. forces housing around 3000 military personnel including members of many U.S. Special Forces.

The name of the command operating from Camp Lemmonier is Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). Aside from being the largest in Africa, it is also the most important base for U.S. security operations outside of Afghanistan. Open-source overhead imagery has revealed UAVs inside the base and an October 2012 drone accidental crash just outside of Djibouti City confirmed the aircraft’s presence in the country. Activity on the base is high, and in February 2012, a U-28A crashed as it was returning to Camp Lemonnier killing four members of the Air Force Special Operations Command.

From this base, U.S. drones and other assets have launched strikes into nearby Yemen with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighting a prolonged internecine war against the government in Sanaa for many years. F-15 fighter-bombers also fly from the Camp, as well as Special Forces operators numbering somewhere around 300 as part of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).


Small, isolated airstrips are commonly used for temporary surveillance missions throughout Africa. Ethiopian airstrips have been used in the past for drone landings and take-offs, as well as conventional turboprop aircraft, to patrol areas sensitive to security operations in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. Ethiopia is working with the international forces intervening in Somalia as part of a special partnership between the United States.

A network of such small airfields provides the U.S. military with deep, but limited, ISR opportunities throughout central and northern Africa. Predator and Reaper drones, each with the ability to carry munitions, operate out of such places in Ethiopia like the Arba Minch airfield in which Washington invested millions of dollars to upgrade in 2011. Aircraft operating from the Ethiopian base have also reached out to strike targets in Yemen and Somalia.

The U.S. Navy also has a forward operating location, manned mostly by the U.S. Navy Construction Battalion, Civil Affairs personnel, and force-protection troops, known as Camp Gilbert in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia.

U.S. aircraft have assisted Ethiopian military engagements against al-Shabaab in the past, using AC-130 gunships operating from the Dire Dawa Ethiopian airbase in the east of the country. However, the Ethiopian government faced internal criticism during this period, and has shied away from allowing more large-scale American military presence in the country. The airfields and intelligence cooperation are likely limited in size and scope, but given their cooperative history, probably include significant clandestine assistance elsewhere.


An engineering battalion of Navy Seabees has been assigned to complete a $10 million runway upgrade at the Manda Bay Naval Base, a Kenyan military installation on the Indian Ocean. About 120 U.S. military personnel and contractors are stationed at Manda Bay, which Navy SEALs and other commandos have used as a base from which to launch raids against both Somali pirates and al-Shabaab fighters.

In addition, a small force of around 200 American soldiers is being deployed to Kenya to participate in inter-services military training this year. They will include a rapid-reaction force capable of conducting military operations independent of the Kenyan government. American combat advisors have already greatly assisted Kenyan intervention forces and the Somali transitional government in fighting the militant group al-Shabaab.


As mentioned in previous sections, a new U.S. base is reportedly in the works for positioning close to the Malian border region. The two nations signed a status-of-forces agreement recently that should pave the way for increased military cooperation, and greater legal protection for U.S. forces stationed there.

At the moment only unarmed drones will operate from the base, along with a minimum of around 300 personnel needed for maintenance of the aircraft and other tasks. The need for drone landing rights in central-north Africa is important. In classified cables stored by Wikileaks, turboprop planes already conducting signals intelligence (SIGINT) and ISR flights over northern Mali, flying out of Burkina Faso, have only had limited success. Bringing drones on station with longer flight-time capabilities and different instruments should increase the effectiveness of intelligence gathering.


A small fleet of drones flown from a few hangers in the Seychelles has been shown to effectively patrol Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula from the archipelago on the Indian Ocean. Given this range, the drones retain the ability to survey almost the entire east coast of East Africa, giving them enormous ISR vision over the day-today activities of that region.

Information released on the U.S. basing rights in the Seychelles indicates the primary mission is for monitoring the threat of Somali piracy off the coast of Africa. However, piracy in the region has decreased substantially over the past few years due to increased international security efforts, so drone surveillance missions will be needed less and less.

Maintaining those drones on the Seychelles will still be important if militancy remains an intractable problem in the Horn of Africa. MQ-9 Reaper drones flying from the island chain already strike targets in Somalia and Yemen, a mission surrounded by political secrecy, revealing that these UAVs are also occasionally armed. U.S. officials have hinted at a constellation of missions on the drone task-list, aside from counter-piracy missions.

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