The Startling Size of US Military Operations in Africa
The Pentagon's Africa Command will tell you there's one military base on the entire continent. Don't believe them.
They're involved in Algeria and Angola, Benin and Botswana, Burkina Faso and Burundi, Cameroon and the Cape Verde Islands. And that's just the ABCs of the situation. Skip to the end of the alphabet and the story remains the same: Senegal and the Seychelles, Togo and Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia. From north to south, east to west, the Horn of Africa to the Sahel, the heart of the continent to the islands off its coasts, the US military is at work. Base construction, security cooperation engagements, training exercises, advisory deployments, special operations missions, and a growing logistics network, all undeniable evidence of expansion—except at US Africa Command.
To hear AFRICOM tell it, US military involvement on the continent ranges from the miniscule to the microscopic. The command is adamant that it has only a single "military base" in all of Africa: Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. The head of the command insists that the US military maintains a "small footprint" on the continent. AFRICOM's chief spokesman has consistently minimized the scope of its operations and the number of facilities it maintains or shares with host nations, asserting that only "a small presence of personnel who conduct short-duration engagements" are operating from "several locations" on the continent at any given time.
With the war in Iraq over and the conflict in Afghanistan winding down, the US military is deploying its forces far beyond declared combat zones. In recent years, for example, Washington has very publicly proclaimed a "pivot to Asia," a "rebalancing" of its military resources eastward, without actually carrying out wholesale policy changes. Elsewhere, however, from the Middle East to South America, the Pentagon is increasingly engaged in shadowy operations whose details emerge piecemeal and are rarely examined in a comprehensive way. Nowhere is this truer than in Africa. To the media and the American people, officials insist the US military is engaged in small-scale, innocuous operations there. Out of public earshot, officers running America's secret wars say: "Africa is the battlefield of tomorrow, today."
The proof is in the details—a seemingly ceaseless string of projects, operations, and engagements. Each mission, as AFRICOM insists, may be relatively limited and each footprint might be "small" on its own, but taken as a whole, US military operations are sweeping and expansive. Evidence of an American pivot to Africa is almost everywhere on the continent. Few, however, have paid much notice.
If the proverbial picture is worth a thousand words, then what's a map worth? Take, for instance, the one created by TomDispatch that documents US military outposts, construction, security cooperation, and deployments in Africa. It looks like a field of mushrooms after a monsoon. US Africa Command recognizes 54 countries on the continent, but refuses to say in which ones (or even in how many) it now conducts operations. An investigation by TomDispatch has found recent US military involvement with no fewer than 49 African nations.
In some, the US maintains bases, even if under other names. In others, it trains local partners and proxies to battle militants ranging from Somalia's al-Shabaab and Nigeria's Boko Haram to members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Elsewhere, it is building facilities for its allies or infrastructure for locals. Many African nations are home to multiple US military projects. Despite what AFRICOM officials say, a careful reading of internal briefings, contracts, and other official documents, as well as open source information, including the command's own press releases and news items, reveals that military operations in Africa are already vast and will be expanding for the foreseeable future.
A Base by Any Other Name…
What does the US military footprint in Africa look like? Colonel Tom Davis, AFRICOM's Director of Public Affairs, is unequivocal: "Other than our base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, we do not have military bases in Africa, nor do we have plans to establish any." He admits only that the US has "temporary facilities elsewhere…that support much smaller numbers of personnel, usually for a specific activity."
AFRICOM's chief of media engagement Benjamin Benson echoes this, telling me that it's almost impossible to offer a list of forward operating bases. "Places that [US forces] might be, the range of possible locations can get really big, but can provide a really skewed image of where we are…versus other places where we have ongoing operations. So, in terms of providing a number, I'd be at a loss of how to quantify this."
A briefing prepared last year by Captain Rick Cook, the chief of AFRICOM's Engineering Division, tells a different story, making reference to forward operating sites or FOSes (long-term locations), cooperative security locations or CSLs (which troops periodically rotate in and out of), and contingency locations or CLs (which are used only during ongoing operations). A separate briefing prepared last year by Lieutenant Colonel David Knellinger references seven cooperative security locations across Africa whose whereabouts are classified. A third briefing, produced in July of 2012 by US Army Africa, identifies one of the CSL sites as Entebbe, Uganda, a location from which US contractors have flown secret surveillance missions using innocuous-looking, white Pilatus PC-12 turboprop airplanes, according to an investigation by the Washington Post.
The 2012 US Army Africa briefing materials obtained by TomDispatch reference plans to build six new gates to the Entebbe compound, 11 new "containerized housing units," new guard stations, new perimeter and security fencing, enhanced security lighting and new concrete access ramps, among other improvements. Satellite photos indicate that many, if not all, of these upgrades have, indeed, taken place.
Entebbe Cooperative Security Location, Entebbe, Uganda, in 2009 and 2013 ©2013 Google ©2013 Digital Globe
A 2009 image (above left) shows a bare-bones compound of dirt and grass tucked away on a Ugandan air base with just a few aircraft surrounding it. A satellite photo of the compound from earlier this year (above right) shows a strikingly more built-up camp surrounded by a swarm of helicopters and white airplanes.
Initially, AFRICOM's Benjamin Benson refused to comment on the construction or the number of aircraft, insisting that the command had no "public information" about it. Confronted with the 2013 satellite photo, Benson reviewed it and offered a reply that neither confirmed nor denied that the site was a US facility, but cautioned me about using "uncorroborated data." (Benson failed to respond to my request to corroborate the data through a site visit.) "I have no way of knowing where the photo was taken and how it was modified," he told me. "Assuming the location is Entebbe, as you suggest, I would again argue that the aircraft could belong to anyone…It would be irresponsible of me to speculate on the missions, roles, or ownership of these aircraft." He went on to suggest, however, that the aircraft might belong to the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) which does have a presence at the Entebbe air base. A request for comment from MONUSCO went unanswered before this article went to press.
This buildup may only be the beginning for Entebbe CSL. Recent contracting documents examined by TomDispatch indicate that AFRICOM is considering an additional surge of air assets there—specifically hiring a private contractor to provide further "dedicated fixed-wing airlift services for movement of Department of Defense (DoD) personnel and cargo in the Central African Region." This mercenary air force would keep as many as three planes in the air at the same time on any given day, logging a total of about 70 to 100 hours per week. If the military goes ahead with these plans, the aircraft would ferry troops, weapons, and other materiel within Uganda and to the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan.
Another key, if little noticed, US outpost in Africa is located in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. An airbase there serves as the home of a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment, as well as the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative. According to military documents, that "initiative" supports "high-risk activities" carried out by elite forces from Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara. Lieutenant Colonel Scott Rawlinson, a spokesman for Special Operations Command Africa, told me that it provides "emergency casualty evacuation support to small team engagements with partner nations throughout the Sahel," although official documents note that such actions have historically accounted for only 10% of its monthly flight hours.
While Rawlinson demurred from discussing the scope of the program, citing operational security concerns, military documents again indicate that, whatever its goals, it is expanding rapidly. Between March and December 2012, for example, the initiative flew 233 sorties. In the first three months of this year, it carried out 193.
In July, Berry Aviation, a Texas-based longtime Pentagon contractor, was awarded a nearly $50 million contract to provide aircraft and personnel for "Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing services." Under the terms of the deal, Berry will "perform casualty evacuation, personnel airlift, cargo airlift, as well as personnel and cargo aerial delivery services throughout the Trans-Sahara of Africa," according to a statement from the company. Contracting documents indicate that Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia are the "most likely locations for missions."
Special Ops in Africa
Ouagadougou is just one site for expanding US air operations in Africa. Last year, the 435th Military Construction Flight (MCF)—a rapid-response mobile construction team—revitalized an airfield in South Sudan for Special Operations Command Africa, according to the unit's commander, Air Force lieutenant Alexander Graboski. Before that, the team also "installed a runway lighting system to enable 24-hour operations" at the outpost. Graboski states that the Air Force's 435th MCF "has been called upon many times by Special Operations Command Africa to send small teams to perform work in austere locations." This trend looks as if it will continue. According to a briefing prepared earlier this year by Hugh Denny of the Army Corps of Engineers, plans have been drawn up for Special Operations Command Africa "operations support" facilities to be situated in "multiple locations."
AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson refused to answer questions about SOCAFRICA facilities, and would not comment on the locations of missions by an elite, quick-response force known as Naval Special Warfare Unit 10 (NSWU 10). But according to Captain Robert Smith, the commander of Naval Special Warfare Group Two, NSWU 10 has been engaged "with strategic countries such as Uganda, Somalia, [and] Nigeria."
Captain J. Dane Thorleifson, NSWU 10's outgoing commander, recently mentioned deployments in six "austere locations" in Africa and "every other month contingency operations—Libya, Tunisia, [and] POTUS," evidently a reference to President Obama's three-nation trip to Africa in July. Thorleifson, who led the unit from July 2011 to July 2013, also said NSWU 10 had been involved in training "proxy" forces, specifically "building critical host nation security capacity; enabling, advising, and assisting our African CT [counterterror] partner forces so they can swiftly counter and destroy al-Shabab, AQIM [Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], and Boko Haram."
Nzara in South Sudan is one of a string of shadowy forward operating posts on the continent where US Special Operations Forces have been stationed in recent years. Other sites include Obo and Djema in the Central Africa Republic and Dungu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to Lieutenant Colonel Guillaume Beaurpere, the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, "advisory assistance at forward outposts was directly responsible for the establishment of combined operations fusion centers where military commanders, local security officials, and a host of international and non-governmental organizations could share information about regional insurgent activity and coordinate military activities with civil authorities."
Drone bases are also expanding. In February, the US announced the establishment of a new drone facility in Niger. Later in the spring, AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson confirmed to TomDispatch that US air operations conducted from Base Aerienne 101 at Diori Hamani International Airport in Niamey, Niger's capital, were providing "support for intelligence collection with French forces conducting operations in Mali and with other partners in the region." More recently, the New York Times noted that what began as the deployment of one Predator drone to Niger had expanded to encompass daily flights by one of two larger, more advanced Reaper remotely piloted aircraft, supported by 120 Air Force personnel. Additionally, the US has flown drones out of the Seychelles Islands and Ethiopia's Arba Minch Airport.
When it comes to expanding US outposts in Africa, the Navy has also been active. It maintains a forward operating location—manned mostly by Seabees, Civil Affairs personnel, and force-protection troops—known as Camp Gilbert in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. Since 2004, US troops have been stationed at a Kenyan naval base known as Camp Simba at Manda Bay. AFRICOM's Benson portrayed operations there as relatively minor, typified by "short-term training and engagement activities." The 60 or so "core" troops stationed there, he said, are also primarily Civil Affairs, Seabees, and security personnel who take part in "military-to-military engagements with Kenyan forces and humanitarian initiatives."
An AFRICOM briefing earlier this year suggested, however, that the base is destined to be more than a backwater post. It called attention to improvements in water and power infrastructure and an extension of the runway at the airfield, as well as greater "surge capacity" for bringing in forces in the future. A second briefing, prepared by the Navy and obtained by TomDispatch, details nine key infrastructure upgrades that are on the drawing board, underway, or completed.
In addition to extending and improving that runway, they include providing more potable water storage, latrines, and lodgings to accommodate a future "surge" of troops, doubling the capacity of washer and dryer units, upgrading dining facilities, improving roadways and boat ramps, providing fuel storage, and installing a new generator to handle additional demands for power. In a March article in the National Journal, James Kitfield, who visited the base, shed additional light on expansion there. "Navy Seabee engineers," he wrote, "…have been working round-the-clock shifts for months to finish a runway extension before the rainy season arrives. Once completed, it will allow larger aircraft like C-130s to land and supply Americans or African Union troops."
AFRICOM's Benson tells TomDispatch that the US military also makes use of six buildings located on Kenyan military bases at the airport and seaport of Mombasa. In addition, he verified that it has used Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport in Senegal for refueling stops as well as the "transportation of teams participating in security cooperation activities" such as training missions. He confirmed a similar deal for the use of Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia.