Foreign military activity increasing in the Horn of Africa


The presence of foreign militaries in the Horn of Africa is increasing, with a wide variety of international security actors—from Europe, the United States, the Middle East, the Gulf, and Asia— currently operating in the region. This is profoundly changing the region’s external security environment, new research finds.

A new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) entitled The Foreign Military Presence in the Horn of Africa Region states that the Horn has experienced a proliferation of foreign military bases and a build-up of naval forces. This presents major challenges for existing African and Horn regional security structures, which are poorly adapted to the new external security politics of the region. It raises the prospect of proxy struggles, growing geopolitical tensions and a further extension of externally driven security agendas in the region.

The Horn of Africa region has experienced a substantial increase in the number and size of foreign military deployments since 2001, especially in the past decade, SIPRI said. The most visible aspect of this presence is the proliferation of military facilities in littoral areas along the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. However, there has also been a build-up of naval forces, notably around the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, at the entrance to the Red Sea and in the Gulf of Aden.


China is one of the nations singled out by SIPRI as rapidly expanding its presence in the Horn of Africa, especially from 2008 when it launched an anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. China has since maintained a continuous naval anti-piracy presence in the Horn of Africa, dispatching its 32nd mission to the Gulf of Aden in April 2019. During 2008–18, the Chinese Navy deployed 26 000 personnel to the region and undertook a variety of maritime security operations.

Between 2009–13 the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployment to the Gulf of Aden came to rely on logistics support from the port of Djibouti. The importance of dedicated regional logistics was highlighted for China in 2011, when its military and civilian air and maritime assets evacuated about 35 000 Chinese nationals from Libya. Djibouti played an even more important role in the protection of China’s citizens abroad in 2015, when the PLAN evacuated around 800 Chinese and other foreign nationals from Yemen, taking them by naval frigate to Djibouti.

In recent years, China has also deployed peacekeepers to Africa—mostly to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), where it maintains about 1000 Chinese troops, but also to missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Mali and Sudan.

In August 2017, China established a PLAN base in Djibouti. The facility is officially termed a logistics support base and justified as supporting China’s commitments to international anti-piracy, peacekeeping and other operations, as well as protecting its growing overseas assets and evacuating Chinese citizens in crisis situations. It has also been called ‘a strategic strong point’ by Chinese policymakers and experts, denoting a forward presence designed to support the ability of the Chinese military for long-range force projection, including as part of a network of such strategic points.

China’s military base is Djibouti has barracks, a paved area and eight hangars for helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and naval facilities. Since the base opened, expansion has continued with the construction of a 450-metre pier that can accommodate naval flotillas, including large warships. China began to conduct live fire exercises soon after the base opened. It is estimated that the base has the capacity to accommodate several thousand troops. Currently, a marine company with armoured vehicles is reportedly stationed there.

The base is notably seen as part of an increasing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean through the construction of a network of military and commercial facilities—the so-called String of Pearls—in order to surround India.


SIPRI notes that France has had a military presence in Djibouti since the establishment of a French protectorate there in 1883–87. After Djibouti achieved independence in 1977, France retained several military facilities and a military garrison. The French Forces in Djibouti (Forces françaises stationnées à Djibouti, FFDJ) is the largest permanent contingent of French forces in Africa.

A defence cooperation treaty, which France and Djibouti concluded in December 2011, entered into force on 1 May 2014. The security clauses of the treaty reaffirm France’s commitment to the independence and territorial integrity of the Republic of Djibouti. The treaty also sets out the operational facilities granted to French forces stationed in the country.

Since independence the number of French troops in Djibouti has declined from 4300 in 1978, to 2400 in the 2000s, to the current level of 1450—the minimum stipulated in the 2011 treaty. French forces are deployed at several sites in Djibouti city, including Djibouti–Ambouli International Airport, a naval base, and Chabelley Airport outside the capital. The naval base plays an important logistical role in supporting French and allied navies in the region and is strategically important for France’s ability to send its nuclear attack submarines into the Indian Ocean. The cost of the annual lease on these military facilities is reported to be $36 million.

The garrison is equipped with helicopters and a squadron of Mirage combat jets, as well as heavy equipment to support infantry units. In 2014, France stationed a special forces detachment in Djibouti.

The French base hosts Spanish and German detachments and the logistical support staff involved in the EU’s anti-piracy mission, EU Naval Force Atalanta (EUNAVFOR, Operation Atalanta).

France maintains permanent military forces in the French overseas territories in the Indian Ocean: at Port des Galets on Réunion and Dzaoudzi on Mayotte. The forces consist of 1600 military personnel, two frigates and smaller naval vessels, aircraft, and army units.

France established a permanent military presence in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on 26 May 2009. There are 650 military personnel deployed at the Al Dhafra Air Base and at naval and army bases in the UAE. The command is responsible for naval vessels operating in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.


German personnel are based in the French facilities in Djibouti. Germany has been involved militarily in the Horn of Africa region since 2001, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Germany also participates in the EU’s Operation Atalanta and maintains a contingent of 30–80 people to support its vessels. Since 2008, Germany has provided maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft (P-3C Orion) via a series of deployments to support Operation Atalanta.


As a result of China’s increased naval presence in the Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy has three continuous deployments in the western Indian Ocean: (a) an anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden; (b) a Gulf mission, which patrols the northern Indian Ocean and the entrance to the Gulf (Strait of Hormuz); and (c) a mission focused on the Seychelles, Madagascar, Mauritius and the southern Indian Ocean.

Starting in 2007 with the establishment of a naval monitoring base in northern Madagascar, India has sought to establish a network of military facilities across the India Ocean to protect the country’s sea lanes of commerce from piracy, and to counter China’s rising military presence in the region. India has announced plans to establish a network of 32 coastal radar surveillance stations to provide maritime domain awareness, with sites in the Seychelles, Mauritius, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. In 2015, India established a coastal radar system on the Seychelles.

In 2018, the Indian Prime Minister and the Seychellois President announced that they would continue to cooperate on developing a naval base on Assumption Island and India agreed to make a $100 million line of credit available to the Seychelles to purchase military equipment, and to donate a maritime patrol aircraft to the Seychellois military. In 2018, it was confirmed that India will construct military facilities on the Mauritian archipelago of Agalega, consisting of an extended runway and new port facilities.


In 2009, Japan committed navy ships and aircraft to anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. The aircraft operated from the US base at Camp Lemonnier at Djibouti–Ambouli International Airport. In 2011, the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) established a military base in Djibouti to support Japan’s commitment to international efforts to counter piracy—the JSDF’s first permanent overseas military base since the end of World War II.

Since 2011, Japan has stationed a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer and two P-3C maritime reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft at the base to conduct anti-piracy missions. The base was used to support Japanese participation in UNMISS in 2012–17. Japan’s move to expand the role and scale of the Djibouti base is seen as part of its efforts to balance China’s growing influence in Africa.

In 2018, plans were announced to further broaden the mission of the JSDF in Djibouti, which will become an operational centre for JSDF troops in the Horn of Africa region, with additional military capabilities at the base.


In 2009 Turkey joined CTF 151, the multinational counter-piracy task force off the Somali coast. In the context of contributing to international efforts to resolve the Somali conflict, Turkey opened a military base in Mogadishu on 30 September 2017 to train recruits for the Somali National Army. Turkey regards it as a military training camp rather than a military base. Spread over 4 km2 and reported to have cost $50 million to construct, it can accommodate 1500 trainees at a time. More than 200 Turkish military personnel are reported to be stationed at the base, which is Turkey’s largest overseas military facility. Turkey is also providing Somalia with training support and equipment to establish the country’s navy and coastguard.

In 2014, Turkey and Qatar agreed to the creation of Turkey’s first military base in the Middle East. The base is reported to have a planned capacity of 5000 troops. Following the move by Saudi Arabia and its allies in the GCC to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar on 5 June 2017, Turkey indicated that it would send up to 3000 troops to its military base there. In March 2018, Turkey and Qatar signed an agreement to establish a naval base in northern Qatar.


The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has a military base in Assab, Eritrea. Development of the base began around September 2015. The facility comprises a military airfield with new aircraft shelters, a deepwater naval port, which was constructed following the UAE takeover of the base, and buildings for storage and housing. The UAE has deployed aircraft to Eritrea for use against opposition forces in Yemen. These include Mirage 2000-9 and F-16 combat aircraft, helicopters, military transport and maritime patrol aircraft, and UAVs. In addition, a large ground contingent is reported to have been operating from the base, consisting of a battalion-size force equipped with Leclerc battle tanks. In 2015, three battalions of Sudanese mechanized troops were reportedly transported from the base in Assab to Yemen on UAE vessels.

In 2016, the UN said the transfer of military materiel to Eritrea was a violation of the international arms embargo on Eritrea.

UAE forces have also used the Assab base to train and equip thousands of Yemeni counterterrorism personnel. Human Rights Watch has documented reports that the UAE base in Assab is part of a network of detention centres linked to the conflict in Yemen in which torture has been practised.

In 2016, the UAE was granted a lease to develop the military airport at Berbera on the coast of Somaliland, which had been built by the Soviet Union. When complete in 2019, the combined base will comprise an integrated 42 square kilometre facility with two parallel runways and a deepwater naval base, at a reported cost of $90 million.

The UAE is reportedly training the Somaliland coastguard, police and security services as part of the base agreement. The UAE has also been providing security assistance and training to the Puntland Maritime Police Force.

At the end of April 2016, the UAE began to build up its military forces on Socotra, located close to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, as a part of its support for the Yemeni Government in the civil war. The UAE deployed armoured vehicles, heavy artillery and 100 soldiers. Following local protests, the UAE withdrew its forces under a deal arranged by Saudi Arabia, but some troops are believed to have remained.

The United Kingdom

The UK maintains a small number of military personnel at Camp Lemonnier, in order to liaise with the US forces in the Horn of Africa. British Special Forces have also been sent to Djibouti to counter threats from Yemen to shipping transiting the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, alongside the deployment of Royal Navy warships.

The UK maintains a number of military sites in Kenya, most notably the British Army Training Unit Kenya in Nanyuki, which operates under long-standing cooperative security agreements. Around 400 British military personnel are based in Kenya, with up 10 000 participating in exercises over the course of a year. The UK also supports the British–Kenya Mine Action Training Centre and the International Peace Support Training Centre, and contributes 300 soldiers to UNMISS.

Since January 2017, the British Security Training Centre in Somalia has provided training for Somali National Army troops within the UN-mandated African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The UK training operation comprises 85 military personnel and is spread across two military bases, one near Baydhabo (Baidoa) and the other in Mogadishu.

The UK established new military facilities in Oman in 2018. The Joint Logistics Support Base at the port of Duqm provides logistics support for the Royal Navy in the region, including for submarines and aircraft carriers. A new Omani–British military training facility in Duqm is due to open in 2019.

In 2018, the UK opened a naval base in Bahrain. From 2019 onwards, the UK will have ‘an enduring presence’ in the Gulf in the form of a frigate permanently deployed to the region, in addition to its existing commitment of minehunters. Together, the new commitments in Bahrain and Oman are designed to increase British military capacity in the Gulf and the wider Indian Ocean. The UK also operates from the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, integrated with US-led coalition air forces.

The United States

The USA increased its efforts to counter violent extremism, especially Islamist extremism, in the Horn of Africa following the September 2001 attacks. Operation Enduring Freedom-Horn of Africa (OEF-HOA) was launched in October 2002 as a military mission both to counter militant Islamism and piracy.

The Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) was established at the same time as OEF-HOA to carry out the operations aims. The official CJTF-HOA area of responsibility comprises Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Seychelles, Somalia and Sudan. Outside this area, the CJTF-HOA has also conducted operations in the Comoros, Liberia, Mauritius, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. In February 2007, US President George W. Bush announced the establishment of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany. On 1 October 2008, responsibility for the CJTF-HOA was transferred from the United States Central Command to AFRICOM, when the latter assumed authority over the US forces in the region.

In 2001, the Government of Djibouti leased Camp Lemonnier to the USA, which became a US naval expeditionary base. The CJTF-HOA moved to Djibouti on 13 May 2003. Camp Lemonnier also became the only permanent US military base in Africa, although numerous semi-permanent facilities exist. In January 2007, as part of the plan to establish Camp Lemonnier as a permanent facility, it was announced that the base would be expanded from 97 acres (39 hectares) to nearly 500 acres (202 hectares). In 2012, the US Department of Defense initiated a $14 billion plan to develop the base. The administration of US President Barack Obama also entered into a 30 year lease for Camp Lemonnier in 2014, at an annual cost of $63 million. In October 2018, as part of the long-term development of the base, the US military announced contracts worth $240 million to expand base facilities and provide infrastructure to support the US Air Force’s largest cargo jets.

The CJTF-HOA officially consists of around 2000 US military service members as well as personnel from allied countries. In 2017, it was reported that up to 4000 military personnel were temporarily based in Djibouti. The base has housed a broad range of US ground, air and naval units over the years. For example, in October 2011, a US Air Force squadron of F-15Es was deployed to the base. Later, in 2016, F-16 combat planes and air tankers were deployed to Camp Lemonnier as fighting intensified in South Sudan and Yemen.

Camp Lemonnier is the centrepiece of a network of US drone and surveillance bases stretching across the continent, and serves as a hub for aerial operations in the Gulf. In addition, US special forces operate across the region, including from ‘forward operating locations’ in Kenya and Somalia—military facilities with small numbers of permanent US military personnel or contractors and prepositioned equipment, but which can quickly be scaled up for sustained operations.

Since 2013, the USA has operated UAVs from the French military airfield at Chabelley Airport. At the end of 2018, the US facilities in Djibouti hosted military exercises by a US naval amphibious group.

The USA has operated a number of military installations in Ethiopia since 2003, principally as part of OEF-HOA. Installations have included short-term forward operating locations and sites for launching UAV and surveillance operations across the Horn and East Africa. For example, the US military has used an airbase in Arba Minch, some 400 km south of the capital, Addis Ababa, to launch drones. This installation closed at the end of 2015. Prior to its closure, the USA had been building new facilities to house 130 personnel at the site. The US military has also conducted military training for Ethiopian forces at the Hurso Training Academy while based at Camp Gilbert in eastern Ethiopia, near the town of Dire Dawa.

As early as 2004, US forces were reported to be operating from a forward operating location at Camp Simba in Manda Bay on the Kenyan coast. By 2012, the base had been considerably upgraded and the runway extended. The base hosts on average 200–250 personnel, and reportedly more than 500 during surges. A 2010 US Government Accountability Office report indicated that the USA was maintaining a forward operating base in Isiolo, Kenya. A 2015 AFRICOM statement identified two ‘cooperative security locations’, one at Kenya’s Laikipia Air Base and one at an airfield at Wajir in north-eastern Kenya—these are host nation facilities with few or no permanent US military personnel but with prepositioned equipment and logistics supplies, which are used for training and are available for contingency operations. It was also reported in 2015 that the US military had access to facilities at an airport and a seaport in Mombasa.

The USA has operated military drones from Seychelles International Airport on Mahé Island since 2009.

The USA has been building up its military presence in Somalia since 2006. In 2015, it was reported to be operating drones and conducting counterterrorism missions from a base at Kismayo Airport. At the end of 2017, there were 500 US military personnel based in Somalia. A particular focus since 2017 has been the development of Camp Baledogle, located at a former Soviet Union airbase in the Lower Shabelle region of southern Somalia. The base facilities and capabilities have been updated, including a $12 million upgrade to the runway. Work at the camp is due to be completed in 2019. In 2018, it was reported that six additional military sites were being prepared in Somalia.

The build-up of US forces in Somalia has occurred as attacks against the Islamist group al-Shabab have increased significantly. Camp Baledogle is reportedly the site from which many of these attacks have been launched, alongside ad hoc facilities in Somalia and additional sites in Djibouti. Camp Baledogle is also used to train Somalia’s special forces.

The USA maintains substantial military forces in the Gulf region. Bahrain is the location of two US airbases and the US Naval Forces Central Command, and the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet. The Fifth Fleet manages maritime operations on the Indian Ocean side of the Middle East as well as around the Horn. Kuwait hosts an estimated 15 000 US personnel at an airbase and three military camps. In Oman, the USA has access to four airfields with prepositioned stores and equipment, and has facilities at two ports. Qatar hosts around 10 000 US service personnel, primarily at Al Udeid Air Base, the biggest US base in the Middle East, as well as at a military camp. In the UAE, the USA maintains 5000 personnel at Al Dhafra Air Base and at two ports (notably the port of Jebel Ali). In March 2019, the USA reached an agreement with Oman on access for the US navy to the ports of Salah and Duqm, and for the air force to various airbases in the country.

Other nations identified by SIPRI as having a military interest or presence in the Horn of Africa include Iran (since 2008 Iran has sent warships to the Gulf of Aden to combat Somali pirates), Israel (which has intelligence gathering teams in the region), Italy (its National Support Military Base next to Djibouti–Ambouli International Airport supports naval activity, notably Operation Atalanta), South Korea (since 2009 South Korea has taken part in anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa and has deployed peacekeepers to South Sudan), Russia (anti-piracy patrols off the Horn since 2008 and a logics centre will be built in an Eritrean port), Saudi Arabia (armed forces have been based in Djibouti, and other facilities in the region), and Spain (some 50 personnel are based at French facilities in Djibouti to support Operation Atalanta, with maritime patrol aircraft deployed since 2008).