The United States will have 3 000 soldiers serving in Africa next year as it scales up its presence on the continent in the face of a growing number of threats, including al Qaeda and al Shabaab. It has also established a dozen air bases on the continent since 2007, mainly for surveillance purposes.
The US Army last month announced it would deploy a brigade to Africa in 2013 as part of a pilot programme that assigns brigades on a rotational basis to regions around the globe. At least 3 000 soldiers will serve tours across the continent next year, training foreign militaries and aiding locals.
As part of a “regionally aligned force concept,” soldiers will live and work among Africans in safe communities approved by the US government, Major General David R. Hogg, head of U.S. Army Africa, told Army Times.
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. At the moment there are more than 1 200 soldiers currently stationed at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti.
The Army currently allows conventional soldiers to enter only 46 of the 54 African states due to security risks. The State Department and U.S. special operations commands handle activities in the other countries, including those amid conflict.
Meanwhile, the US military is establishing a network of small air bases to spy on terrorist hideouts in northern Africa, according to the Washington Post, which says about a dozen air bases have been established in Africa since 2007. 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, the Post said.
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 launched air strikes in Somalia and Yemen using unmanned aerial vehicles, but has also deployed F-15E Strike Eagles to Djibouti. However, elsewhere in Africa, military commanders told the Washington Post that their role is generally limited to intelligence gathering and sharing.
In September last year the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration was assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen.
One of the installations is being established in Ethiopia, a US ally in the fight against al-Shabaab. Another base is in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, which has hosted a small fleet of MQ-9 Reaper drones operated by the US Navy and Air Force since September 2009. Classified US diplomatic cables show that the unmanned aircraft have conducted counterterrorism missions over Somalia, about 800 miles to the northwest, in addition to their stated anti-piracy missions.
The newspaper added that a key hub of the US spy network is located in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, where US personnel and contractors operate surveillance aircraft over Mali, Mauritania and the Sahara as part of a programme called Creek Sand. The U.S. military began building its presence in Burkina Faso in 2007, when it signed a deal that enabled the Pentagon to establish a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment in Ouagadougou.
By the end of 2009, about 65 US military personnel and contractors were working in Burkina Faso, more than in all but three other African countries, according to a U.S. Embassy cable from Ouagadougou, as reported by the Washington Post.
The core of the military’s surveillance fleet is made up of Pilatus PC-12s, which are inconspicuous in Africa and draw less attention than UAVs. The Pentagon began acquiring the planes in 2005 to fly commandos into territory where the military wanted to maintain a clandestine presence, the Post reports. The Air Force variant of the aircraft is known as the U-28A. The Air Force Special Operations Command has about 21 of the aircraft in its inventory.
The US military also operated Creek Sand spy flights from Nouakchott, Mauritania, until 2008, when a military coup forced Washington to suspend relations and end the surveillance, according to former US officials and diplomatic cables. However, the Pentagon is spending US$8.1 million to upgrade a forward operating base and airstrip in Mauritania and has set aside US$22.6 million in July to buy a Pilatus PC-6 aircraft and another turboprop aircraft for Mauritania’s security forces, according to documents submitted to Congress.
In addition, there are plans for bases in South Sudan and Kenya. General Carter F Ham, commander of US Africa Command, said in his testimony to the US Congress in March that he was seeking to establish a base for surveillance flights in Nzara, South Sudan, which would assist in the hunt against Kony as well as monitor the situation in the Sudans.
Furthermore, an engineering battalion of Navy Seabees has been assigned to complete a US$10 million runway upgrade at the Manda Bay Naval Base, in Kenya, reports the Post. An Africa Command spokeswoman said the runway extension was necessary so US C-130 Hercules can land at night and during bad weather. The newspaper said that about 120 US military personnel and contractors are stationed at Manda Bay, which Navy SEALs and other commandos have used as a base from which to conduct raids against Somali pirates and al-Shabaab fighters.