The Kenyan military has denied that the United States is using its territory or airspace to conduct surveillance flights over Africa, but confirmed the presence of US troops at the Manda Bay naval base.
Last week the Washington Post ran a story on US spy flights in Africa and stated that the US military had plans to establish a surveillance base in Kenya, as well as South Sudan. The newspaper went on to say that an engineering battalion of Navy Seabees has been assigned to complete a US$10 million runway upgrade at the Manda Bay naval base.
An Africa Command (Africom) 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.
The US military in a statement in response to the Washington Post article confirmed that it runs ‘broad ranging’ intelligence operations on the continent and that “the United States routinely works with its African partner nations to counter those who would threaten regional security and stability in Africa.”
The US military said it employs its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets in Africa “based on security threats of mutual concern.”
A spokesman for the Kenyan Defence Forces, Colonel Cyrus Oguna, said he had no knowledge of a US surveillance programme in Kenya. “As far as we are concerned, the US is not using any Kenyan airspace or any bases from where they can be able to launch observation vessels,” Oguna said. “However, I know that we do have bilateral arrangements in terms of sharing information and intelligence to fight terror.”
The Washington Post article stated that the United States has established a dozen air bases on the continent 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 Pilatus PC-12 (U-28) surveillance aircraft rather than unmanned aerial vehicles also keeps the profile of these operations low.
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 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.
Some of the bases are in Ethiopia, the Seychelles, Burkina Faso and Uganda. Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, is the only permanent US base in Africa. About 2 000 US personnel are deployed there as part of Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa, many from the Army National Guard.
“It’s a great strategic location,” US Africa Command chief General Carter Ham told the American Forces Press Service. “It facilitates not only our operations for US Africa Command, but also US Central Command and US Transportation Command. It is a very key hub and important node for us, a good location that allows us to extend our reach in East Africa and partner with the countries of East Africa.”
Ham asked the US Congress last year to support the command’s efforts to expand its intelligence-gathering capabilities in order to monitor terror threats across Africa. He said the main targets are al-Shabab in Somalia, the Lord’s Resistance Army across central Africa and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the west.
In February this year Ham told the House Armed Services Committee that the United States has no plans to seek permanent bases in Africa, and, in the spirit of the new defence strategic guidance, will continue to maintain a “light footprint” on the continent.
With no troops directly assigned to it, Africa Command relies heavily on its service components: US Army Africa based in Vicenza, Italy; US Air Forces Africa, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany; US Marine Forces Africa and Special Operations Command Africa, both based in Stuttgart, Germany. Ham said that there are no plans to relocate Africom’s headquarters to the African continent.
Ham said he recognizes concerns among some African countries about an increased U.S. presence on the continent, but emphasized that cost alone would preclude the United States from establishing more permanent bases there.
Ham told the American Forces Press Service that a safe, secure and stable Africa is in the United States’ national interests, and that Africans are best suited to address African security challenges. “Countering the threats posed by al-Qaeda affiliates in East and Northwest Africa remains my number 1 priority,” Ham said.
But for security to take hold in Africa for the long-term, Ham also recognizes the importance of strengthening African partners’ defence capabilities so they can address their own security challenges. He noted ongoing efforts to increase capacity in peacekeeping, maritime security, disaster response and other key areas. The general noted the value of this investment, from “train-the-trainer” sessions conducted at the tactical level to leader development programs that will have positive long-term strategic implications.
“We are planting seeds, if you will, and allowing those to develop and grow,” he said, noting that it’s all being done with no permanently assigned forces and limited forces on the ground.
“I think we get a disproportionate positive effect for a relatively small investment,” Ham said. “We don’t use lots of troops. Generally, our exercises and engagements are pretty small-scale.” They typically involve an individual ship, a small group of Marines, Seabees or veterinarians, or a maintenance detachment, he explained.
Earlier it was reported that the United States will have 3 000 soldiers serving in Africa next. 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.