America's East Africa Military Hub Sees Spike In Activity As Somalia Withdrawals Continue

Satellite imagery reveals an unusually large amount of American military aircraft at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.

A satellite image of Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti as of October 2020.
Google Earth

Satellite imagery examined by The War Zone shows a major surge in U.S. military aviation activity at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti as the Pentagon proceeds with the redeployment of the bulk of its forces out of neighboring Somalia. The U.S. Navy has also deployed an armada of ships off the Somali coast, including the supercarrier USS Nimitz and the Wasp class amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island, as well as the expeditionary sea base USS Hershel “Woody” Williams, to support this repositioning of American troops in East Africa.

The image of the sprawling Camp Lemonnier complex that The War Zone reviewed came from Planet Labs and was taken on Dec. 21, 2020. There are no less than 13 C-130s visible at the base, a number of which are parked on a newer ramp at the eastern edge of the base that is typically used by forward-deployed fighter aircraft and transports making relatively short visits. A C-146A Wolfhound special operations transport plane is also on that portion of that tarmac, and another is in front of a hangar directly adjacent to it, though these are much more common sights. 

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Three C-130J Hercules cargo aircraft sit on the tarmac at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti in April 2020.

It's not clear kind of C-130s these might be, but standard cargo types, as well as HC-130 rescue versions, are known to be based at Camp Lemonnier. Some of the aircraft look like they could potentially be MC-130 special operations transports or AC-130 gunships, as well. U.S. Africa Command has publicly said that AC-130W Stinger IIs are supporting the withdrawal of forces out of Somalia.

At least four V-22 Osprey tilt-rotors are also seen across the base. Some of these are U.S. Air Force CV-22s, a detachment of which are part of the U.S. special operations aviation element at Camp Lemonnier. CV-22s, as well as U.S. Marine Corps MV-22s, are known to be helping with the troop pullout and are otherwise common types at the base.

Lastly, there is a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol plane parked on a ramp in the center portion of the base. With the steady retirement of that service's P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft, detachments of Poseidons continuously deploy to Camp Lemonnier instead. 

Camp Lemonnier base is America's premier operational hub in Africa and also serves as an important node for U.S. military activities on the Arabian Peninsula, including in Yemen, on the other side of the Gulf of Aden. However, the total number of aircraft visible in the Dec. 21 satellite image is significantly larger than are generally seen there at any one time. 

An older satellite image from Google Earth dated October, 2020, shows just two aircraft on the tarmac at the eastern end, a C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft and a ubiquitous C-146A. Two C-130s, two P-8As, three V-22s, as well as Gulfstream executive transport and Beechcraft King Air turboprop, possibly one configured for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, are also visible elsewhere around the base.

Google Earth

Another satellite image of Camp Lemonnier from October 2020, for comparison, showing far fewer aircraft across the base, overall.

This visible spike in activity at Camp Lemonnier comes nearly four weeks after the Pentagon first publicly announced plans to pull the bulk of U.S. forces out of Somalia. The U.S. military has not provided specific figures for how many American troops are in that country and how many of them are set to leave. As of November, there were reportedly between 650 and 800 U.S. military personnel in Somalia.

In addition, the Pentagon has said that at least a portion of the personnel that are withdrawing from Somalia will remain in the region, but at facilities in other countries. This could include Camp Lemonnier, as well as other U.S. military facilities in the general geographical area, including in Kenya further to the South. This will "allow cross-border operations by both U.S. and partner forces to maintain pressure against violent extremist organizations operating in Somalia," according to an official press release on Dec. 4. The redeployments are presently scheduled to be completed by Jan. 15, 2021.

For more than a decade now, the United States has been actively involved in the fight against Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda's franchise in Somalia, and has more recently also found itself fighting a nascent ISIS faction in the country. The U.S. military, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency, has been deeply involved in the training of Somali government security forces, as well.

The increased number of aircraft at Camp Lemonnier also comes just three days after U.S. Africa Command announced the establishment of Joint Task Force-Quartz (JTF-Q) to support these redeployments out of Somalia, a mission that is now known as Operation Octave Quartz. Special Operations Command-Africa's (SOCAFRICA) headquarters is the lead entity within JTF-Q.

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US Air Force CV-22 Ospreys on the ground in Somalia in support of Operation Octave Quartz on Dec. 18, 2020.

"To be clear, the U.S. is not withdrawing or disengaging from East Africa. We remain committed to helping our African partners build a more secure future," U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend, the commander of AFRICOM, said in a statement regarding the standing up of JTF-Q on Dec. 19. "We also remain capable of striking Al-Shabaab at the time and place of our choosing—they should not test us."

"We will execute this mission swiftly, methodically, and with additional forces to protect both our partners and U.S. forces," Air Force Major General Dagvin Anderson, the JTF-Q commander and head of SOCAFRICA, added. “[Our] Enemies should expect continued pressure and swift retribution if they choose to attack."

With this in mind, in addition to the increased presence at Camp Lemonnier, elements of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group (CSG) and the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) are now parked off the coast of Somalia. The USS Nimitz has a full air wing embarked onboard, including F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters, capable of rushing to support operations ongoing ashore. 

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A F/A-18E Super Hornet takes off from the USS Nimitz on Dec. 10.

There are also the 2,500 Marines assigned to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) spread across the USS Makin Island, as well as the San Antonio class landing platform dock amphibious ships USS San Diego and USS Somerset, which are also part of Makin Island ARG. The 15th MEU's air component includes F-35B Joint Strike Fighters, as well as MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors, CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopters, AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters, UH-1Y Venom light utility helicopters, and RQ-21 Blackjack drones. It also has a ground component, elements of which could be ferried ashore, either on tilt-rotors and helicopters or Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) hovercrafts, if necessary.

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US Marine Corps F-35B Joint Strike Fighters come into land on board the Wasp class amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island.

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Marines board an MV-22 Osprey on the USS Makin Island as it sails off the coast of Somalia. Other MV-22s, as well as US Navy MH-60 Sea Hawk helicopters, are visible parked to the right.

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US Marines board a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter during a quick reaction force exercise on the San Antonio class landing platform dock amphibious warfare ship USS San Diego off the coast of Somalia.

This is also the most significant operation that the expeditionary sea base USS Hershel “Woody” Williams has taken part in since it kicked off its first-ever operational deployment, primarily in support of AFRICOM, earlier this year. This ship provides an afloat platform to support various mission sets, especially in areas where they may be limited facilities ashore, such as Somalia, and this is definitely one of the types of operations the Navy had in mind when it decided to acquire these sea bases. You can read more about these ships in this past War Zone piece.

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The expeditionary sea base USS Hershel “Woody” Williams, with Ospreys on its flight deck, supporting Operation Octave Quartz.

In addition, as already noted, AFRICOM has said that AC-130Ws from Air Force Special Operations Command are supporting Operation Octave Quartz. It's almost certain that other assets are in position, or otherwise on call, both in the region and beyond, to help cover the troop movements out of Somalia, if necessary.

Al Shabaab certainly remains a real threat, both inside Somalia and in neighboring countries. In January, the terrorist group launched an unprecedented attack on a military airfield in Kenya where U.S. forces, and private contractors supporting them, operate from, killing three Americans and destroying six aircraft. In 2019, the militants also hit a U.S. base at an airfield in Baledogle, Somalia, with a complex attack that included the use of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, but did not succeed in killing any U.S. service members. This is to say nothing of the Al Shabaab's repeated attacks on Somali government forces and innocent civilians in Somalia and Kenya.

The last publicly announced U.S. military strike on Al Shabaab was on Dec. 10, when unspecified aircraft targeted some of the group's explosives experts near the town of Jilib in the southern portion of the country. "The initial assessment indicates the strike killed terrorists who were known to play important roles in producing explosives for al-Shabaab, to include vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs)," according to an official press release.

There has been criticism of the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Somalia, including from within that country, due to the continued threats posed by Al Shabaab and other groups. There are concerns about whether the shift in force posture will negatively impact training and other support for Somali units, especially the Danab Brigade, a commando unit that operates very closely with U.S. special operations forces and is widely seen as one of the most effective and reliable within the country's military.

No matter what, the uptick in activity at Camp Lemonnier, together with the massive naval deployment off Somalia's coast, shows that the U.S. military is moving ahead very quickly to ensure these planned withdrawals from the country are complete within the coming weeks.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com