A Guide To The Pentagon’s Shadowy Network Of Bases In Africa
The Pentagon’s presence in Africa has ballooned over the last decade and a half. We’ve even made a map, so you can see for yourself.
On Feb. 27, 2017, American special operations forces and their partners kicked off the Flintlock training exercise at sites across North and West Africa. More than 2,000 troops from the United States and more than 20 other countries would spend almost three weeks running through drills, sharing skills and best practices for dealing with terrorists and other crises.
Since 2005, the Pentagon has held Flintlock every year in one or more countries. After its creation in 2008, U.S. Africa Command took over the annual war game from U.S. European Command. America’s top headquarters in Europe had previously been responsible for all American military operations in Africa.
“Long live the relationship between the different countries and the armed forces of our countries,” Col. Maj. T.N. Pale, the Chief of Staff of Burkina Faso’s military, said during one opening ceremony in his country’s capital, Ouagadougou.
"Long" is definitely the operative word; the U.S. military have been actively involved in Africa since World War II.
But Flintlock might be a near perfect microcosm of how many people view U.S. military activities in Africa. Though shadowy commando missions and drone bases generally garner the most attention, a survey of the Pentagon’s deployments and infrastructure across Africa show a force ready for a host of contingencies. And while this particular exercise has transformed and expanded since 2008, it’s an outgrowth of smaller exchanges dating back to the late 1960s.
To help show this diversity of effort, The War Zone mapped a snapshot (undoubtedly incomplete) of units and locations, to the best of our knowledge, as of January, 2017. The marked locations are approximations and not definite, specific positions of American forces.
Make sure to check out the interactive google map that goes along with this piece linked here
Here’s what we do know:
To be sure, commandos and unmanned aircraft, along with manned spy planes, are a major part of American military operations in Africa. Both the regional Special Operations Command Africa and the secretive Joint Special Operations Command have active elements and contractors moving around at least six countries, including the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Somalia, South Sudan, and Uganda.
Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier, attached to the country’s main Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, is the only official U.S. base in Africa and hosts more than 3,000 U.S. military personnel from across the services and contractors assigned to Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa, or CJTF-HOA. Among them are a number of special operators who form Special Operations Command (Forward) - East Africa, abbreviated SOCFWD-EA.
CJTF-HOA handles counter-terrorism efforts, security cooperation and other activities across the region, including battling Al Shabaab terrorists in Somalia and supporting African peacekeepers in that country. SOCFWD-EA helps coordinate the special operations end, from training American allies to hunting militants.
Separate from that command structure, there is likely a Joint Special Operations Command task force working in Somalia. According to documents obtained by The Intercept in 2015, a group known as Task Force 48-4 had elite troops working in Somalia and neighboring countries, as well as across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen, as of 2013. We could not confirm any of the elements were still in the same positions, or even active, four years later.
The Pentagon’s top headquarters for Africa has U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and contractor-operated reconnaissance aircraft situated in Djibouti and Kenya to help snoop on Al Shabaab. American drone bases in island nation of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean and at Arba Minch in Ethiopia are no longer active.
In September 2013, the Air Force moved its drone force from Camp Lemonnier to a nearby but more remote airstrip to the west, called Chabelley Airfield. After numerous accidents, Djiboutian authorities were reportedly concerned the pilotless planes were a risk to the regular air traffic at Djibouti-Ambouli and anyone living nearby.
American forces at Chabelley now handle all unmanned aircraft flying out of the country. In October 2015, the Air Force pulled the last MQ-1 Predators from the Horn of Africa and inactivated the 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron. Unidentified elements now fly the MQ-9 Reaper exclusively from the site, while the 870th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron handles the administrative side of things.
Fixed wing surveillance aircraft cover East Africa from bases in Europe and smaller sites on the continent. This includes various platforms, from the airliner-sized RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, equipped to scoop up enemy radio chatter and other electronic emissions, to the single turboprop engine U-28A platform, capable of tracking terrorist communications and filming full-motion video.
The Navy’s P-3C Orion patrol planes, which can carry additional sensor packages for reconnaissance missions, and the dedicated EP-3E Aeries II intelligence-gathering planes are involved as well. This might include operations from the obscure Camp Simba in Manda Bay, Kenya; scant public information is available about this Navy-run facility, which American troops have also used for training exercises in the past.
Inside Somalia, elite troops work with both the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, and the country’s central government. In 2015, Foreign Policy reported JSOC teams were in Kismayo near the Kenyan border and outside Mogadishu at an old, Soviet-built airstrip in Baledogle.
In October 2013, the Pentagon had publicly sent a three-person Military Coordination Cell to Mogadishu handle requests for support from AMISOM and the Somali government. As of January 2017, the MCC was still in the country and had an average size of five people.
“The overarching goal in Somalia for the Department of Defense is to help the government of Somalia provide a safe and secure environment for the people of Somalia, and deter organizations such as Al Shabaab,” Robyn Mack, an AFRICOM spokesperson, explained to The War Zone in an email. “The [Military Coordination Cell] is comprised of a lead planner and technical advisors who will work with AMISOM and Somali security forces to increase their capabilities and promote greater security in Somalia.”
In Central Africa, another special operations task force helps hunt for the Lord’s Resistance Army and its brutal leader, Joseph Kony. In 2011, President Barack Obama announced a comprehensive plan to help defeat the LRA, which had become particularly infamous for kidnapping children and forcing them into combat or sexual slavery, among other atrocities.
Special Operations Command (Forward) - Central Africa—aka SOCFWD-CA—coordinates operations, including contractor-flown cargo planes and helicopters and manned intelligence-gathering aircraft, out of Entebbe International Airport, in Uganda. As part of the mission, American special operators and their partners have access to small airstrips in Obo in the Central African Republic, Dungu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nzara in South Sudan.
In February 2017, The Daily Beast published a report highlighting how a successor to the notorious private military company Blackwater was flying some of these Central African sorties. In 2014, one of EP Aviation’s twin-engine CASA 212 transports made an emergency landing on a highway in Uganda, shining a light on those operations.
The “EP” stood for Erik Prince, the former SEAL and Blackwater founder. In 2010, Prince sold the charter air firm to another company, AAR Airlift Group, Inc.
However, these units and private contractors could transition to a broader counter-terrorism or security mission soon.
“We are at a point in time where we need to transition that mission,” U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the Pentagon’s top officer overseeing operations in Africa, told Stars and Stripes in November 2016. “The number of fighters in that whole [LRA] organization has gone way, way down to the point where it is almost [at] insignificant levels.”
American commanders wouldn’t want to throw away the valuable infrastructure and relationships U.S. Africa Command spent more than five years putting together. The sites and assets sit right in the middle of a region unfortunately well known for political upheaval, violent rebel movements and other crises.
A third regional setup exists for North and West Africa. The primary American facilities for that mission are now located at Niger’s Base Aérienne 101, which is attached to Diori Hamani International Airport in the country’s capital, Niamey.
From there, the Air Force’s 409th Air Expeditionary Group flies MQ-9s, presumably over hot spots like Libya, Mali and Nigeria. The group has been responsible for drone operations across the continent since at least 2009, previously running the detachments in the Seychelles and Ethiopia.
The Air Force ultimately consolidated the unit in Niamey and stood up the 768th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron as part of a larger restructuring of the Air Force’s 435th Air Expeditionary Wing headquartered in Germany, a public affairs officer for U.S. Air Forces in Europe wrote to The War Zone in an email. USAFE’s commander is “dual-hatted” as the chief of U.S. Air Forces Africa.
As of January 2017, the 409th ran a second site further north co-located with Niger’s Base Aérienne 201 at Manu Dayak Airport in Agadez, where the 724th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron manages day-to-day activities. While the airfield could conceivably handle Predators or Reapers, there was no indication of American unmanned aircraft on location at the time.
The American base in Niamey apparently plays host to to the third regional special operations task force in Africa, as well. Sometime in 2014, the Pentagon renamed Joint Special Operations Task Force - Trans Sahara as Special Operations Command (Forward) - West Africa, or SOCFWD-WA.
Along with the name change, the unit appeared to have moved from its previous location in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. This task force is the lead element for planning and conducting the Flintlock exercises.
Niger’s relative political stability would have been a major driver in these decisions. In November 2014, national protests forced Burkina Faso’s longtime, autocratic president Blaise Compaoré out of power. Troops loyal to Compaoré attempted but failed to stage a successful coup nearly a year later.
Regardless, American special operators have been deployed throughout the region to train and otherwise support international peacekeepers fighting Al Qaeda-linked insurgents in Mali, Al Qaeda- and Islamic State-aligned terrorists in Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia, and the vicious Boko Haram group in Nigeria.
Separately, an unidentified U.S. Army task force covers part of Nigeria with MQ-1C Gray Eagles flying from Garoua International Airport in Cameroon. It is unclear whether American pilotless spies were still operating from Chad’s capital N’Djamena.
The map’s coverage is no doubt missing other small, inconspicuous facilities that special operations units are using for counter-terrorism missions. For instance, in December 2015, images appeared on social media showing an Air Force Special Operations Command C-146 Wolfhound transport aircraft—with its discreet, civilian style blue-and-white paint job—and special operators in Libya. These missions dominate the headlines and overshadow a host of other American military units and facilities.
Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti is itself a hub for all sorts of missions, including working with allied forces, coordinating support to peacekeepers in Somalia and elsewhere in Africa, being on call during humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters, and conducting various civil affairs missions like pop-up medical clinics and non-military construction projects.
While the Air Force’s 449th Air Expeditionary Wing does oversee the 870th at the nearby Chabelley drone base, the bulk of its units are tailored to more traditional military missions. There are three expeditionary rescue squadrons—81st, 82nd and 303rd—with HC-130P/N aerial tankers, HH-60G rescue helicopters and pararescue airmen.
These units are on call to recover American military personnel or allied forces in need both in Africa and out into the Gulf of Aden. The airmen routinely practice for these scenarios with African troops and other American elements stationed at Camp Lemonnier.
In addition, there is the 75th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, with its C-130J transports, to ferry cargo and troops to training exercises and other missions. And the base can handle additional aircraft when necessary—including for operations in Yemen.
As of January 2017, elements of the 510th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron and the 351st Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron were on Camp Lemonnier’s main ramp. In July 2016, the Pentagon sent the force of F-16 fighter bombers and KC-135 tankers to Djibouti in response to the possibility of renewed violence in South Sudan.
In December 2013, three Air Force Special Operations Command CV-22 Ospreys took significant damage during an abortive rescue mission to Bor, South Sudan. A Navy SEAL who was part of the rescue force nearly died, and other elite sailors and airmen suffered serious injuries.
The next month, a more substantial U.S. Marine Corps contingent based in Moron, Spain helped American nationals evacuate the country’s capital, Juba. In both cases, the American forces had staged in Djibouti before moving south.
To enable other contingency operations, U.S. Africa Command has reached agreements with various African government to place so-called “cooperative security locations” in their countries, especially at or near major airports. Our map lists a few of these sites, but it is important to note while American forces may have access, it doesn’t mean there are troops on the ground permanently.
“There’s nothing there but a couple of warehouses full of stuff,” then-head of U.S. Africa Command Army Gen. David Rodriguez said of these forward bases in an interview with Stars and Stripes in 2015. “When people come down, they put up tents and that’s where they stay.”
At that time, Rodriguez said AFRICOM had 11 cooperative security locations. Our map has eight marked out, based on statements and known operations.
The turn-key approach was on full display in January 2009, when the Pentagon helped move hundreds of Rwandan peacekeepers into Sudan’s hotly contested Darfur region. U.S. Air Forces Africa’s 404th Air Expeditionary Group, the 435th’s main contingency unit, had opened up the cooperative security location in Kigali and activated the 722nd Expeditionary Air Base Squadron to handle the airlift.
"This was a complicated project that ultimately took several months of interagency and interdepartmental coordination and planning," Air Force Maj. Greg Lococo, chief of operational planning for Air Forces Africa, said at the time.
After the mission wrapped, the 722nd packed up and went home. The Pentagon repeated the process to move French and African forces into Mali beginning in January 2013 and more African troops into Central African Republic less than 12 months later.
Starting in September 2014, American troops shuttled aid, equipment, and other support in and around West Africa after a deadly Ebola epidemic exploded across the region. The cooperative security location Dakar, Senegal served as the hub for the operation.
Some of the oldest American military elements in Africa are actually focused specifically on infectious diseases like HIV and AIDS. The U.S. Army Medical Research Unit - Kenya has been in the country’s capital Nairobi since 1969. The U.S. Navy stood up the Naval Medical Research Unit - No. 3, Ghana Detachment in Accra in 1993.
It’s notable that the Pentagon repeatedly describes the vast majority of these deployments and developments, some of which have now existed continually for years, as temporary. Officials have even challenged the assertion that the sprawling Camp Lemonnier is, in any way, akin to long-standing, permanent facilities in Europe or Asia.
In a press conference in April 2014, Rodriguez characterized the base, home to more than 3,000 American troops and contractors, as a “major forward operating site.” In 2014, Washington agreed to pay Djibouti $630 million to lease the entire Camp Lemonnier facility for another decade.
While taking questions, the officer corrected a reporter who used the word “base.” In its Email to The War Zone, USAFE’s public affairs office described both American locations in Niger as “temporary” and “expeditionary.” Just repaving the runway at Niger’s Agadez airstrip so it accommodate American C-130 cargo planes reportedly cost approximately $100 million.
Of course, it’s worth noting the map only plots out American military-operated facilities and associated units, too. With the exception of possibly one JSOC task force, it doesn’t reflect the plethora of U.S. warships operating off the coast at any given time, which the Pentagon has in the past called upon to blast terrorists, keep tabs on so-called “high value individuals,” and more.
The ability of American troops to make use of bases outside of Africa means they don’t always have to rely on the infrastructure on the continent, either. In addition, American troops and intelligence agencies work out of Embassies and other diplomatic posts and likely use additional secretive sites—such as the now-famous CIA annex to the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya—across Africa for security and intelligence-gathering purposes.
Officials in Washington have historically tried make operations in Africa as low-profile and unobtrusive as possible. Part of this is because of the continent’s historical sensitivities to Western troops.
It is impossible to talk about foreign military involvement in Africa without taking colonialism into account. Many African countries have been independent from harsh European authorities for less than a century, and those memories are still relatively fresh.
The new governments in many cases had (and many still have) autocratic tendencies and histories of human rights abuses. Leaders in countries such as Djibouti, Ethiopia, Niger, and Uganda, among others, are probably happy to downplay American involvement.
Under the right circumstances, the presence of U.S. troops could easily inflame the populace and give political ammunition to opposition parties. For its part, the Pentagon denies doing anything to prop up these regimes, and has routinely shifted military activities after political upheaval.
“Airmen deployed to Africa, in support of U.S. Africa Command and local governments, concentrate our efforts on helping African nations and regional organizations build capable and professional militaries that respect human rights, adhere to the rule of law, and more effectively contribute to stability in Africa,” USAFE’s public affairs officers noted in their email.
These considerations don’t just apply to American troops. In particular, China has quietly but steadily increased its own military presence in Africa, including construction of a naval hub—which it refers to simply as a “logistics facility”—in relatively close proximity to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.
In reality, whether Burkina Faso’s Col. Maj. Pale was aware of it or not when he made his speech at the beginning of Flintlock 2017, the Pentagon is definitely in Africa for the long-haul—no matter how American officials phrase it.
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