Great power competition isn’t limited to Eastern Europe and the South China Sea. In Africa, the U.S. military is investing and operating more aggressively in response to the growing presence of China and Russia on the continent.
The Air Force is building a new operating base in Niger and increasing deployments for exercises, advisers, and state partnerships to help build up allies’ capacity as part of a broader effort to ensure those nations can resist and counter Russia and China, if necessary. Partner countries, in turn, are investing in their own infrastructure and deploying their own forces along with private military contractors.
For “global power competition, it’s really about gaining and maintaining influence,” U.S. Africa Command boss Army Gen. Stephen Townsend told lawmakers in a March 10 hearing. “That’s what competition is all about. So, in some future rainy day, we have the access and influence that we need. So, we’re in a struggle with China and Russia to gain and maintain that influence.”
We can be here quick, and we can be here with strength.US Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa boss Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian
The Air Force sent a bold message in mid-February, flying a nuclear-capable B-52 over the Somali coastal town of Kismayo in an unmistakable show of force.
In a region where U.S. operators routinely fly drones against al Shabab militants, the Feb. 15 B-52 flight was a symbolic demonstration, said U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa boss Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian. “There’s a message opportunity here, not just to al-Shabab and [violent extremist organizations] on the ground, but more broadly to Russia and China that: ‘Hey, we’re competing with you down here, we’re engaged here, we have high situational awareness as to what’s going on, and we’re going to use this opportunity to demonstrate that to the collective world,’” Harrigian told Air Force Magazine.
His message: “We can be here quick, and we can be here with strength.”
How China and Russia Are Operating
China has been investing in Africa for the long term and is the top trading partner on the continent. It is building 23 ports on the continent, has a military installation in Djibouti, virtually adjacent to Camp Lemonnier, the main U.S. location on the Horn of Africa, and there’s more to come, said AFRICOM spokesman Col. Christopher Karns. “They’re looking to expand their influence.”
China is investing billions in railroads, stadiums, ports, palaces, and more, all across the continent. The U.S. can’t compete on that basis, Townsend said.
Moscow is leveraging private military corporations (PMCs) to spread its influence in the region. Companies such as the Wagner Group, which have operated extensively in Syria and the contested area of Crimea in Ukraine, are now showing up in places such as Libya, where the November shootdown of a U.S. MQ-1 over Tripoli appears to have been done with the help of outside experts. While the Libyan National Army claimed responsibility for the downing, “there’s not a strong belief,” Karns said, that it was shot down “either by the LNA operating sophisticated Russian air defenses, or by PMCs.” Karns said Russian private military contractors are operating in 18 countries on the African continent.
“There’s a lot of activity that is occurring, whether it’s Russia and their interference in Libya, or China, and the challenges they could present to us in the future if that space is not challenged in a meaningful way,” according to Karns.
AFRICOM also is using soft power to try to spread its own influence, including training opportunities such as African Partnership Flight events, exercises such as the recently completed Flintlock, or small interactions such as deploying USAF mobility support advisory squadrons or National Guard State Partnership Program teams.
“In Africa, we believe our U.S. military training, equipment, and expertise provides an edge in winning partnerships, access, and influence over the likes of Russia and China,” Karns said. “Additionally, the training and engagements we conduct on the continent has the mutual benefit of increasing the U.S.’ readiness as well.”
Partner nations have shown they want American help to train their security forces and to address the counterterrorism threat.
“I believe, in Africa, building partner capacity and counterterrorism efforts, or counter [violent extremist organization] efforts are a way we do global great power competition, because that’s what our partners are hungry for,” Townsend said. “They come to us because of our capacity to do that. They come to us because of our skill, and they come to us because of how we treat them and our values.”
All the while, the Pentagon and AFRICOM are undergoing an audit of themselves. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has ordered a “zero-based review” of force posture on the continent, currently about 5,200 personnel, to ensure it is “right-sized” to address the National Defense Strategy and to counter Russia and China.
For now, however, the counterterrorism fight will not go away, prompting some lawmakers to worry the review could result in reducing AFRICOM’s presence or shift away from combating the likes of al-Shabab.
In January, al-Shabab was able to breach the perimeter of Camp Simba in Kenya, destroying multiple U.S. aircraft and killing one U.S. Army soldier and two U.S. contractors. It was the worst attack in the past two years. AFRICOM boss Gen. Stephen Townsend has said U.S. forces were not ready for the attack, and the command has been increasing security at all its locations since then.
“There are lessons to be learned from a layered base defense perspective,” Harrigian said. “This is a chance to refine the way we do business, and how we train not only individually but collectively.”
Strikes on al-Shabab have continued at a high pace this year, with 63 conducted in 2019 targeting more than 320 al-Shabab targets, and approximately 25 strikes conducted in the country as of early March. With more operations being conducted against the group in other parts of the country, such as the Sahel region of Niger and Mali, AFRICOM is trying to balance how it addresses current and future threats.
“We’re starting to see a cooperation between ISIS and al-Qaeda that hasn’t existed anywhere else, but yet they are finding commonality to cooperate and project out a level of strength,” Karns said. “So Africa has that violent extremist organization threat. But at the same time, it has the global power competition dynamic. … You combine the two and that problem set doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.”