Drones and More: As US counterterrorism efforts turn toward Africa, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets like the MQ-9 Reaper will become more vital. (Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson/US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — As the US pivots the counterterrorism mission toward Africa, Pentagon leaders are quick to point out that the size and scope of the continent provide significant challenges that will require a commitment to intelligence and surveillance technologies to give them, and their fledgling allies, a better picture of what lies over the next hill.
If there were any questions that the Pentagon will shift resources to Africa in a post-Afghanistan world, political signs from Washington in recent weeks should end them.
In late May, language from the House Armed Services Committee referred to Africa as “the front lines of the next phase of the terrorist threat.” Days later, President Barack Obama called for a $5 billion counterterrorism fund, largely focused on Northern Africa.
“As we move to a train-and-advise mission in Afghanistan, our reduced presence allows us to more effectively address emerging threats in the Middle East and North Africa,” Obama said in a May 27 speech.
Leadership is slowly putting funding behind its words. In addition to Obama’s call for the counterterrorism fund, the Senate Armed Services Committee markup of the fiscal 2015 authorization bill added $60 million for additional ISR in Africa.
In terms of force structure over the past two years, the Army has set up its Regionally Aligned Force, a brigade tasked with performing missions in Africa, while Marine Corps has set up its Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Africa to provide quick reaction and embassy security on the continent.
Helping local allies fight Islamist and extremist elements in Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Kenya and the Central African Republic will require both greater partnerships and greater intelligence assets in the region, according to Pentagon leadership.
US special operations forces in particular will more and more be situated in austere environments, collaborating with allies who have little communication and surveillance capability.
“What I need is situational awareness development,” Brig. Gen. John Linder, the head of the US Army’s Africa Special Operations Command, told a special operations industry conference in May. “I need to be able to build a better picture of the environment so I can get ahead of the threat … what I want to be able to do is to anticipate what the threat is going to do and be able to share that so someone else on the continent can take action, or decide not to take action.”
In an interview with Defense News, Linder went further, saying that “Africa is not about maneuver warfare and it’s not about seizing terrain, it’s about sharing our lessons learned with partner nations and their forces so they can solve their own problems.”
But to do that “we start with partnerships that develop into relationships and result into friendships. And friendships are something you earn by earning someone’s trust — and that takes a long time.”
Adding to the complexity is the fact that there are 54 nations on the continent, all with their own civil and military traditions, and with multiple cultures and languages. Add to that the vast distances between deployed units and their supply and logistics bases and the problems are further complicated.
“The problem that we wrestle with as we support their efforts is the tyranny of distance,” Linder said, making mobility and situational awareness development all the more critical.
And the US Air Force will likely play a key role in those endeavors.
“We’re talking about airspace that’s not highly contested,” said Mark Gunzinger, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “We’re taking about very large geographic areas that could be covered persistently by long-duration UAVs. I do think there will be a growing demand for UAVs to support missions in Africa, and we’re already seeing evidence of this.”
The sheer size of Africa presents a unique ISR challenge, said Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, Air Force deputy chief of staff for ISR. Because Africa has limited satellite coverage, much of the ISR needs to be done with aviation.
Otto highlighted the extended-range version of the MQ-9 Reaper UAV as an “incredible platform for Africa,” one that can cover those distances while also being modular enough to switch mission packages.
Otto has emphasized the need to nurture the service’s human analytics capabilities. In Africa, an area that has traditionally had limited eyes on it, that could be especially crucial.
“To gain an understanding of what’s really going on, that’s the challenge when you don’t have access,” Otto said. “Think how challenging it is to get good intelligence on what’s really happening in Syria between the competing groups of the opposition. That suggests human intelligence can play a role in [Africa]. That suggest signals intelligence can play a role in that.”
But for UAVs to operate in Africa, they need basing options with partners, something Otto called “kind of the first thing” in laying out an ISR plan for the region.
That echoes comments made by the head of the service’s ISR Agency, Maj. Gen. Jack Shanahan, when talking about the need to work with partners across the globe.
“How can we not be multinational in the future? We’re not going to fight alone again. I’m convinced of that,” Shanahan said in May. “The momentum is building.”
Building those partnerships in the region is part of the task assigned to Gen. Frank Gorenc, commander of US Air Forces in Europe and Africa. He highlighted a program that develops relationships between Air National Guard units and African nations.
The US Army National Guard has also long had a State Partnership Program with several West African nations that has sent small teams of US Guardsmen overseas to perform short-duration advise-and-assist and humanitarian missions.
“Those little steps go a long way, and quite honestly, those little steps in a country that has a fledgling air force allows them to make enormous gains,” Gorenc told Defense News in February. “In Africa, there are some air forces that have some capability, but they’re in the early stages, they need to develop the human capital.”
But the effort, leaders insist, will have to be a joint one between the services.
“Special operations do bring [a history of] long-term relationships with our partners across the continent of Africa,” Linder said. “It’s certainly been proposed that Africa is the arena of conflict of tomorrow, and with that I will tell you that ... special operations rarely accomplish tasks on their own, they need support from others.”
The services have worked together closely for the past 13 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have all made noise about continuing that relationship once the wars have ended. Operations in Africa may show just how those words are — or are not — translated into action. ■