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U.S. Military Forces And Operations In Africa – Overview


U.S. Military Forces And Operations In Africa - Overview

Opening ceremony in Northern Uganda marking the beginning of joint exercises with U.S. Army soldiers in 2009. (Photo: AFRICOM/flickr/cc)

Written by Benjamin Cote exclusively for SouthFront

Importance of Forces in Africa

On October 4th, 2017, Nigerien forces and American Green Berets were ambushed by Islamic militants during an intelligence gathering mission along the border with Mali. Fifty fighters from an African affiliate of the Islamic State attacked with small arms, vehicle mounted weapons, rockets propelled grenades, and mortars. Roughly an hour into the firefight, American forces radioed in for assistance. French Mirage jets provided close air support and the militants disengaged. Helicopters arrived to take casualties back for medical assistance.

When the battle ended four Green Berets had been killed in the fighting and two others were wounded. Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, and most publicized of all the fatalities, Sgt. La David Johnson were killed in action. President Trump engaged in a politicized confrontation with the widow of Johnson and Florida Representative Federica Wilson over his words used in a consoling phone call.

The political battle over President Trump’s comments had the unintended effect of turning the nation’s focus to American activities in Africa. Previously the American public, and much of the political establishment, showed little interest in or knowledge of the missions conducted by the U.S. State and Defense Departments within developing African nations. On May 5th, a Navy SEAL was killed near Mogadishu while assisting Somalian forces in fighting al-Shabaab. This death came over a month after the Trump Administration lifted restrictions on counterterrorism operations in areas of Somalia.

Neither event registered nearly as much mainstream attention as the controversy surrounding Sgt. Johnson; however, all reveal how Africa is slowly becoming an area of critical national interest for the United States. Issues surrounding African nations concerning both external and internal terror threats, as well as their economic woes, serve to ensure that U.S. policy makers will focus in on the continent. Global initiatives such as the Combined Joint Task Force for Operation Inherent Resolve involve several African nations critical to combating the rise of radical Islamic extremism. The rise of cohesive extremist groups coupled with the expansion of economic investment in post-colonial Africa has resulted in an increase in foreign and American military deployments to the region.

In a Pentagon press conference on the ambush in Niger, Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed the United States had deployed troops in Niger for more than twenty years. Furthermore, the United States has troops stationed in fifty-three of the fifty-four countries in Africa. Troops stationed in Africa mostly fall under the administration of United States Africa Command (AFRICOM). The exception to this rule is the Arab Republic of Egypt, which falls under United States Central Command (CENTCOM). AFRICOM is the most important command structure for understanding the missions, activities, and roles of American troops deployed in Africa.



Prior to 2008, American military operations in Africa were designated under United States European Command (EUCOM) and CENTCOM. The early 2000s saw several military officials call for an independent African command to handle the rise of Islamic extremism that had occurred in several African countries. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recommend the creation of such a Unified Command to President George W. Bush in 2006. From 2007-2008, Rear Admiral Robert Moeller ran the AFRICOM transition team to design the structure of the new command. On October 1st, 2008, AFRICOM was officially detached from EUCOM under the command General William E. Ward.

U.S. Military Forces And Operations In Africa - Overview

Emblem of United States Africa Command


AFRICOM is headquartered in Kelley Barracks, Stuttgart, Germany, and employs 1,500 personnel working in logistics and command roles at Stuttgart.

Commander: General Thomas D. Waldhauser from the United States Marine Corps serves as the fourth commander of AFRICOM. Waldhauser is tasked with constructing military capabilities in Africa, crisis response, elimination of threats to American interests in Africa, and promoting development.

Deputy to the Commander for Military Operations: Lieutenant General James C. Vechery from the United States Air Force. The Deputy Commander’s role is acting in assistance towards issues specifically dealing with military affairs including conflict resolution, mitigation, and prevention, as well as supporting other African nations in development of their armed forces.

Deputy to the Commander for Civil-Military Engagement: Ambassador Alexander M. Laskaris from the United States Department of State. Rather than providing assistance for military operations and support missions, the Civil-Military Deputy assists with the diplomatic and multilateral cooperation aspects of AFRICOM.

U.S. Military Forces And Operations In Africa - Overview

U.S. AFRICOM Area of Responsibility


Military forces directly under AFRICOM command are broken up by respective branches, along with two Subordinate Unified-Commands acting in parallel to the other branches.

  • S. Army Africa, USARAF
  • S. Naval Forces Africa, NAVAF (Personnel shared with U.S. Naval Forces Europe)
  • S. Air Forces Africa, AFAFRICA
  • S. Marine Corps Forces Africa, MARFORAF (Personnel shared with U.S. Marine Forces Europe)

Subordinate Unified Commands:

  • S. Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA)
  • Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA)

U.S. Army Africa (Headquartered Vicenza, Italy): Also designated as the Ninth Army, USARAF provides the land based element of AFRICOM. It provides personnel to support operations against insurgent groups in African nations and assistance in training land forces of partner nations for logistics, military, and humanitarian operations. Brigadier General Eugene J. LeBoeuf serves as acting commander of USARAF.

U.S. Navy Africa (Headquartered Naples, Italy): Currently undertaken by the Sixth Fleet, NAVAF acts as the maritime component of U.S. forces in Africa. It carries out direct and supportive roles in counter-terrorism operations, assists partner African nations in naval development and operations, provides naval enforcement and training for oceanic trade security, conducts naval exercises with partner forces, and humanitarian relief. NAVAF is comprised of several naval task forces. It is commanded by Admiral James G. Foggo III.

  • CTF 63: Comprised of oilers, supply ships, and mechanic ships, Task Force 63 makes up the logistical aspect of African naval forces. CTF 63 provides for the delivery of provisions, spare parts, and supplies both in support of humanitarian or military operations.
  • CTF 64: Missile defense section of the naval forces. Made up of nuclear submarines equipped with long range ballistic missiles.
  • CTF 65: Surface element of the Sixth Fleet. Comprised of the destroyers USS Porter (DDG 78), USS Donald Cook (DDG 75), USS Carney (DDG 64), and USS Ross (DDG 71).
  • CTF 67: Land based naval aircraft are placed under CTF 67. Engaged in mining, reconnaissance, surveillance, and anti-submarine warfare. TG-67 is currently active in Djibouti.
  • CTF 68: Expeditionary forces in support of naval operations. Teams include Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD Mobile Unit 8), naval engineering and construction, maritime salvage, firefighting, harbor and oceanic mapping (Fleet Survey Team), and intelligence (Intelligence Exploitation Teams).
  • CTF 69: Submarine warfare section. Possessing both attack submarines and guided missile submarines with the purpose of neutralizing enemy surface vessels and submarines.

U.S. Air Forces Africa (Headquartered Ramstein Air Base, Germany): The Air Force role has been provided by the Third Air Force after the inactivation of AFRICOM’s previous air element, the Seventeenth Air Force, in 2012. Its role is predominantly that of engaging in military operations including airstrikes and air support operations, as well as humanitarian and peacekeeping operations. AFAFRICA is comprised of ten wings, two groups, and the 603rd Air and Space Operations Center. Current commander is General Tod D. Wolters.

Wings that have conducted major operations in Africa include:

  • 31st Fighter Wing (Based in Aviano Air Base, Italy): Currently two operational squadrons exist. The 555th and 510th Fighter Squadrons are both comprised of F-16G fighter jets. In 2011, from March 17-31, the 31st Fighter Wing supported a United Nations enforced no fly-zone over Libya as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn.
  • 48th Fighter Wing (Based in Lakenheath, United Kingdom): Its operation group is made up of one squadron of F-15C/D Eagle air-superiority fighters and two of F-15E Strike Eagle dual-role fighters. The 48th Fighter Wing conducted operations over Libya as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn, both enforcing the no fly-zone and bombing key targets.
  • 86th Airlift Wing (Based in Ramstein Air Base, Germany): Utilizing C-40 Clipper and C-130 Hercules military transport planes, the 86th Airlift Wing conducts humanitarian and military transport missions. In 2004 and 2005, humanitarian supplies were delivered to Morocco and Chad respectively. 357 United States troops and 252 tons of cargo were transported to Mali in 2005. In two separate operations, C-130s transported African Union troops and their supplies to Rwanda.

U.S. Marine Corps Forces Africa (Headquartered Böblingen, Germany): Encompassing 1,500 Marines and 300 headquarter personnel, MARFORAF provides the flexibility of the Marine Corps to American operations in Africa. Forces are tasked with conducting military operations, engage in joint exercises with African contingents, and provide training to African militaries. Major General Russell A. Sanborn commands MARFORAF.

  • The Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Africa serves as the MARFORAF relief force. Utilizing MV-22B Ospreys and KC-130J Hercules aircraft, the Crisis Response Force engages in embassy reinforcement in instances akin to the 2012 Benghazi Attack, evacuates civilians from crisis zones, provides disaster relief and humanitarian aid, and carries out the recovery of aircraft and downed personnel. 850 Marines make up the task force, based in both Spain and Italy.
U.S. Military Forces And Operations In Africa - Overview

Soldiers of the East Africa Response Force

Sub-Unified Commands:

U.S. Special Operations Command Africa (Headquartered Stuttgart, Germany): Provides support for allied and African nations in combating extremism on the continent. This is accomplished through direct support in asymmetric military operations or joint training exercises such as Flintlock. Kill or capture missions such as those of the Niger ambush, intelligence missions, or support roles in African Union led operations are typically conducted by SOCAFRICA. An estimated 17% of U.S. Special Forces are deployed to Africa, conducting near a hundred missions in approximately twenty countries. Commanded by Major General Marcus J. Hicks, SOCAFRICA is broken up into regional and support roles:

  • Special Operations Command Forward-East: Allocated the Horn of Africa region including critical nations, such as Somalia, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, in the fight against al-Shabaab and other radical terror groups.
  • Special Operations Command Forward-West: Designated the Trans-Sahara region encompassing countries such as Nigeria, Niger, and Mali against groups such as Boko Haram and ISIS affiliates.
  • Special Operations Command Forward-Central: Placed in control of special operations in the countries of the Central African Republic, Sudan, South Sudan, and Democratic Republic of Congo with the mission of neutralizing the Lord’s Resistance Army under Joseph Kony.
  • Naval Special Warfare Unit 10
  • Joint Special Operations Air Component Africa
  • SOCAFRICA Signal Detachment

Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (Headquartered Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti): Based at the United States’ only permanent military base in Africa, CJTF-HOA engages in collaborative actions with East African nations. Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Seychelles, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda fall directly under the Joint Task Force’s domain, with several Central African nations maintaining a small role. Brigadier General David J. Furness commands the 1,800 personnel that make up CJTF-HOA. The Joint Task Force holds two main objectives in East Africa:

  • “Hands Off” eradication of extremist groups through multilateral cooperation. Military exercises, leadership training, advising roles, training, and communication assistance allows CJTF-HOA to boost the defense capacity of partner countries.
  • Long term development of African nations to promote stability, security, and economic prosperity. In the past, CJTF-HOA has engaged in infrastructure development through the construction schools, medical centers and water wells. Disaster relief and humanitarian aid is employed in times of crisis or in areas of prolonged conflict.

Operation Enduring Freedom

Launched in response to the September 11th Terror Attacks, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) has served as the United States’ overarching response to the rise of global terror. It mainly concentrated on airstrikes and occupation of Afghanistan to cripple the Taliban and al-Qaeda who the U.S. viewed as responsible for the terror attack. However, due to links between extremist groups in Africa and al-Qaeda, as well as the destabilizing effect that they pose, the United States expanded OEF to include conflict zones in East and West Africa.

The African terrorist threats the United States has sought to counter have been:

  • Al-Shabaab (7,000-9,000 fighters, 2014 est.): Affiliated with al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab has controlled much of rural Somalia since its inception in 2006. Forces of Ethiopia and the African Union intervention (AMISON) have been successful in driving out the group from city strongholds. While still occupying rural areas, al-Shabaab has carried out devastating attacks such as the October 14th truck bombing that killed over 350 in Mogadishu.
  • Boko Haram (6,000-15,000 fighters, 2015 est.): In 2002, Boko Haram was formed as a rejection of western teachings and secular government. In 2009, clashes became common between Boko Haram and Nigerian police forces, escalating into a full-scale rebellion. Upon the capture of the Sambisa Forest by Nigerian military forces in 2016, Boko Haram has been forced to abandon conventional warfare in favor of guerilla strikes, bombings, and kidnappings.
  • Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (600-800 fighters, 2013 est.): Branching off from radical groups in the 1990s during the Algerian Civil War, the former group officially allied with al-Qaeda and changed their name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2007. Carrying out bombings, kidnappings, assassinations, and raids, AQIM has operated in the countries of Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, Mali, Niger, Tunisia, and Libya.

Operation Enduring Freedom has taken on two different identities in both East and West Africa based on the mission required and the extremist groups combatted.

U.S. Military Forces And Operations In Africa - Overview

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Horn of Africa

Somalia presented a dual problem to United States’ interests in Africa. The issue of the Somali Civil War, al-Shabaab, and the influence of ISIS and al-Qaeda all present the United States with a need to work with African nations and exert its own power to counter extremism. Secondly, the rampant problem of Somali piracy threatens the freedom of oceanic commerce in one of the world’s most important trade chokepoints. The Gulf of Aden sees around 20,000 ships pass through it each year carrying millions of tons of cargo, the majority of which passes through  the Suez Canal. Both these factors made a U.S. base in Djibouti and the deployment of forces to the Horn of Africa vital.

In countering terror groups in Somalia, the United States has utilized special operations forces to engage in unconventional operations and assist the forces of the African Union and Ethiopia in training, intelligence, joint exercises, and advising. Typically raids by Navy SEALs or Delta Force are used to capture high value targets, such as the Barawe Raid in 2009, killing Ali Saleh al-Nabhan. In 2016, U.S. special operations forces conducted a helicopter based raid at Awdhegele, thirty miles from Mogadishu. Targeting another important al-Shabaab official, both fifteen terrorists and the target were killed. Offensive operations by the United States in Somalia are usually small-scale, backed by heavy plane and helicopter support, and target specific individuals. All precautions have been taken to avoid a repeat of the disastrous 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in which the United States lost two UH-60 Black Hawks with nineteen killed and seventy-three wounded.

Deploying conventional ground forces on the Horn of Africa are not the normal procedure for U.S. military. Typically, the U.S. will strike at al-Shabaab and Somali extremists through airstrikes conducted by drones or planes. On November 9th, September 13th, September 8th, and September 6th, 2017, the United States conducted strikes on al-Shabaab positions. Rather than special forces raids, the predominant method of scratching at al-Shabaab is the use of precision airstrikes to hit key targets, such as officials or camps. In 2016, the United States carried out an airstrike on al-Shabaab’s Raso training camp. 200 militants were expected to carry out an attack, but with the strike, over 150 extremists were killed. The effectiveness of airstrikes without ground forces demonstrated by the 2016 strike demonstrates the mainly supportive role U.S. forces play.

Combined Maritime Forces

In 2002, the United States expanded its Combined Maritime Force (CMF) from a unilateral group to an international coalition comprised of twenty-six nations. While including three task forces, only Combined Task Force 150 and Combined Task Force 151 operate off Africa.

  • Combined Task Force 150 (CTF-150): Assigned the role of protection of civilian vessels, drug seizures, and countering terrorism. For instance, in April 2017, over 850 pounds of heroin were seized by the French Surcouf HMS Monmouth captured around 1,000 pounds of marijuana and about 580 pounds of heroin. Response to attacks on commercial vessels are also undertaken by CTF-150, but offensive measures against piracy are not. CTF-150 is typically comprised of fifteen ships, currently from Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Pakistan, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
  • Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151): Delegated with the task of countering piracy, conducts both responsive and offensive actions against piracy. In the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, CTF-151’s USS Bainbridge After negotiations failed, Navy marksman killed three of the pirates and rescued Captain Phillips. CTF-151 is comprised of six ships from Australia, Pakistan, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States; however, assistance is provided by vessels from other nations as well, including China and Russia.

West Africa

United States deployments to West Africa present the same support role as those exercised by counterparts in other areas of Africa, with the enhanced emphasis on large scale training exercises. Countering extremist groups, mainly AQIM and Boko Haram, remains the priority of American forces. Rather than directly engage in raids and offensive operations, around 1,300 American advisors assist, train, and provide support infrastructure for partner nations.

In 2013, 150 U.S. troops were deployed to Niger in support of anti-terrorism operations in Mali. In Niamey, a drone installation was constructed to provide aerial intelligence collecting capabilities. In 2017, 800 U.S. personnel have been deployed to Niger, and drones are being relocated to the airbase at Agadez. Agreements with Niger only allow for surveillance drones, prohibiting the use of strikes targeting militants.

U.S. Military Forces And Operations In Africa - Overview

Malian special forces listen to instructions from a US Special Forces soldier on counter-ambush tactics in Kita, Mali, during a joint training exercise. (AP Photo / Alfred de Montesquiou)

Cameroon is another nation of interest in U.S. operations in West Africa. 300 troops were deployed in 2015, providing training, support, and intelligence roles. Cooperation has extended to the sharing of equipment, such as six military vehicles transferred to Cameroon’s armed forces. Garoua serves as another base for the United States to launch drones on intelligence missions in support of anti-insurgent operations.

Training exercises provide a key tool in the improvement of the ability of African nations to counter insurgent groups. Flintlock has been an extensive special operations training mission to nations around the world in disaster relief, aid, medical, and combat operations. However, AFRICOM specializes in exercises specifically including African nations.

  • African Lion: Hosted in Morocco, 1,200 Marine Corps Forces Africa and other NATO country personnel assisted African nations in developing counter insurgency, border security, and cross border operations capabilities.
  • Obangame Express: Held in the Gulf of Guinea, forces from Naval Forces Africa assist coastal African nations in maritime interdiction and seizure of illegal goods.
  • United Accord: Held in Ghana, AFRICOM trains West African forces in peacekeeping and disaster relief missions. It is designed to assist African nations in stabilization missions in Mali.
  • Unified Focus: Held in Cameroon, U.S. forces trained nations along the Lake Chad Basin in countering extremist groups.


The lack of any colonial possessions in Africa during the 19th and 20th Century coupled with focus on the Soviet Union in Europe during the Cold War, led to few involvements of the United States in Africa. Limited to supporting proxy forces in typical Cold War coups and civil wars perpetuated the instability that came to define African governments. However, in a world where the United States benefits both in economics and security from a stable Africa, its intentions have shifted to supporting these governments. It is this necessity to support, because of the rise of extremism in the 1990s and 2000s, that has led to greater involvement by the United States.

Recently the United States has either been forced to, or has voluntarily yielded its authority on issues in the Middle East. The 2017 Astana talks ignored the United States in the peace process for the Syrian Civil War, regardless of its leadership in Operation Inherent Resolve and support for the YPG in northern Syria. The Qatar Crisis in June resulted in the United States meekly offering mediation on the issue rather than taking the initiative away from Saudi Arabia to ensure the continuation of anti-terror operations against the Islamic State. On October 15, 2017, Iraqi armed forces advanced on the Kurdish held city of Kirkuk. Rather than demanding a withdrawal or taking an authoritative stance, the United States stayed neutral on the issue, urging a peaceful solution with a unified Iraq.

Both developments instigate a resurgence of interest in Africa. Growing economic interest in the development of African infrastructure and industries, rising populations, and the threat of terrorist groups motivates the United States to pursue further activities in Africa. The expansion of exercises, war powers, and missions to Africa all show the keen interest the United States has shown in the continent. The Niger ambush pulled back the curtain on U.S. activities in Africa, and revealed to the ignorant political establishment the extent of U.S. operations. It can only be anticipated that as nations grow in both economic power and political stability, the United States will take more steps to align its interests and military deployments with the events in Africa.



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