by David Isenberg
In recent years, U.S. military operations in Africa have greatly expanded. Washington has established forward operating locations (FOL) and drone bases. It has helped various African countries, like Liberia, retrain their militaries. It has tried to track rebel groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army and the East African terrorist group like Al-Shabaab. The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has been involved in wide-ranging activities.
Thanks to the work of a very few journalists—like Nick Turse who has greatly enhanced our understanding of U.S. Special Operations Forces in Africa or Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post who has exposed problems at U.S. drone bases—there’s more information about these expanded operations.
But one aspect of U.S. military operations in Africa remains vastly under-covered and unappreciated: the role of private military and security contractors (PMSC).
Out of Africa
Domestic private security in Africa, which targets criminal activities, is widespread. But there are also a number of large transnational PMSCs who, along with their subsidiaries, guard mining sites, train national militaries and police, and provide security for development or humanitarian agencies. Even international development or UN peacekeeping/peacebuilding operations sometimes contract with PMSCs for various logistical support services.
It is fitting, in an ironic sense, that modern PMSCs should be operating in Africa. After all, Africa gave rise to much of the modern PMSC industry. The pioneer in the field was the South African-based Executive Outcomes (EO), which shut down in 1998 after having fought Jonas Savimbi’s rebel UNITA group in Angola and the murderous Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. Even earlier, mercenary “companies,” such as 5 Commando, fought in the Belgian Congo and elsewhere during the 1960s. Companies such as the Dutch VOC or the British South Africa Company were the tip of the spear for colonial occupation and exploitation,.
PMSCs are the U.S. military’s American Express card: it dare not deploy overseas without them. This is nowhere truer than in Africa. As a recent article in Geopolitics notes:
more than anywhere else in the world the US military presence in Africa is dependent upon PMCs that perform a variety of services, from transporting and housing personnel, to shipping materials and food, to providing medical support, to conducting surveillance… Soldiers operating out of remote facilities require services like food, fuel, beds, laundry, internet access and actionable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data that are provided by a heterogeneous web of contractors ranging from small African trucking firms, to American intelligence companies, to massive multinational corporations.
Consider, just some of the companies working on AFRICOM contracts:
A contractor-provided plane and crew was crucial to a secret surveillance mission performed in support of France’s Operation Serval in Mali in 2013. That mission involved the deployment of a plane equipped with High Altitude Lidar Operations Experiment (HALOE) technology, developed by the Defense Advanced Research projects Agency (DARPA). HALOE reportedly allows “unprecedented access to high resolution 3D data” due to its ability to collect information “orders of magnitude faster and from much longer ranges than conventional methods.” By way of comparison, DARPA’s director estimates that the program could map half of Afghanistan in 90 days.
What Contracts Do Best
As the article points out, contractors are particularly useful for maintaining a low profile, particularly when it comes to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). When the U.S. military does this work itself it does so via large drones like Predators and Reapers, which means, large, noticeable, highly visible bases.
Contractors, on the other hand, are highly unobtrusive. That’s something highly desired by African states who wish to keep their relationship with the U.S. government off the radar. As the Geopolitics article noted:
A 2009 State Department cable from Burkina Faso, which was a key site for covert, contractor-based ISR flights over Mali and Mauritania under a programme called Creeksand—especially when flights from Mauritanian bases were temporarily suspended following a coup in 2008—relays a request by the government to move US planes to a different part of the airport in Oagadougou so as to “meet Burkina Faso’s objectives to maintain discretion concerning American presence.” It also states that Burkinese officials appreciate that “U.S. personnel were extremely discreet and did not attract undue attention.”
Similarly, a contractor-based ISR program named Tusker Sand, operating out of Entebbe, Uganda since 2009, has been part of a campaign against the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Contractors are also a key enabler for U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) in Africa, helping them get to where they fight, which isn’t easy given Africa’s vast size. The Geopolitics article said:
This is especially true of SOF teams who conduct operations across a wide swath of the Sahel, Maghreb, Central and East Africa and rely heavily on US-based flight contractors. For instance, a 2013 solicitation for a Trans-Sahara short take-off and landing (STOL) contract to provide casualty evacuation and personnel and cargo airlift for Special Operations Command, Africa (SOCAFRICA) states that contractors will be required to fly both day and night missions from “improved and unimproved airfield landing zones” and that “it is anticipated that the most likely locations for missions… would be to: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia.
Finally, just like in Iraq and Afghanistan, contractors also provide base operations and life-support services to US military sites and operations in Africa. In some cases these contracts are awarded through established channels such as the U.S. Defense Department’s Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP).
In other instances ad hoc solicitations or no-bid contracts are used… due to the small size of the base, temporary duration of operations, or difficulty in identifying qualified providers. In June 2015, for instance, the Marine Corps solicited bids to provide base-support services for up to four months for twenty-four soldiers conducting training exercises with the Ugandan military at Camp Singo in Uganda in the fall.The US frequently uses Camp Singo – which is located roughly seventy kilometres northwest of Kampala – for training exercises with Ugandan and other African military contingents, and has even established a small fenced compound with buildings, tents, water tanks and generators. But rather than permanently stationing troops there it rotates them in as desired, relying upon short-term contracts for base and life support. Ad hoc logistics contracting, in other words, facilitates AFRICOM’s stated goal of organising force posture “to maximize operational flexibility and agility.”
Photo: Private military contractors with a Sierra Leone commando unit