The Complex

Mapped: The U.S. military's presence in Africa

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The United States may be deploying 10 have a handfull of troops helping the French in Mali, but that's just a drop in the bucket of the U.S. military's presence in Africa, which has been quietly building for the last decade. You've probably heard about the 2,000-troop hub at Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti, and the 100 special operators hunting Joseph Kony. But less is known about the handful of U.S. drone bases scattered across the continent and the dozens of exercises involving hundreds, if not thousands, of American troops (Click the placemarks on the map above for a quick description of what U.S. troops are doing in each country.)

A quick look at exercises and other activities conducted by U.S. Africa Command this spring alone reveals a U.S. military presence in more than a dozen countries -- from Cape Verde in the West to the Seychelles in the East and Morocco in the North. These exercises have shared medical techniques with the Nigerian military, provided intelligence training in Congo, trained special operators in Cameroon, and even included an East African Special Operations Conference in Zanzibar.

Just look at the U.S. Army's page on Africa to find even more examples of soldiers deploying to Africa.

In 2012, Africa Command planned 14 major exercises with African militaries, according to the command's website. Meanwhile, the Foreign Military Financing program gave African militaries $45 million to buy American-made weapons in 2011. Tunisia received the most cash ($17 million), followed by Morocco ($9 million) and Liberia ($7 million).

Let's take a close-up look at the eight reported U.S. drone bases scattered across equatorial Africa that are depicted on this map.

1) First up is Camp Lemmonier, which houses thousands of U.S. personnel and has -- according to satellite imagery -- also hosted everything from F-15E Strike Eagle bombers and C-130 cargo planes, to PC-12 special ops planes and MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper UAVS.

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2) Next is the U.S. Indian Ocean drone base in the Seychelles that's used to hunt Somali pirates and other seaborne ne'er do wells. You can clearly see a tan-colored "clamshell" tent on the northwest end of the runway -- a common indicator of a U.S. military presence at an airstrip.

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3) Speaking of clamshell tents, this Bing map shows several at what appears to be a fairly large and newly constructed facility near the old terminal at Entebbe Airport on the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda. The old terminal at Entebbe is famous as the site of the Israeli commando raid that freed hundreds of passengers from a hijacked Air France flight in 1976.

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National Security

The Air Force is looking at how to fly prop-driven spy planes in high-threat environments

We've been hearing for years now that the U.S. military's crop of slow-moving spy planes fielded for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- ranging from MQ-9 Reaper drones to manned MC-12 Liberties -- will be totally useless in a fight against an adversary armed with sophisticated radars and anti-aircraft missiles (often labeled anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) weapons).

This, of course, is how the U.S.  Air Force and Navy are justifying the development of a host of stealthy strike and spy jets (manned and unmanned), missiles and electronic warfare weapons designed to fight countries equipped with sophisticated weapons designed to keep U.S. forces far from their borders.

However, the Air Force's spy arm -- officially called the Air Force Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Agency -- is experimenting with flying low and slow prop-driven spy planes in skies where advanced air defenses are present. In late February, the agency sent several squadrons of Air Force intelligence assets to play in the service's legendary air combat exercise known as Red Flag over the Nevada desert.

"One of the things that we need to figure out is how much risk would we have to take to fly airborne ISR assets ... in a non-permissive environment," said Col. Mary O'Brien, commander of the Air Force's 70th ISR Wing during a speech late last week. "Initially, we had said, ‘well you could never fly them because there would be risk.' But one of the things that you can practice at Red Flag is you can build a package that includes defenses and then see."

The agency managed to successful fly a propeller-driven MC-12 Liberty -- based on Beechcraft's civilian King Air -- to collect intelligence in the face of a simulated advanced air defense network that featured Soviet-designed SA-6 surface-to-air missiles.

"It was not shot down but that's a case of one," said O'Brien. "It made us say, ‘this should be perhaps an exercise objective in a future Red Flag."

(While the MC-12 is a slow, twin turboprop of the type you'd see at your average small town airport, it might help that the SA-6 is a 1970s-vintage system used by dozens of countries that the United States has had decades to figure out how to defeat.)

She went on to say that while advanced enemy air defenses would pose a big threat to planes like the MC-12, U.S. forces may be able to provide such planes with protection for just long enough to collect some pieces of vital intelligence.

"How long do we need to operate in that environment?" asked O'Brien. "Maybe you don't need air supremacy and maybe you only need air superiority for this amount of time depending on what you want to do." 

The whole point of sending prop-driven ISR planes into the fight is  getting people to think about the notion that "hey, we don't need to sit everything on the ramp that we used in Iraq and Afghanistan.... Let's start thinking about" how these aircraft might play a role in a future fight.

She wouldn't say what type of protection the Liberty had as it flew its mission, it could have been anything from fighter escorts who were hunting down the enemy radar and missile sites to advanced electronic warfare gear that jammed enemy sensors or some combination of both.

U.S. Air Force