U.S. Africa Command Welcomes China’s Growing Role as Arms Supplier
America’s financial crisis, war fatigue and the public’s isolationist mood are certain to put a damper on U.S. military efforts to rebuild war-ravaged countries and prop up failing states. Today’s biggest spenders on foreign development assistance and stability operations — the United States, Europe and Japan — are all in the throes of economic downturn.
Nowhere would cutbacks in foreign military assistance be felt more acutely than in Africa, home of seven of theworld’s top 10 “failed states."
These virtually lawless nations, which the United States considers “safe havens” for extremist groups and pirates, include Somalia, Chad, Sudan, Zimbabwe the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Guinea.
But as the United Statesdials back its role as the world’s policeman, China increasingly is expected to fill the gap, at least in Africa, says the U.S. military officer who oversees the African continent, Army Gen. Carter Ham.
“It is very clear that the Chinese, like us and like many others, are engaged in supporting African militaries with equipment,” said Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command.
China stepping up its role as arms supplier to African nations is welcomed by the U.S. military because it contributes to counterterrorism efforts, Ham tells reporters Sept. 14 during a breakfast meeting in Washington, D.C.
China, for instance, is supplying the Democratic Republic of Congo’s security forces with riverine craft. “I actually think that is pretty helpful. It’s a capability that they need, and it’s not a capability that we possess,” Ham says.
Worries about widening influence by three African extremist groups —al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Harem and Al-Shabab — are raising pressure on the United States and regional allies to counter these organizations’ efforts to recruit and set up training camps throughout Africa. In light of diminishing U.S. resources, Ham says, China’s participation is encouraging. “I don’t see that as a military competition between us and China.” A number of African nations fly Chinese aircraft and patrol their coastal waters with Chinese vessels. This is not to be seen as an arms race but rather as “African nations making decisions about where they can best find supplies and equipment they need,” Ham says. “As a U.S. guy, would I prefer for them to have all U.S. stuff? Absolutely. That makes it easier for us to engage. But Africans will make decisions that are best for them.”
Ham says he is not aware of any Chinese arms being sold to Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi's.
As NATO air forces remain in pursuit of Gaddafi, AFRICOM officials worry about terrorist groups grabbing a hold of the crumbling regime’s weapons stockpile. The number-one concern are Gaddafi’s stash of shoulder-fired missiles. The U.S. State Department, AFRICOM and regional allies are working to stem the flow of these man-portable, air-defense systems, or manpads, into terrorists’ hands, Ham says. Also of concern are conventional munitions and explosive materials that could be used to build roadside bombs, he says. “If not controlled, they would get into the hands of AQIM, Boko Harem and Al-Shabab.” Another security headache, Ham says, are Gaddafi’s chemical materials that could be used to build weapons. All those potential chemical-weapon components eventually have to be “demilitarized,” he says.
Declining U.S. military budgets not only would affect AFRICOM’s military-to-military activities but also could result in the command having to shed many of its support contractors. No specific orders to cut workers or contractors have yet been received, but are anticipated, Ham says. “It’s clear to me that we do have to look at whether we’re efficiently applying the resources we have.”
Throughout the military’s geographic commands, he says, “there is a general trend, where it makes sense, toward reducing reliance on contractors.” At AFRICOM, the single largest contingent of contractors are intelligence analysts. Most are based at AFRICOM headquarters at Kelley Barracks, Stuttgart, Germany. Others work from a satellite location in the United Kingdom, and at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla.
“We’re constantly looking at [whether there is] a way to be more efficient and reduce our reliance on contractors,” Ham says. “We’ll keep wrestling with that.”
Across all U.S. intelligence agencies, there is probably excess capacity that could be eliminated, Ham says. “How do we best leverage those capabilities to reduce redundancies so we don’t have multiple organizations performing the same tasks?” One option is to cut back on intelligence analysts who work on-site and “reach back” to U.S. based analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Another cost-savings approach would be to consolidate intelligence support with U.S. European Command, Southern Command and Central Command.
“If we can share intelligence assets rather than each of us having stand alone capability, there is a benefit to that,” says Ham.
The fiscal crunch also means it will be unlikely that AFRICOM will relocate its headquarters to the United States, as several members of Congress have urged, in an attempt to bring jobs to their home districts. The Defense Department is working on a study on alternative basing options for AFRICOM, Ham says. But he cannot see how it could be justified, given the enormous cost. “It’d have a pretty tough time in this fiscal environment going to [Defense] Secretary [Leon] Panetta and asking for money to move our headquarters anyplace.”