Plan to Deploy More U.S. Troops in Africa Faces Logistical Hurdles

By Sandra I. Erwin

Pentagon officials are finding that greater U.S. military involvement in Africa will be harder than they had imagined.

Despite an impressive logistics machine that regularly deploys and supplies troops around the globe, the U.S. military will have difficulties in Africa because it lacks the support infrastructure that the United States has in other parts of the world, senior officials said. 

The size of Africa, itself — twice as wide as the United States from East to West — creates asignificant transportation problem, said Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Robert R. Ruark, director of logistics on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

U.S. forces currently are deployed in Niger, Mali, South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic and Djibouti. The Republic of Djibouti is in the Horn of Africa, on the North East tip of the continent. The U.S. base there serves as the main hub for military operations because it is the only location on the continent that can provide the required services. This limits commanders' response time if they have to move troops to other regions of Africa, Ruark said. "We seem to be operating mainly from one enduring location."

Africa's size and geography "affect our response options and times," he said April 15 at the National Defense Industrial Association's logistics forum in Washington, D.C.

The Joint Chiefs are studying this problem, Ruark said. Officials believe that more work is needed to create a reliable network of suppliers and transportation providers that can support small teams of U.S. forces that may have to deploy on short notice.  

"The challenge is to develop a sustainment concept that supports distributed operations," said Ruark. Distributed operations is a term the Pentagon uses to describe the deployment of small military units. The U.S. government does not intend to send large-size forces to Africa but believes it needs a limited presence to help train local allies to fight extremist groups whose influence there is growing.

Among the obstacles for U.S. forces in Africa are limited access to sources of supplies and a distribution network that is not reliable, Ruark said. Unlike full-size Army brigades, smaller units must travel light and rely on outside means of support. "Distributed operations increase our self-sustaining requirements," said Ruark. 

Another weakness is poor communications systems, he said. "We need a robust and agile global distribution network with multiple nodes that are secure and resilient," he said. Decades of basing forces in Europe and the Middle East helped build a support infrastructure for the U.S. military that it lacks in Africa. The goal is to forge alliances with local governments there that can be trusted to provide the needed support, Ruark said. “We'll need healthy, multinational partnering agreements in the operating area.”

For operations in Africa, the military also will need more U.S. and local support contractors, said Ruark. As a former director of logistics at U.S. Central Command, Ruark was impressed by contractors’ abilities to deliver “door-to-door services” during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said. “Contractors picked up cargo in Fort Bragg [North Carolina] and took it all the way to FOBs [forward operating bases] in Afghanistan,” Ruark said. “I don't think that's ever been done before. I think that is fascinating. … It was the only politically acceptable solution. It keeps troops off the road,” he said. “We probably need to invest more in operational contractor support.”

The military’s expanded role in Africa is part of the Obama administration’s four-part strategy to strengthen democratic institutions, develop trade and investment, boost security and promote development. 

“DoD plays principally in peace and security, but will have a role to play in the other pillars as well,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Amanda J. Dory.

“In times of fiscal austerity, some could ask how investing in African peace and security halfway across the globe is in our national interest,” Dory said recently at a Pentagon news conference. The answer is that terrorists, criminal organizations, militias and pirates “exploit ungoverned and under-governed territory on the continent and in its surrounding waters,” she said. “The potential for rapidly developing threats, particularly in fragile states, including violent public protests and terrorist attacks, could pose acute challenges to U.S. interests.”

The commander of Germany-based U.S. Africa Command, Army Gen. David M. Rodriguez, said between 5,000 and 6,000 troops are now under his purview. “It fluctuates based on exercises and training and the time of year,” he said. Rodriguez noted that Djibouti is currently a “huge strategic location, but not centrally located to all the challenging areas.”

The military is considering building a more permanent presence in West Africa. “What we're really looking at doing is putting contingency locating sites, which have some just expeditionary infrastructure that can be expanded with tents to put people in there temporarily to help support response to crises, and protect U.S. personnel,” Rodriguez said.

The picture in Africa is “not all bright,” he said. “In some regions, weak governance, corruption, uneven development, disease, food insecurity, crime, and violent extremism have contributed to instability and conflict.” Al-Qaida and its affiliates, he said, “have taken advantage of regional instability to continue to expand their activities.” 

U.S. Africa Command has been promoting “military-to-military relationships in a region where the United States has little forward presence,” he said. In Somalia, six African countries participate in the African Union mission that is fighting with the Somali national army against the Islamic group Al-Shabaab. 

African Union and European Union forces are training Somali national army forces, leading multinational counter-piracy operations and supporting other peacekeeping efforts, said Rodriguez. U.S. forces are helping provide maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea and involved in the fight against the Lord's Resistance Army in Central Africa. “The size of the continent alone poses challenges in this regard,” he said. “And just to remind you, the distance between Tunis, Tunisia, and the tip of South Africa is the same distance from Washington, D.C., to Honolulu.”

At the Pentagon, another ongoing discussion is whether the military will have sufficient logistics support forces to send to Africa. In the Army, 85 percent of logistics units are in the Reserve and National Guard. Ruark said the Joint Chiefs worry that the military services will not be able to keep enough reservists trained and ready to deploy on short notice. 

“If we're going to rely on reserve components to respond, they are going to have to have the capacity and the readiness,” said Ruark. “I have no problem with reserve components. They have served us very well. But to be responsive they have to be ready fast,” he said. “We have to address that readiness equation.”

Lt. Gen. Raymond Mason, Army deputy chief of staff for logistics, said there is a heated debate underway in the Army about the future readiness of reserve forces. The Army’s heavy dependence on the Reserve and the Guard could slow down the response to a crisis, he said. Reservists are responsible for essential jobs such as driving fuel trucks. 

“The challenge is they only get 39 days of training a year,” whereas the active-duty Army trains 300 days, he said. “They're just not going to be at the same level.”

The Army is working with regional commands, including AFRICOM, to arrange short deployments of reserve units so they can be better prepared in case of a crisis, he said. “Even if it's just for 14 days, we can gain from the readiness we invested in."

Topics: Defense Contracting, Defense Contracting, Defense Department, War Planning, International, Logistics

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