What can fuel contracts tell us about the U.S. military’s evolving presence in Africa?

“How do you measure a military footprint?” Six years ago Josh Begley posed this question for his empire.is project, which used satellite imagery and the 2013 Base Structure Report to visualize the U.S. military’s presence around the world. The 2016 article James Walker and I wrote for Geopolitics, “Tracing the U.S. military’s presence in Africa,” can be read, in part, as a methodological exploration of the potential utility of piecing together contracting data to limn the U.S. military’s overseas footprint. We were especially interested in this approach in contexts where transparency is lacking, as is the case with military activities and sites in Africa. CENTCOM, for example, has offered quarterly updates on contractor personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of its AOR for over a decade now. It also provides regular updates on the number of troops in the region. No such information is provided by AFRICOM, which is perhaps the least forthcoming of the geographic combatant commands.

Military footprints, of course, are never static. The U.S. military constantly shifts resources, personnel and equipment across the world, setting up and shuttering logistics nodes, bases and forward operating locations as priorities and resources fluctuate. Tracing these changes is perhaps the most difficult challenge when it comes to getting traction on the military’s evolving global presence. So how can one do this without information about troop or contractor levels, as in AFRICOM’s AOR?

One potentially useful proxy is fuel contracts. This week, for instance, DLA posted a solicitation for planned JA-1 jet fuel purchases in Africa from fall 2019 to fall 2023. If you compare the locations and amounts of fuel purchases from this solicitation with the previous one in 2016 you can get a rough sense of changes in operational sites and tempos. (Actually, one could go back further using the 2010 and 2013 solicitations too, but I’m just focusing on differences between 2016 and 2019 here). I’ve done some basic back of the envelope work toward this end with this map of JA-1 fuel demands for logistics hubs, CSLs, drone facilities and bases that support counter-terrorism operations in North and West Africa, and the Sahel, based on this new solicitation. It provides information on total amounts of fuel (in gallons, rounded to the nearest thousand) and the percentage increase or decrease this represents in yearly demand at these sites compared to 2016.[1]


So what can we learn about the U.S. military’s footprint in this part of the world from this exercise? A few things jump out to me. First, yearly jet fuel demand in the region has increased roughly 27% since 2016, which suggests a rather significant rise in the intensity of military operations during this period. Given the noisiness of the data this increase should be considered an approximation. For example, neither Bamako nor Abuja were included in the 2016 solicitation, which is likely an oversight, given they were part of the 2010, 2013 and 2019 iterations. Similarly, the 2019 solicitation doesn’t include Arlit (a key SOF base in Niger) or Sidi Ahmed airbase in Bizerte (a drone site in Tunisia), possibly because neither are officially recognized by AFRICOM (though both show up in various contracting documents).[2]

Second, almost half the increase in fuel consumption is driven by operational demands at Niamey (+56%). Niamey is currently the most important logistics hub and drone base in the region for the U.S. military, which is reflected in the fact that it alone represents more than a third of total fuel demand. Not coincidentally, the largest increase by percentage in fuel demand (+72%) is another drone facility, Garoua. I suspect that the massive drone base being built in Agadez will surpass Garoua—and most other sites on the map—in fuel consumption by the time the next solicitation is posted in 2023.

Third, the 2019 solicitation contains four new sites requiring jet fuel in the region: 1) the aforementioned drone base at Agadez, 2) the newly completed Blaise Diagne International Airport in Dakar, which is replacing some of the traffic previously routed through Dakar’s old international airport, Leopold Sedar Senghor, 3) Agadir, which may be the site of a new CSL or SP-MAGTF-CR-AF base, and 4) Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso, which I am unfamiliar with.

Finally, fuel demand has exploded in Algiers (+53%) over the past three years, making it the second largest site in volume in the region after Niamey. I’d be interested to know more about what’s driving this shift. Is this simply a matter of Algiers’ increasing importance as a logistics hub, or does it signal something else, like a new, unacknowledged, site for drone operations? Whatever the reason, growing political unrest in the country may impact operations at this location in the future.


[1] I should note, perhaps, that I consider it most useful to treat these solicitations as approximations of the state of play during the time they are released their rather than representations of future plans, or forecasts, as DLA fuel contracts are flexible and can be—and often are—amended to reflect changes in demand. Therefore, this new solicitation not only doesn’t capture future fuel consumption (and operational activity) at an under-construction site such as Agadez, it also likely doesn’t reflect the current administration’s goal of reducing troop levels in Africa (which the military appears to be dragging its feet on as much as possible).  Thanks goes to Matt Zebrowski at UCLA for putting together this map.

[2] Also absent are a number of contingency locations in the region identified by Nick Turse, based on 2015 AFRICOM strategic posture documents—though these sites may no longer be in use.

War in countries we are not at war with (a Philippines update)

While nearly two decades of war in CENTCOM grinds on, and the militarization of U.S. foreign policy in Africa continues apace, another lesser known theater of U.S. overseas military operations is the Philippines. This morning a Department of Defense Inspector General (DODIG) report provided details on the expanding footprint of Operation Pacific Eagle (OPE), the latest iteration of U.S.-Philippine counter-terrorism efforts in the southern Philippines.

As is typical for the military, the report describes this as a “small footprint” operation. But the data it provides belies this characterization. Instead it suggests that the presence is significant and growing. For example, at the end of 2018 more than 270 U.S. soldiers and Special Operations Forces were conducting operations in the country. And they were supported by more than 500 U.S. and Philippine contractors who are providing “transportation, security, ISR [including contractor owned and operated Gray Eagle drones], communications, casualty evacuation, engineering, logistics…food preparation, plumbing, engineering” and other services.[1] This is a not insignificant increase from the summer-fall when roughly 250 U.S. forces and 350 contractors were involved in operations.[2] Moreover, according to the latest report the cost of OPE related military activities is expected to rise from $99 million in fiscal year 2018 to $108 million in fiscal year 2019.

[1] https://media.defense.gov/2019/Feb/04/2002085696/-1/-1/1/FY2019_LIG_OCOREPORT.PDF

[2] https://www.stateoig.gov/system/files/fy2019_lig_oco_ope-p_q4_sep2018.pdf

The U.S.’s overlooked counter-terrorism outpost in Kenya

I’ve written before about Niger’s emerging role as a locus of AFRICOM’s counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel and Sahara, including drone bases in Niamey and Agadez, and a special operations force (SOF) facility in Arlit. It’s a topic that seems to be of some interest, and deservedly so. But if one wants a clear example of the  U.S. military’s more longstanding yet still expanding presence in Africa, a little known base across the continent in Kenya is also illustrative.

Established in 2004, Manda Bay, also sometimes referred to as Camp Simba, is a ‘forward operating location’ (FOL) situated along the coast roughly 100 kilometers from the border with Somalia at the site of a previously existing Kenyan naval base. Manda Bay’s primary function is to serve as a center for training exercises with Kenya’s naval special forces and a base for SOF operations in Somalia, including the “hunter-killer team” Task Force 88, which set up shop in early 2007 according to Thomas Barnett.

In its early years Manda Bay was a small scale affair with no more than a few dozen troops based there at any one time. Former Navy Seal and recently elected governor of Missouri, Eric Greitens, served there in 2005 and his memoir, The heart and the fist, offers a useful picture of the modest (“probably no larger than two football fields” in his estimation) facility at the time: “Our compound was centered around a small house that had once been in shambles—broken roof, smashed walls, trees growing through the floor—but was now, after several deployments of special warfare personnel, structurally sound with a new red roof and a fresh coat of white paint…Surrounding the main house stood five khaki-colored, ten-man tents that hummed with small air conditioning units used to keep them cool at night.” In addition to this compound the base consisted of a small jetty and a rudimentary runway of barely 3,000 feet cut out of the jungle.

Greitens also writes about the logistical challenges of supplying a remote base such as Manda Bay, especially when it came to food: “We had no fresh fruit or vegetables at Manda Bay. Our supply officers in Djibouti tried to get us fresh fruit, but it was difficult to transport an orange from Europe to Djibouti, from Djibouti to Mombasa, and from Mombasa up to Lamu. We ate peaches soaked in syrup packaged in MRE bags.”

To overcome these and other supply shortcomings Manda Bay was part of a 2011 initiative to develop an “adaptive” military logistics network on the continent utilizing sealift by international contractors and line-haul by local truck companies. Following the successful completion of this experiment a Dubai firm, Seven Seas Shipchandlers, was awarded a contract to make regular deliveries to Manda Bay. Since then this logistics concept has been adopted across AFRICOM, most notably in the form of a 2014 African Surface Distribution Service contract, worth up to $10 million for each of the five selected companies, “to perform surface transport and distribution of general cargo within all fifty five (55) nations of the AFRICOM AOR and Egypt.”



In the decade since Greiten’s tour Manda Bay has undergone a remarkable expansion that belies its designation as a ‘temporary’ FOL. The two sets of satellite images above (taken from Google Earth) provide a glimpse of the physical transformation of the base from 2006 to 2014. In the first we can see a more than 3-fold expansion of the base compound’s footprint, accompanied by a similar growth in buildings and infrastructure. A 2012 Navy engineering document I have obtained details a host of improvements completed and under construction at the time, including a new dining facility, extra fuel storage tanks, a new well and expanded water storage, and new power generators. In addition to this the Navy spent millions improving the base’s road network and repaving and lengthening the runway to 4,000 feet.

These infrastructural improvements reflect—and are necessitated by—Manda Bay’s growing importance for counter-terrorism operations in the Horn of Africa, as evidenced by the rapid growth in troops located at the facility since the few dozen stationed there in 2005. By 2012 the base “routinely” supported “in excess of 200 US service members” according to the Navy’s FY 2013 Overseas Contingency Operations budget request (see p. 67). This September the Navy posted a solicitation for bids for a new Base Operations Service (BOS) contract covering Camp Lemmonier and the Chabelley drone facility in Djibouti, and Manda Bay. According to the document the latter’s dining facility now serves 325 troops “with surges to 510 personnel for up to 3 months” (see p. 227). This suggests that Manda Bay is the second largest base on the continent after Lemmonier, even larger than the drone base in Niamey, which had—as of July this summer—a steady state of 200-250 personnel according to another contract solicitation.

Logistics contracting and U.S. military operations in Niger and Cameroon

An excellent article today from Nick Turse at The Intercept on the new drone base being built by AFRICOM in Agadez, Niger. According to documents Turse obtained MQ-9 Reapers will fly from the base, with Niger being the only country in the region willing to host this model of drones, which have greater range and strike capabilities than MQ-1 Predators. Unlike the drone facilities in Niamey and the new SOCAFRICA base in Arlit, French forces will not be co-located at Agadez. One nugget from the documents is that the U.S. considered Arlit as an alternative location (albeit on that would be more expensive) but it was requested by Niger that the base be located in Agadez.

From the perspective of my research on logistics contracting both the bases in Arlit and Agadez and the new drone facility in Garoua, Cameroon are interesting in that the military has apparently chosen to utilize the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) for support services. These services are provided by Fluor, the prime contractor for LOGCAP in AFRICOM. A 2015 LOGCAP industry day slideshow (see slide 63) indicates that Fluor is providing a wide range of base support at both Garoua and Arlit, including construction, infrastructure maintenance and repair, food service, power generation, fire protection and waste removal.


Additionally, this spring Fluor posted advertisements at its LOGCAP recruiting page for positions in vector management (pest control) at Garoua and maintenance mechanics at Agadez (these advertisements are no longer visible but I saved screen shots of both). Mechanics at Agadez are expected to provide maintenance support for portable Skywatch towers which are being utilized for base protection. These towers are also increasingly used by police to provide crowd surveillance in public places—another example of the merging of military and police tactics and technology in the U.S.

The evolving U.S. military presence in Niger

Last month Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) posted a contract solicitation for two helicopters to be based at undisclosed locations in Niger in support of military operations in “the North and West Africa Area of Operations”, which includes the countries of Mali, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin, Mauritania, Senegal and Burkina Faso. Two weeks ago it posted a revised solicitation in response to interested company questions. Both the original and revised solicitations offer further insight into the evolving U.S. military presence in the region.


To begin, the contract refers to a previously undisclosed “AFRICOM Analysis Office” in Arlit, a remote mining city in northern Niger that is the source of most of the uranium for France’s nuclear power plants. Arlit is also a key transportation node in the region, used by both Islamic militants operating across the Sahel and Maghreb and smugglers transporting migrants north to the Mediterranean coast and then on to Europe. The city appears to be the primary operating base for the SOCAFRICA helicopters, based on contract language (p. 39 in original solicitation) identifying it as the delivery location for all required reporting—daily sitreps, logs, administrative reports, etc.—and necessary equipment, supplies, personnel, etc.

One of the reasons that AFRICOM utilizes contracted air support is visibility. Unmarked civilian planes and helicopters are relatively unobtrusive, masking the military’s presence and activities. This contract is no different, as it specifically states that “aircraft shall not be painted in a color that is close to military colors and paint schemes. A conservative, predominately white, civilian-style paint scheme is preferred” (p. 7 of revised solicitation).

The contract is one more data point indicating that Niger is now the most important hub for the U.S. military the region. In 2014 AFRICOM shifted its primary contract for airlift support from Ouagadougou to Niamey, where its main drone base for the region is also located. The construction of a second drone base in Agadez (begun last year) and presence of an “analysis office” supporting SOCAFRICA operations in Arlit indicates that the military views the northern reaches of Niger as a critical site in its ongoing counterterrorism operations in the region.

ISR flights and U.S. SOF operations in Tunisia

James Walker and I have an article forthcoming in Geopolitics (see here for final draft) that traces the growing U.S. military presence in Africa. One of the things we examine is the use of flight contractors for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) gathering. This map, for example, shows sites and areas of operation of the Creeksand and Tuskersand programs.


Another potential operation/site that was left out of the paper was the mysterious case of ISR flights over Tunisia last March. These flights originated from the airport on the small Italian island of Pantelleria, located just 50 miles from Tunisia. The aircraft, N351DY, is a Beechcraft King Air registered to Aircraft Logistics Group, one of a portfolio of aerospace and defense companies owned by a private equity firm called Acorn Growth Companies. Another one of Acorn’s companies, Commuter Air Technology, is one of the key firms supporting the Tuskersand ISR operations, or its successor, run out of Uganda.


Three days ago Missy Ryan and Souad Mekhennet published an article in the Washington Post that details a March 2015 Tunisian/U.S. SOF operation that led to the death of nine militants linked to the terrorist attack at the Bardo National Museum 10 days earlier. Ryan and Mekhennet don’t mention ISR support for the mission, but the timing and location of the Pantelleria flights make clear that they were connected to this operation. The first known Pantelleria flight (March 21) took place just three days after the Bardo attack, which suggests one of two things: 1) a previously existing ISR program run out of Pantelleria operating over Tunisia and possibly Libya, or 2) a remarkable capacity possessed by flight contractors operating in conjunction with U.S. SOF in Africa to establish within days a new ISR operation over the continent.