Better Intelligence and Some Patience for Africa Command
“It's only been less than a year ago that al-Shabab emir [Ahmed] Diriye called for an increased emphasis on attacking Western targets in the Horn of Africa,” said Army Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, outgoing U.S. Africa commander.
The terrorist organization has links to al-Qaida and seeks to expand its footprint in East Africa, beyond its base in Somalia. “[Diriye] specifically mentioned Kenya, where they have operated in the past, but he mentioned Ethiopia and Djibouti as well,” Gen. Townsend added.
Terrorism has been a priority for this infantry officer who became the fifth commander of United States Africa Command in July 2019.
Since then, drone use by aggressors multiplied for surveillance, but not yet for attack, on the continent. Nevertheless, there are few countermeasures to this remote intelligence gathering by opponents.
“If we had some kind of magic, you know, a drone jammer that we can park on our [forward operating base] or fit in our vehicle that we could, when a drone shows up, we press a button, and all the drones go away, that'd be awesome,” Gen. Townsend said, speaking on a Defense Writers Group conference call.
Unfortunately, rivals use cheap commercial vehicles to gather information prior to attacks with mortars or searching for soft spots, and these can’t be easily stopped, according to Gen. Townsend.
Compounding the problem is poor technology for sharing information, and the general emphasized the need for advancement. “Communications and command control, anything we can do to standardize and improve our interoperability not only with our African partners but our European or Western partners as well, because sometimes we get down there and, you know, it's just hard to communicate with one another,” Gen. Townsend said.
As possible mitigators of these risks, the ability to constantly have “eyes in the sky” would be a capability unavailable to this command. Gen. Townsend wished to have a solar-powered unmanned vehicle Zephyr for continuous observation. Also, Brig. Gen. Rose Keravuori, U.S. Africa Command’s deputy director for intelligence, spoke in June in Spain advocating for similar resources.
China and Russia
“We see China competing mostly through economic means and development programs,” said Gen. Townsend, seeing as limited the military presence of the Asian country beyond a base in Djibouti and high profile UN peace mission engagement. The official also clarified that this East African nation could not be considered an ally of Beijing.
Russia operates through the Wagner Group, an army of Moscow-backed privateers who seek to advance interests with little regard for institutions or rights.
“There are people who have a soft spot in their heart for the Russians in Mali, as they have gone back there with Wagner,” Gen. Townsend said and explained how this group has increased capabilities recently in the landlocked country.
“They’ve recently brought in some sophisticated surveillance radars and air defense capabilities, and the only reason I can suspect they would need [these] is to keep the West from watching what they’re doing,” Gen. Townsend estimated.
To place this into greater context, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks told journalists in May that “the proliferation of Russian state-backed private military contractors on the continent has frustrated Western-led stabilization operations, led to rampant abuses against local populations and afforded Russia both access and influence in resource-rich and strategically-located countries.”
When a drone shows up, we press a button and all the drones go away, that'd be awesome
The reaction from local warlords, ones affiliated with al-Qaida, has been to stress how the Russians have attacked locals to defend Kremlin interests, Gen. Townsend explained.
Nevertheless, the commander suggested strategic patience.
“I think what we’re going to have to do right now with our African partners is for the United States and the West to contain that as best we can and let that play out over time,” Gen. Townsend said.