U.S. Africa Command plans to begin routing flights to Accra, Ghana, as the hub of a new logistics network to ferry supplies and weapons to the patches of U.S. troops operating across the continent’s increasingly turbulent western region.
A C-17 cargo plane is scheduled to touch down at Kotoka International Airport later this month, inaugurating what is expected to become a weekly flight from AFRICOM’s home base in Europe to the port capital. The United States has access to warehouse space in Accra — part of a defense-cooperation agreement struck with the Ghanaians in May — and from there will send the aggregated cargo out on smaller planes and trucks to the approximately 1,800 U.S. troops dispersed across 17 to 20 locations in West Africa.
It’s “basically a bus route,” said Brig. Gen. Leonard J. Kosinski, who runs logistics at AFRICOM, carrying arms, ammunition, food, and other supplies to special forces troops.
But it’s a bus route that traverses a baker’s dozen of nations that together cover roughly the area of the continental United States, epitomizing “the tyranny of distance,” Kosinski said.
At first, the flights will be U.S. military cargo planes supporting American personnel. But after the first year, AFRICOM hopes that African contractors, European allies, and partner nations will plug into the network. It’s a simple concept, but one that the command hopes will ultimately help build not only a more efficient and consistent supply network across the region but also bolster the capacity of local governments to manage their own counterterrorism and crisis response operations.
“The end goal for this is not for the U.S. military to have our planes flying around here forever,” Kosinski said in an interview.
But no matter the long-term intentions, the launch of this West Africa Logistics Network suggests that at least for now, AFRICOM is planning a consistent presence in the western reaches of the continent — even as the command has announced a small reduction in its special operations forces and, perhaps more importantly, as President Trump has continued to express public ambivalence about America’s “forever wars.”
“It suggests to me that the assumption is the current posture will be enduring and ought to have sustained logistics and supply rather than the expeditionary variety,” Alice Friend, who specializes in African security issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an email. “I don’t think it signals an expansion per se, but it does suggest that there is no intention to substantially reduce.”
U.S. troops in the region are primarily training and supporting local militaries in a handful of countries. In particular, they are helping to push back ISIS West Africa and Boko Haram, which boast between three and four thousand fighters and a thousand fighters, respectively. AFRICOM is especially concerned about ISIS West Africa, which took over broad swaths of territory in northern Nigeria over the summer.
The U.S. military’s activities in West Africa, long a matter of somewhat shadowy speculation, exploded into the public consciousness in 2017 when four U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush during a counterterrorism mission in Niger. The incident, which prompted congressional and Defense Department investigations, ignited scrutiny of the military’s under-recognized role in the region.
Senior brass have downplayed the U.S. military footprint in the region. They often point to the French lead in the Sahel area north of Mali and in Niger. Earlier this month, the State Department cut off some assistance to Cameroon over alleged atrocities by the government, which is battling an Anglophone separatist movement in the western region of the country; in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, outgoing AFRICOM head Gen. Thomas Waldhauser emphasized to lawmakers that the sole military mission there is to train counterterrorism forces in the north that fight Boko Haram and does not include supporting Cameroon President Paul Biya’s handling of the movement.
Waldhauser also emphasized that U.S. troops do not have the authority to carry out offensive strikes in any of the West African countries; nor has he authorized the troops under his command to accompany partner forces that they are training and advising, which would give them the right to exercise what’s known as “collective self-defense” — a strike in defense of that partner force. According to its internal policy, the Pentagon believes it has the legal authority to carry out collective self-defense strikes to protect partner forces even if the target of those strikes is not covered by a congressional military authorization; critics have raised concerns that the Pentagon could simply slap the designation on any group it wished in order to carry out airstrikes on a desired target. (“I can’t say for sure whether they’ve been designated or not. I know that we don’t strike them,” Waldhauser told lawmakers.)
Kosinski followed this lead — “If you look in West Africa, the U.S. is not the biggest game in town, not by far,” he said — and emphasized that the new hub in Accra is not a military base.
But the military will be shipping at least small arms through the new hub, he said. “Probably just small, self-defense equipment for the military themselves. It’s what you’d expect for special forces.”
A spokesperson for AFRICOM said that cargo will “likely be flown out shortly upon arrival” by C-130s, a smaller airlifter than the intercontinental C-17s. Primarily, the spokesman said, AFRICOM will hold materials in the airport’s commercial warehouse, which will be overseen by local subcontractors, at least initially with oversight from Defense Department personnel.
The military already pays Tunisia to pick up U.S. cargo in Ramstein, Germany on its C-130s and fly it down to Niger, where the military has a “temporary hub” until it can jumpstart operations at Accra. But broadly, Kosinski said, getting materials distributed across West Africa is “expensive, ad hoc, and it’s not efficient.”
The United States already maintains a so-called “cooperative security location” at the Kotoka Airport, Kosinski said — usually a warehouse or some other local real estate that the military has struck an agreement with a local government to be able to access within five or 10 days if it has some immediate need to be in the area. (In January, for example, about 80 troops moved into one of these contingency locations in Gabon in expectation of possible violent demonstrations after a presidential election in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.)
“The West Africa Logistics Network happens to be co-located on this Kotoka Airport,” Kosinski said. “There is a contingency support location; we’ve got a warehouse with some storage, stuff that stored there. And then this other facility that is just big enough to bring people in, like an airport lounge to store your stuff [and] have some cargo that gets moved around.