June 19, 2012: The U.S. recently admitted what everyone already knew: that American warplanes (UAVs, fighter-bombers and helicopters) have been making precision attacks on Islamic terrorists in places like Yemen and Somalia. About the same time separate revelations detailed the growing number of intelligence operations in Africa by AFRICOM (Africa Command). This last activity was particularly shrouded in secrecy because AFRICOM has been unable to establish normal bases in Africa and has resorted to the use of less formal measures.
For example, three years ago the U.S. military hired the Phoenix Air Group to provide twin engine passenger and cargo aircraft to move American troops and equipment around Africa. This was nothing new for the Phoenix Air Group, which had long provided the U.S. Air Force with specially equipped Learjet 35/36 aircraft for electronic warfare training. The Learjets are twin engine aircraft fitted out with electronic warfare equipment and manned by technicians who can replicate a multitude of situations fighter and bomber pilots might encounter in combat. Phoenix also has dozens of twin engine cargo and passenger aircraft for charter, which AFRICOM hired rather than creating its own transport service.
AFRICOM is similar in organization to other commands (Central, for the Middle East, and South, for Latin America, etc). AFRICOM coordinates all American military operations in Africa. Before AFRICOM was created those operations were coordinated between two other commands (the one covering Europe and the one covering Latin America). The establishment of AFRICOM means more money for counter-terror operations in Africa and more long range projects.
But this is an organization that is spread around and has no base in Africa itself. Office and support facilities for the AFRICOM, which was created five years ago, but its headquarters are currently located outside Stuttgart, Germany, where it will remain until a home can be found in an African country. Meanwhile, many see AFRICOM in the form of the gray painted transports of Phoenix Air Group. Other aircraft working for AFRICOM are not so clearly marked.
There is one official U.S. military base in Africa, in Djibouti. France and the United States SOCOM (Special Operations Command) have had special operations forces (commandos and special aircraft) stationed in Djibouti, which is next to northern Somalia, for years. France has had commandos there for over a decade and the U.S. moved in after September 11, 2001. But you don't hear much about this corner of the War on Terror, despite the numerous terror groups in the region (especially Yemen and Somalia). Why is that? Well, it's complicated.
France has been building up their special operations capability in Djibouti during the last six years in anticipation of problems in Eritrea and Somalia, both of which are involved in disputes with Ethiopia. The Addis Ababa (Ethiopia)-Djibouti railroad is pretty lucrative for Djibouti and France (because it is Ethiopia's main outlet to the sea), and fighting between Ethiopia and either of its neighbors could create problems there. American Special Forces in Djibouti have a base near the main French one. It's pretty easy to spot on Google Earth. Less easy to spot is the fact that France and SOCOM also have access to one or more Ethiopian air bases. American UAVs operate from Ethiopia and Djibouti, while U-28s are seen in many other airports in the region. The UAVs are sometimes armed with missiles. Some of these armed UAVs are believed to have also operated out of Yemen air bases. When not attacking al Qaeda targets inYemen, these UAVs are sometimes seen across the water in Somalia.
U.S. forces in Djibouti were increased after resistance collapsed in Iraq four years ago. Now there is even a small, and unofficial, CIA base in Mogadishu, the traditional capital of Somalia. The CIA, and similar outfits from other nations, also work from Djibouti. But most of the effort is directed at monitoring what is going on in the region (mainly Somalia and Yemen but also Eritrea, Kenya, and Ethiopia) not at interfering with the local terrorists. Not much, anyway. The Djibouti base also supports operations throughout the Sahel (the semi-desert strip between the North African desert and the Central African jungles, which stretches from the Atlantic to Somalia).
The most common aircraft used by American intel operations in Africa is a military version (the U-28) of the Pilatus PC-12 single engine transport. This aircraft has a max weight of 4.7 tons and a payload of 1.5 tons. The U-28 can carry nine passengers (plus one pilot) or over half a ton of cargo. Cruising speed is 500 kilometers an hour and average endurance is five hours per sortie. The U.S. Air Force operates twenty U-28s for SOCOM and has three on order. U-28s have been reported operating over, and landing in, Somalia. The small, but usually very reliable, U-28 goes largely unnoticed over Somalia. That's because most of the aircraft seen there are one or two engine propeller driven planes smuggling something.
The PC-12 entered service 18 years ago and over a thousand have been built (in Switzerland) so far. The PC-12 is mainly used by civilian operators. It's popular as a corporate passenger aircraft, as an air ambulance, and an airliner in remote areas. The PC-12 is known for being easy to fly, reliable, and rugged.
The U.S. also has a number of other airports in central and southern Africa where it has agreements to quietly allow U-28s and Phoenix Air Group aircraft operate. American warplanes (especially the very-long range F-15E) operate out of Persian Gulf air bases and have apparently carried out smart bomb attacks in Yemen, Somalia, and perhaps elsewhere in Africa. Throughout the region there are often large explosions at night. If a smart bomb was dropped from a high enough altitude, there would just be the explosion and yet another mystery no one was keen to solve.