How sequester may help African security

Good news, Africa. Because Washington’s unbendable lawmakers have allowed sequestration’s automatic multi-billion dollar defense spending cuts to begin, African security may win out in the end, according to the top U.S. commander watching over the continent.

Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, last week told Congress that sequestration will force the U.S. and African countries to cut back on their annual list of military exercises, which are almost exclusively bilateral. That’s bad news.

The good news is that the budget crunch may force African countries to work with each other, turning some exercises and training into multinational efforts that save money.

Since AFRICOM was established nearly five years ago, one of its top declared missions has been to build up forces in African countries, one at a time. But the cost of that mission has always raised eyebrows, as most of that “building partner capacity” work is done via bilateral engagements between U.S. and local forces, one at a time, rather than in larger, multinational exercises commonly underway with allies in Europe, Asia and other parts of the world.

With attention on Africa -- especially terrorism across North Africa -- exploding across headlines, AFRICOM’s budget under the sequester is drawing extra attention from lawmakers. The Senate Armed Services Committee quizzed Ham last week on how the cuts affect the command’s mission.

“The budget reductions we face will cut theater security cooperation engagements and will reduce important joint and combined exercises” Ham said.

“That's what the budget constraints are going to cause us to do,” Ham said, “is to take a much sharper prioritization to our military-to-military engagements in Africa. There are some exercises and other training opportunities that we have been doing in past years that, frankly, will probably fall by the wayside.”

He continued, “I think it will drive us to [an] increased multinational approach to ‘building partner capacity’ as opposed to our exclusive -- almost exclusively bilateral ‘building partner capacity’ activities to date.”

The security benefit is in forcing African militaries to work more closely with each other. The financial benefit to the Pentagon is in developingmore efficient ways to foster regional security while saving U.S. dollars.

Ham may have gotten ahead of himself, though. On Friday, Benjamin Benson, spokesman for AFRICOM, told the E-Ring, “We are currently reviewing which exercises and activities may need to be canceled or modified due to sequestration, but have not announced any specific changes yet.”

According to the command, there were 14 major multinational exercises last year with cool names like Africa Lion (a U.S.-Morocco mission to better link air and land combat units), and Obangame Express, where the Navy trains African authorities how to board, search and seize ships of the Nigerian coast.

The U.S. was scheduled to participate in roughly 350 military-to-military “engagements” across Africa in fiscal 2012. Next year, under incoming commander Gen. David Rodriguez, AFRICOM will have to do more likely with less. Rodriguez is a widely known personality in Washington national security circles, having spent more than two years running the day-to-day operations of the Afghanistan war. He is expected, once in command, to attract a renewed focus in Washington and amid the press corps to the U.S. counterterrorism mission in Africa, much more than the military’s training and humanitarian work, despite the Defense Department’s best public relations efforts.

One lingering issue for Rodriguez is whether to keep AFRICOM headquarters in Germany, or move it to Africa and end the political charade of not looking like the military is too interested in Africa. In Washington, senators were still asking about the headquarters location last week.

“The reality today is a fiscal, financial constraint,” Ham said. “You know us. You see us. We don’t do anything small. So if we were to move the headquarters anywhere, it’s not just the operational headquarters. It’s barracks. It’s housing for families. It’s office spaces. It’s military shopping. It’s a medical treatment facility. It’s schools and playgrounds and gymnasiums and churches and -- I mean, all of the aspects of a military community because that’s our culture, that’s how we do that. And that gets very expensive. And we’re in a situation, like Nigeria and most other countries, where are we looking for ways to reduce military spending, not increase military spending.”