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Commander Details How U.S. Africa Command Furthers Defense Goals

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Africa is a continent of tremendous potential and tremendous danger. It is U.S. Africa Command's mission to help African nations capitalize on the potential and lessen the dangers, said Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of Africom.

The continent is not a monolith — one solution cannot satisfy all problems, he said during an interview about the continent’s challenges and opportunities. Africans speak hundreds of different languages, believe in many different religions and hold many different cultures. What works in South Africa may be insulting to people in Cameroon.  


Townsend said the command understands the difference and looks to accomplish its missions in ways that take the diversity and vastness of the continent into consideration.  

"We do those same missions across Africa every day, the first one being maintaining America's strategic access and influence," he said. "That's the number one task that we're doing. So, when the United States calls and needs something at 2 in the morning some night in the future, our African partners say, 'Yes.'" 

The second mission is to counter threats to the United States that emanate from Africa. Terror groups are at the head of that list with al-Qaida and the Islamic State having adherents on the continent.  

Africom needs to also counter narratives from China and Russia — America's strategic competitors. 

Finally, the command has to be ready to respond to crises, Townsend said. "That could range from humanitarian assistance or disaster relief, all the way up to threats to our embassies, and we're prepared for all those things," he said.  

These are big missions without being a big command. Townsend said that from the beginning of the command in 2008, it was designed to do things differently. From the start, Africom was an "economy of force" theater, meaning the main effort of any military organization should be funded and resourced first and secondary efforts later. 

"We are an economy of force theater for the Department of Defense, and I have no problem with that," Townsend said. "But even an economy of force has to be resourced to get its mission done, so that our leaders can stay focused on their main objective." 

If the main objectives are deterring China or Russia, then national and DOD leaders must stay focused on that and not distracted by events in Africa, he said. "You have to make sure you resource that [economy of force] effort to the extent that you don't become distracted. I think we do; we prevent strategic distraction." 

This has meant creative ways of accomplishing the missions, and the command has embraced the whole of government approach. Employees of the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the departments of Treasury and Commerce, and others are integral to the missions on the continent. "We are a 'three-D' command: diplomacy, development and defense — with defense being in support of diplomacy and development," he said.  


Partnering with other agencies and with African nations is how the command works, Townsend said. He said this aspect "is in our DNA."  

"You're not going to get very far in Africa — or in any country in the world, unless you take into account and work with your partners," he said. "And then there are international partners. The command works with the African Union, the United Nations and international partners like France and the United Kingdom and other nations in Europe. 

"We work everything through our partner approach," the general said. "I hesitate to use the term 'by, with, and through' because it seems a little worn these days, but that's exactly what we do: by, with and through partners, African partners, and international partners and our interagency partners." 

Three aircraft sit on an airfield.
African Lion
Two 31st Fighter Wing F-16 Fighting Falcons wait to taxi behind an 86th Airlift Wing C-130J Super Hercules during an agile combat employment event during Exercise African Lion 21 on Ben Guerir Air Base, Morocco, June 16, 2021.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Susan Roberts
VIRIN: 210616-F-CS255-1081A

If this sounds like Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III's strategic concept of "integrated deterrence," you would be right, he said. "Integrated deterrence is the central theme of the draft national defense strategy," Townsend said. "How do we apply that in U.S. Africa Command? It's through partners." 

China and Russia are seeking allies in Africa, and this is a challenge for the command.  

The African nations would rather not be competitive ground for great powers, the general said. This happened during the Cold War. "We try to take an approach where we don't make them choose between the U.S. and China or Russia," he said. "What we try to do is just lay out the facts: Here are the differences between us. You have to make the choice. 

"I think there's actually room on the continent for all of us to do our respective nations' business," he added. China has helped in anti-piracy patrols, and that has been helpful, Townsend said.  

He can't say the same for Russian efforts on the continent. "Russia, I don't believe, has any African country's best interests at heart," he said. "[The Russians] are very active down in the continent, mostly using private military companies, mercenaries — most from the Wagner Group. 

"These are not good people … and they're not trying to improve the lot of the African nations and the African people. I think they are a bad influence everywhere." The Russians are predominantly in Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Mali, he said. 

Townsend said he would like to see more money for exercises and security cooperation with the African nations. The command has three, main maritime exercises, including one — Obangame Express — that began last week in the Atlantic. The others are Phoenix Express in the Mediterranean and Cutlass Express in the Indian Ocean. 

"In these exercises, look at a broad range of problems from maritime security challenges — like smuggling and piracy to illegal or underreported, unregulated fishing," he said. Countries from Africa, Asia, Europe and North American participate.  

Flintlock is a special operations exercise concentrating on the Sahel region. In 2020, it was concentrated in Mauritania and Senegal. 

The premier exercise is African Lion. "African Lion has been going on for 17 years, and [is] hosted primarily in Morocco," Townsend said. "They've been a great host for us for those 17 years, but we are branching out. We're planning activities in Tunisia and Senegal." 

A soldier looks into the eyepiece of a weapon.
African Lion
Soldiers assigned to the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade conduct mortar training during African Lion 2021 in Grier Labouie, Morocco, June 16, 2021.
Photo By: Army Spc. Timothee Buangala
VIRIN: 210619-A-CQ437-1057

The exercise drew troops from 34 nations. "It's a multi-domain, full-spectrum exercise," he said, adding that African Lion is good both for African partners and for the United States' forces readiness. 

Ungoverned, little governed, or poorly governed areas on the continent are a concern, and the command must remain abreast and informed of developments on the continent, Townsend said. It comes down to diplomacy and development — assisted or supported by defense, he said. "We work bilaterally (and) we also work multilaterally.  

Townsend specifically praised the U.S. Army's security force assistance brigade. "For well over a year now, we've had an SFAB operating in Africa," he said. The 2nd SFAB is based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and is aligned with the 3rd Special Forces Group, which also has Africa as its specialty.  

The unit is organized in teams — maneuver teams, fires teams, engineer teams, logistics teams, and so on — that deploy to Africa to train, advise and assist. These are elite units, Townsend said, and they are not only great at their specialties, but in being able to pass that knowledge along. "These folks are pretty high quality, and I've been very happy with them," he said.  

The unit has about 20 teams deployed constantly, and they're working in a number of priority countries.  

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