The US military faces a chronic shortage of surveillance aircraft in Africa needed to track extremists on the continent, particularly in the Sahel region, a top general said Thursday.
Only seven percent of the military’s requirements for reconnaissance and surveillance planes — including drones and other aircraft — were met last year in Africa, said General David Rodriguez, head of US Africa Command.
“It’s up to 11 percent now,” the four-star general told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
US troops and hardware are not permanently assigned to AFRICOM, which must request aircraft and resources from other regional commands, such as US Central Command, which oversees forces in the Middle East, Central Asia and parts of North Africa and South Asia.
Two Reaper drones are currently deployed to Niger and several others at a US base in Djibouti.
But Rodriguez indicated his command badly needs more long-range surveillance drones and E-8 Joint STARS aircraft equipped with radar that can monitor adversaries at a distance.
As a result, commanders had to withdraw planes used to counter the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa when a crisis unfolded in South Sudan in December.
“So when South Sudan erupted, we had to take the effort away from the Lord’s Resistance Army, as well as some counter-terrorist efforts in East Africa to support those efforts,” Rodriguez said.
Citing vast distances and the small number of available aircraft, he said the “biggest intelligence gaps are out in northwest Africa, that really stretches from northern Mali to eastern Libya.”
American forces have shared intelligence, including images gathered from drone aircraft, with French and African troops deployed in Mali.
Over the past decade, the US military has built up a logistical network across East Africa and beyond, securing access to key airfields and ports.
The Pentagon has tended to prefer a light footprint in Africa, gathering intelligence while relying on allies to take direct action against Al-Qaeda-linked groups in Somalia, Mali and elsewhere.