Since then, the Defense Department has approved a small rapid-reaction force for Africa Command, though it remains unclear where the unit will be stationed.
The Pentagon is also drawing up plans to base drones in Niger, a poor West African nation. Niger borders Mali, Libya and Nigeria, all of which are dogged by growing threats from al-Qaeda affiliates and other Islamist militants.
At Rodriguez’s confirmation hearing Thursday, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the committee, pressed the general to answer how the military would respond to “a crisis” in sub-Saharan Africa.
“You’re going to have a hard time getting there,” Inhofe pointed out.
“Because of the time and the distance and the basing challenges that we have, that’s going to continue to be a challenge,” Rodriguez acknowledged.
Unlike the Pentagon’s military commands for other parts of the globe, Africa Command has only a handful of troops regularly assigned to it and must borrow planes and personnel on a temporary basis.
Africa Command’s headquarters has been in Stuttgart, Germany, since it was created in 2007.
The site was supposed to be temporary until a new home could be found in Africa, but the search quickly ran into roadblocks. Instead of rolling out a welcome mat, African countries expressed concern that the Pentagon was seeking to militarize U.S. policy or infringe on their sovereignty.
With Africa Command stuck in Germany, some lawmakers have lobbied to relocate the headquarters — staffed by 1,300 military personnel and civilians — to the United States, saying the move could bring back jobs and reduce costs. The Pentagon has resisted, arguing that Germany is a better site because it is closer to Africa.
A Defense Department study presented to Congress last month found that moving the headquarters to the United States could cut annual expenses from $130 million to as low as $60 million and could indirectly create up to 4,300 jobs — an economic plum for lawmakers looking to boost employment in their districts.
But the study concluded that the economic benefits would be outweighed by the “critical” operational drawbacks of moving farther away from Africa.