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U.S. Africa Command nominee cites potential Russian and Chinese threats to U.S. interests in the region

Army Gen. Stephen Townsend testified at a hearing with Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, who has been nominated to lead the European Command.

Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, pictured in July 2017 at the Besmaya Range Complex in Iraq, has been nominated for promotion to four-star general and to lead the U.S. Africa Command. (Cpl. Tracy McKithern/ U.S. Army)

President Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Africa Command said Tuesday that terrorist organizations remain the top threat in Africa, but Russia and China are both after access and influence on the continent, which probably will be to the detriment of U.S. interests.

Army Gen. Stephen Townsend said he has a “pretty significant concern” about the way Russia uses private military companies such as the Wagner Group in Africa and also is monitoring how China has expanded its presence there by moves such as laying communications infrastructure.

“If our data is traveling across a network installed by the Chinese, we cannot be certain of its security,” Townsend said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The general’s comments came as the Trump administration adopts plans to cut the 7,200 U.S. troops assigned to Africom last year by about 10 percent as it adopts a national defense strategy oriented toward global competition with Russia and China.

Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the outgoing Africom chief, told the committee in February that those cuts would include the removal of about 130 Special Operations troops by 2020. Townsend said he would collaborate with Army Gen. Richard Clarke, the new commander of Special Operations Command, to make the best use possible of the forces that remain.

Townsend, who led U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria from August 2016 to September 2017, appeared alongside Air Force Gen. Tod D. Wolters, who has been nominated to be chief of the U.S. European Command and the supreme allied commander in Europe.

Neither general is expected to face a difficult path to confirmation, but senators questioned them Tuesday about how they see threats to the United States.

Townsend said that he considers private Russian military companies the second-largest threat in Africa after terrorist organizations. He noted that they appeared in Syria during Russian operations there, and said that although they are “quasi-military,” they are closely linked with the Kremlin.

"They train right alongside the Russian government,” Townsend said.

But over time, he said, he expects China to surpass Russia as a threat in Africa. China is “choosing to compete” there, said Townsend, who most recently commanded the Army Training and Doctrine Command. Although Chinese activities in Africa do not currently pose a threat to U.S. national security interests, they could in the future, he said in prepared answers submitted to the committee ahead of the hearing.

Wolters, the outgoing commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa, said deterring Russian aggression remains the primary challenge from Eucom. He also backed a Pentagon decision announced Monday to stop delivery of F-35 parts to Turkey, a NATO ally, because the country has decided to buy the Russian-made S-400 air-defense missile system.

Wolters said the “co-location” of the F-35 and the S-400 in Turkey are “unsustainable” because they use systems that are not able to operate together.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan told reporters Tuesday that he is “very confident” in an offer the United States has made to Turkey to buy Patriot missiles and launchers instead.