The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trump administration is considering moving U.S. Africa Command. It won’t be cheap or easy.

President Trump, shown with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has pushed to reduce the U.S. military presence in Germany.
President Trump, shown with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has pushed to reduce the U.S. military presence in Germany. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The Trump administration’s effort to relocate the U.S. military headquarters that oversees operations in Africa could cost at least $1 billion and create new diplomatic and logistical challenges, according to current and former defense officials.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper directed U.S. Africa Command earlier this summer to begin examining a possible move from Germany to reduce the overall number of U.S. troops in the country. The plan also includes moving U.S. European Command, located alongside Africa Command in the city of Stuttgart, to a new home in Belgium.

Defense officials have framed the changes as a way to deter Russia by making the United States more unpredictable. But President Trump has cast them as a punishment for Germany.

“Germany’s delinquent. They haven’t paid their fees; they haven’t paid their NATO fees,” Trump said in July. “Germany owes billions and billions of dollars to NATO.”

Despite the president’s repeated claim, no NATO “fees” exist. But in 2014, NATO countries agreed to each increase their defense spending to 2 percent of their gross domestic product within a decade. Germany has not met that goal, making it a target for Trump.

Moving Africa Command, also known as Africom, will increase the cost of reducing the U.S. military presence in Germany, which defense officials say will reach several billion dollars.

The discussions have focused on sending the headquarters to another NATO ally in Europe, possibly Spain, Italy, Belgium or Britain, said two defense officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Military officials also will consider moving Africa Command to the United States, one of the defense officials said. But commanders would prefer to keep the headquarters in a time zone closer to those in Africa to better monitor operations and to more easily fly in service members on commercial flights when necessary.

James Anderson, the acting undersecretary of defense for policy, said in an interview that several NATO countries “may be willing to host such a headquarters” and that defense officials are looking “really hard” at them.

“I worked in the Pentagon in the 2000s when Africom came into being, and I remember well the early debates about the location of that headquarters,” Anderson said. “Now we’re going to have additional consideration and discussion.”

The decision, if carried out, could create new challenges for Africom, which was established in 2007 during the administration of President George W. Bush to coordinate operations on the continent. Before then, operations in different parts of Africa were managed by European Command, Central Command and Pacific Command.

The United States has about 1,200 troops in West Africa and 4,300 in East Africa, including 650 to 800 in Somalia, said Air Force Col. Christopher Karns, an Africom spokesman. That number is expected to fall as the Pentagon prioritizes countering China and Russia after nearly two decades of insurgent wars.

Carter Ham, a retired Army general who commanded Africom from 2011 to 2013, questioned the wisdom of leaving Stuttgart. There is a “certain synergy” with having the two commands based together there, in part because troops assigned to European Command assist on some Africa Command operations.

Ham recalled that when he was commander, Congress directed the U.S. military to study how much it would cost to move Africa Command. The answer then was about $1 billion, he said, and he recommended against enacting the plan to then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

“At the end of having spent a lot of money, are you better off than where you were before?” said Ham, who is now chief executive of the nonprofit Association of the United States Army. “To me, that’s the hurdle that I have a tough time getting over.”

Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy and Naval Station Rota in Spain both have space and are close enough to Africa to fly small teams in and out easily, Ham said. But considering the cost and economic benefits, Congress is just as likely to want to move it stateside, he said.

Such a plan would move senior commanders farther from Africa’s time zones, adding to their challenges, he said. The headquarters for U.S. Central Command oversees operations in the Middle East from Tampa, but the military has many large bases and other resources in the region, unlike in Africa.

Jim Townsend, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration, said moving Africom to Spain has been considered in the past. In addition to the cost, he said, there were concerns among some European officials about appearing closely aligned with drone strikes the U.S. military might carry out in Africa.

“The decision was, ‘It’s here in Germany, let’s not rock the boat,’ ” Townsend said. “That still holds.”

The initial decision to put Africa Command in Europe, as opposed to in Africa, came amid fears that its creation would militarize American policy in Africa. Defense officials floated the idea of eventually moving the headquarters to Africa but scuttled it for reasons that included costs and concerns that it would be a target for terrorists, Townsend said.

Peter Feaver, who served on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, took a dim view of the Trump administration’s plans for the command.

“If there’s a grand strategy guiding this, it’s not evident yet, and it has not been well articulated,” he said. “It looks like it’s driven by personality conflict rather than by strategic realignment.”

Anderson, the acting undersecretary, said the Pentagon’s national defense strategy prioritizing China and Russia is the “guiding star” in making decisions.

“The thing we tried to think about in terms of our calculus is: What is the appropriate U.S. government response when we see our competitors trying to gain advantage — military, positional, economic or otherwise,” Anderson said.

Still, he acknowledged that presidential involvement in defense issues concerning Germany altered the Pentagon’s timeline on how to proceed with Europe and Africa.

“We have a concept that the president has approved, and now it’s on us, the department, to kind of get down into the nuts and bolts going forward,” he said. “There is a lot of planning to be done, so that is the focus of our efforts right now.”