One thing that strikes me about a lot of reporting about US military involvement in Africa is this great sense of “newness” that seems to be generally applied to it. The stories talk as if the US military, no longer saddled by commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, has “rediscovered” the continent. With today’s news seeming to more of an unfortunate continuation of the daily grind I’ve been reporting here in recent weeks, I thought it might be worth taking some time in a different direction.
The title of this post might initially seem like something you would expect to be a current event before you see the date. As focus on US military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan gives way to a broader focus, its important to be aware that the US military has historical ties to Africa that continued through the Cold War and were well in place before the events of September 11th, 2001. Though it is correct to say that Africa was likely lowest on the list of priorities before then, it does not mean it was entirely forgotten either.
For instance, the US Air Force had established a presence in the 1950s in Libya. Wheelus Air Base in Tripoli subsequently became a major Strategic Air Command base, primarily intended for bomber recovery. The Libyan desert also provided ample space to establish a bombing range and US Air Forces in Europe operated a water survival school there as well. This all continued until 1970, when Moammar Gadhafi refused to extend the lease of the facility to the US. The Libyan government subsequently took over the facility, and it was among the targets bombed in 1986 during Operation El Dorado Canyon.
Perhaps more interestingly, between 1952 and 1953, Wheelus was home to the 580th Air Resupply and Communication Wing (later the 580th Air Resupply Group, which remained at Wheelus until 1956). The Wing had received notice of the impending deployment in November 1951. The Air Resupply and Communications Service was the innocuous sounding name given to Air Force units in the 1950s tasked with supporting unconventional warfare missions. Such units are among those considered to be predecessors to the current Air Force Special Operations Command. In the 1950s, as the US formalized its concepts of unconventional warfare, the US Army, US Air Force, and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had an intimate and yet often fractious relationship as each entity looked to achieve primacy in the effort.
With its mix of specially modified B-29s Superfortresses and SA-16 Albatrosses, the Wing provided desert environment and parachute training to US Army Special Forces units (notably the 10th Special Forces Group in Germany) and CIA personnel. In addition, the Wing performed a number of actual operations inserting and extracting agents behind the Iron Curtain, primarily in areas of Soviet influence in southern Europe. On at least one instance, SA-16s from the Wing were called upon to rescue the pilot of a U-2 spy plane that had been forced to ditch in the Adriatic Sea after an engine flame out.
This quick look at Wheelus Air Base and the 580th Air Resupply and Communications Wing is just one example of many of US military involvement and interaction in Africa. I’ll look to feature more historical examples in the future.