CAMP LEMONNIER, Djibouti — The U.S. military’s operational hub in this strategic Horn of Africa nation still has the lonely dust-swept feel of combat outposts that have come and gone in Iraq and Afghanistan, but something more enduring is taking root in Djibouti as commanders ponder the long-term potential of the military’s core forward base in Africa.
“I think we just keep building,” said Rear Adm. Alexander Krongard, deputy commander of Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa. “Everyone wants to be here and the reason is it sits on a really important piece of real estate. The longer we are here the more it pays to build permanent facilitates, which given enough time, are much cheaper than tents or containers.”
At Camp Lemonnier, a former French Foreign Legion post taken over by the U.S. soon after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, military officials now see a base that could be destined for the kind of permanent U.S. military presence found in other parts of the world. That means few tents and container-style housing units and more concrete in the years ahead.
Given the likelihood for an enduring U.S. military presence in the country, commanders are contemplating something unthinkable just a few years ago: should tours to Djibouti one day be accompanied?
“It’s the classic debate. Should families be here?” said Capt. Kelly Passmore, commander of the 449th Air Expeditionary Group at Camp Lemonnier. “We see the French military with their families here as well as our own embassy people. It’s an interesting idea.”
While there are no formal plans yet for such a move, accompanied tours — a signal of U.S. commitment to a region — are a subject senior officials are openly discussing these days.
Rather than reflexive “no ways,” commanders say the merits of a future with accompanied tours should be analyzed.
“It absolutely merits thinking about,” said Krongard, speaking about the prospects of one day bring families to Djibouti. “But to do it right would take some legitimate support back inside the beltway and would take some pretty extensive deliberation.”
Less than 10 miles from the Somalia border and 50 miles across the sea from Yemen, Djibouti’s proximity to hotspots and key commercial transit routes means it is abuzz with foreign military.
The French maintain multiple bases, the Germans have a steady Navy presence in the area and the Italians are in the midst of constructing a base of their own alongside Djibouti’s one paved road that leads directly into Somalia. China, a growing presence across Africa, also aims to boost its profile having recently signed a multimillion dollar security deal with Djibouti, underscoring the strategic significance of a nation only slightly bigger than New Jersey.
On the U.S. side, the military is pressing forward with $500 million in active construction projects now under way. The new construction will bring a host of improvements to a base that has grown from 85 acres back in 2002 to 500 acres today. New taxiways to the neighboring commercial runway and a combat aircraft loading area, which would function as a parking apron for the growing Air Force mission in Djibouti, are among the on-going efforts. A new headquarters for CJT-HOA and the installation command group also is in the works as well as a mini-back up operations center for Central Command to use in the event of contingencies in its area of operations, which includes the waters around the Horn of Africa.
New triple-decked containerized housing units also are slated to soon open and construction on one of the base’s first barracks buildings is underway, a trend that will continue going forward as Lemonnier moves away from temporary structures.
For now, the base coffee shop, tiny Navy Exchange and gym are all in small makeshift facilities, but plans for a building that consolidates all support and recreational services is in the works, officials said.
“I think we are at a transition point,” said Navy Capt. Michael S. Newman, commander of base facilities at Lemonnier.
“It’s not Iraq and it’s not Afghanistan, but it’s not Norfolk or San Diego, where you can go out the gate and get a lot of things,” Newman said. “For soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines this is really home and what you have is what you have. One of my top priorities would be to get a more enduring personnel facility.”
In addition, the military has its eye on leasing a small slice of territory that occupies a swath of land in the middle of the military’s 500-acre footprint at Lemonnier. Known respectively as the Djiboutian and French notches, the U.S. has hopes to eventually incorporate those areas into Camp Lemonnier, which the U.S. government leases for about $38 million per year from the Djiboutian government.
The areas, which have been rumored to also be of interest to the Russians and possibly Chinese, would give some flexibility to the space-squeezed base, U.S. military officials said. Washington is in the midst of talks with Djiboutian officials over the land and the long-term lease.
“There was some discussion the Russians had some sort of interest,” Newman said. “I don’t know how serious that was or if it was a Djiboutian negotiating tactic.”
Without or without the additional acreage at Camp Lemonnier, which generates all its own power and produces up to 200,000 gallons of water a day, future construction for the military in Djibouti has only one way to go, Newman said.
“We need to start thinking up rather than out,” Newman said.