AFRICOM leaders to mull headquarters location
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 6, 2011
STUTTGART, Germany — When a new general assumes command of U.S. Africa Command this year, one of his first tasks will be to decide, amid much political maneuvering, whether AFRICOM headquarters will move to another location.
A recommendation is due to the Pentagon in 2012, and the next AFRICOM commander Gen. Carter Ham has said locations in Europe and the U.S. would be taken into consideration.
His review also will examine possible headquarters locations in Africa, testing how far the U.S. has come in polishing AFRICOM’s image on a continent, where suspicions about American military intentions have run deep.
In addition to politics, several other factors will drive the decision, including operational costs, proximity to the African continent and ease of travel, military officials and experts say.
“Gen. Ham, if confirmed, promised to start with a clean sheet of paper,” said Lt. Col. Tamara Parker, a Defense Department spokeswoman shortly before Ham’s Dec. 22 confirmation by the Senate. “He’ll take into account many factors.”
As Ham looks for answers, one man he could call upon for input is a Navy officer now working at a dusty air station in the Nevada desert. At the moment, Cmdr. Otto Sieber is far removed from African affairs. But in 2009, he studied the issue.
Sieber, who authored an in-depth paper at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., that analyzed where AFRICOM should be located, has a few recommendations.
“If they decide to move it from Stuttgart, then it would definitely have to be someplace on the eastern seaboard,” Sieber said in a telephone interview. “If I had to pick, I would say New York, D.C. or Atlanta. Any of those would work.”
Military leaders will have to cut through all of the political pressure and economic wooing, and conduct an objective analysis that serves the long-term strategic interests of the command, Sieber said.
Strategic selling points for New York and Washington include major international airports that provide relatively easy access to Africa for command staff, and the proximity of African consulates, embassies and other U.S. government agencies involved on the continent, according to Sieber’s analysis.
Sieber’s study, which adopted an analytical model similar to the one used in the selection process for U.S. Southern Command’s headquarters move in the 1990s, investigated the respective merits of seven locations: Stuttgart, Kenya, Liberia, Morocco, New York, Atlanta and Charleston, S.C.. The top scores went to a New York, followed by Atlanta and Stuttgart. The African locations finished last amid concerns about infrastructure, political stability and no direct access to stateside governmental agencies.
A Congressional Research Service report issued in November echoed those concerns about setting up a headquarters in Africa.
“Living standards in Africa are among the lowest in the world, and DOD would be expected to choose a politically stable location on the continent with good access to health care and schools and relatively low levels of corruption,” the report stated.
Gen. William “Kip” Ward, who has led AFRICOM since 2007, has long downplayed the importance of his headquarters location, saying the programs his team develops matter more than where they are developed.
Still, during Ward’s frequent travels to Africa one of the more common questions he fields is whether the U.S. has plans for a base on the continent. The issue has been a source of controversy since the advent of AFRICOM, which was announced in February 2007 and declared fully operational in October 2008 as an autonomous command free from its sister unit, U.S. European Command.
Regardless of where AFRICOM ends up, history shows that if a move happens it could take years for a final decision. It took nearly seven years to identify a new U.S. Southern Command headquarters site, before the command departing Panama for Miami in 1997. The search involved roughly 100 locations.
With AFRICOM, the selection process should take similar care, Sieber said.