By THOM SHANKER
Published: January 25, 2012
WASHINGTON — An austere Pentagon outpost in the hardscrabble desert on the Horn of Africa proved serendipitously ideal as a launching pad for Tuesday’s commando raid that freed two aid workers held in Somalia. The use of the base, Camp Lemonnier in neighboring Djibouti, is also a signpost to the future, as the military focuses on “economy of force” missions that can preserve an American military presence and protect national security interests at relatively low cost.
A rescue mission from any other American base in the region would have added hours to the raiding party’s mission to infiltrate Somalia and neutralize the nine kidnappers — all were killed — without injury to the Navy Seal team or the hostages. Basing the complex airborne assault on a warship would have been far more complicated.
The “economy of force” concept involves using small numbers from the American military to set up installations in far-flung regions of interest, where they can be joined by personnel from other arms of the United States government, including the State, Justice, Agriculture and Commerce Departments; Customs and Border Protection; and the Agency for International Development.
While a hostage-rescue mission generates news, the day-to-day work at Camp Lemonnier focuses on quiet efforts at improving the abilities of local militaries and law-enforcement personnel to protect and police their own territory, while assisting in building schools, digging wells, laying roads and vaccinating livestock.
Camp Lemonnier is part of an archipelago of outposts in high-risk environments that also can serve as lily pads for commando raids and intelligence operations if required. It offers runways, communications, housing, a hospital — and privacy.
“Djibouti is the central location for continuing the effort against terrorism,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said during a visit to Camp Lemonnier last month.
The trend in favor of a small American footprint overseas is expected to grow as Mr. Panetta must cut about $487 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next decade, even as he shifts more forces to Asia while not diminishing American deterrence and influence in the Middle East.
This military math may require the size of American forces to shrink in Europe and elsewhere — and bases like Camp Lemonnier will be expected to manage the risk at a modest cost.
Jennifer G. Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy center here, said the mission of the military’s Africa Command originally was to upgrade the abilities of local security forces — “so the U.S. would not be drawn into conflicts or crises.”
“But the United States may not have the leeway of waiting to build up partner capacities to take on these kinds of challenges,” she said. “So, being nimble and flexible with a light footprint in a place like Djibouti, the U.S. military may be required to tackle these crises immediately as they arise.”
Another important military mission that deploys a small force on the huge African continent is in Uganda.
In October, President Obama ordered 100 Special Operations advisers to Uganda to help train regional forces combating the Lord’s Resistance Army, a notorious renegade group that has terrorized villagers in at least four countries with marauding bands that kill, rape, maim and kidnap with impunity.
When Mr. Panetta visited Camp Lemonnier, there were about 3,500 American personnel assigned there, up from the several hundred Marines and members of Special Operations forces that landed in 2003 when the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa relocated. It had been based on a warship when the mission was conceived a year before, dedicated to hunting for remnants of Al Qaeda in the wake of the Taliban’s ouster from Afghanistan.
The units include a headquarters staff, civil affairs teams that include doctors and veterinarians, as well as engineers and military trainers. Mostly invisible to the local population, the task force has responsibility for a vast area of Africa that includes Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, across the Gulf of Aden — almost 70 percent the size of the continental United States.
While the Djibouti outpost is hot and isolated, American military personnel do get an unusual benefit: a daily beer ration, prohibited under General Order No. 1 for troops assigned to Afghanistan and, previously, to Iraq.