Camp Lemonnier: Line in the Sand

Camp Lemonnier
Aerial view of Camp Lemonnier; retrieved via parkusa.com

The purpose of this report is to analyze the benefit of Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti for US/AFRICOM. The article will analyze the foreign presence and will provide the implications of various strategies on the US presence. The time frame for this will be between 2020-2030. 

Key Judgment 1

The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) presence in Djibouti, Camp Lemonnier, provides the US with strategic and geopolitical benefits. Nonetheless, they still compete with Chinese and Russian spheres of influence in the region. 

Key Judgement 2

The US presence presents an opportunity to promote closer cooperation with Djibouti in the form of military training. This can be useful to promote infrastructure development and trade. This is also the case for neighboring East African countries such as Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan. 

Key Judgement 3

NATO allies UK, Italy, France, Germany, and Spain are present in the country, boosting AFRICOM capabilities. Japan’s military facility in Djibouti and cooperation with India are almost certainly a threat. China’s Belt Road Initiative and Indian Ocean Hegemony could be the main affected. Tensions are likely to increase between 2020-2030, with a highly unlikely chance for conflict between 2020-25. This likelihood rises to unlikely in the second half of 2025-30.

Key Judgement 4

The biggest threat from state competitors to long-term US strategy is China, deeply invested in Djibouti infrastructure projects and trade. Russia is also a threat to a lesser extent and neighboring Saudi and UAE entities will almost certainly increase influence. It is likely that under its current pace, by 2030, China will outcompete the US for influence in Djibouti.

Key Judgement 5

A reduction of AFRICOM presence will highly likely provide advantageous conditions for China and Russia to compete in the region. Military Force is highly unlikely to solve African issues. Economic and human development initiatives and favorable loans and projects will increase success likelihood for US goals. 

Camp Lemonnier: Context

US leased The Camp Lemonnier base in 2001. The Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) moved to Djibouti in 2003. (Source) The camp announced in 2007, expansion from 97 acres to around 500 acres. In 2014, the camp agreed on a 30-year lease with Djibouti with $63 million in annual payments. In October 2018, the camp paid $240 million to expand facilities. (Source)

There are around 4,000 US troops, around two-thirds of AFRICOM’s forces on the continent. US Defense Secretary Mark Esper is reviewing the reduction of US presence in the continent. (Source) The facility not only provides a facility for counterterrorism against groups in Africa but functions as a counter to Chinese and Russian expansion in the region.

Situated between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Djibouti will become a hub for international commerce. This attracts the strategic interests of international competitors, including the US, France, Italy, Japan, and China. (Source) Camp Lemonnier provides US strategic benefits for air operations and closer strategic cooperation but also provides intelligence gathering benefits such as reconnaissance and surveillance.

Chinese competition is the largest threat to AFRICOM’s viability in Djibouti. As Djibouti’s largest source of capital, Beijing is in an advantageous position. Through hybrid warfare methods of economic and strategic maneuvering, China seeks to establish significant influence in the region. China will seek to secure a sphere of influence in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean while limiting US influence.  

Camp Lemonnier: AFRICOM/US Presence

The US has failed since 2008 to persuade any country on the continent to host AFRICOM. This means Djibouti’s presence is vital for US interests for counterterrorism and limiting Chinese/Russian influence in the region. There is a $31 million train-and-equip partnership between the US and Djibouti military. (Source) The US military’s payments amount annually over $200 million, direct and indirect, equivalent to around 10% of Djibouti’s GDP. AFRICOM has an estimated $2 billion budget. There are calls to increase this to increase counterterrorism capabilities and counter Chinese and Russian expansion. (Source)

AFRICOM resources are stretch, limiting the growth of US capabilities in Africa while China is investing heavily in Africa. Mark Esper ordered a “zero-based review” of force posture on the continent to counter Russia and China. (Source) Flying a nuclear-capable B-52 over the Somali coastal town of Kismayo was a message to adversaries in the region. (Source) This is part of a US B-52 installation in Diego Costa in the Indian Ocean. This adds strategic geographic value to the Djibouti base as part of an Indian Ocean presence.

A Changing Stance

US military training is the ‘gold standard’ among African nations. The US can use this as a pretext for closer cooperation with Djibouti and neighboring countries. Strategic partnership under this pretext can aid in the increase of trade and cooperation. Esper is a part of ongoing reviews of rebalancing troops. US may increase force posture in areas addressing great power competition while focusing less on CT ops. (Source) In this context, it is likely that AFRICOM presence may see a transfer to Djibouti. 

General Townsend, commander of AFRICOM, indicated China and Russia are in a position of advantage in Central and Southern Africa. (Source) Similar reductions in Djibouti will likely limit the US position in the Horn of Africa. Military and trade cooperation, simultaneous with better alternative infrastructure and loans for Djibouti’s state-building, will highly likely reduce Chinese and Russian influence. 

Camp Lemonnier

International Presence 

A Chinese Expansion

China operates in an advantageous position in Djibouti because of deep economic ties and infrastructure projects. China is Djibouti’s largest source of capital. Chinese firms amount to almost 40% ($1.4 billion) of major investment projects in Djibouti. (Source) The infrastructure projects include the Djibouti-Ethiopia Railway project, the Djibouti-Ethiopia Water pipeline, and most importantly the Dolareh port. The importance of the port not only boosts the Chinese Belt and Road initiative but military goals in the region.

This also raises growing concerns that control of the port by Chinese authorities is threatening the existence of Camp Lemonnier. The Dolareh Containment Terminal is critical for resupplying Camp Lemonnier. Djibouti’s growing debt to China on unfavorable terms can likely facilitate China taking control of key facilities. This can happen especially if payments fail as seen in the Dolareh port. In Kenya, a $3.2 billion loan for the Nairobi rail line was under the conditions of Mombasa’s port authority. This was collateral for defaulted payments. (Source) Meaning defaults would result in Chinese firms managing the port to regain revenues. China Merchants operate their own terminal at the previous DP port already. 

Beyond A Passive Presence

Chinese presence in the region provides intelligence collection on US military applications and methods. This will likely limit the strategic benefits of US presence in Djibouti. Also indicating threats to counterintelligence on US Airforce operations in case of future conflict. There have been calls for China to use electromagnetic weapons, including lasers, to protect Chinese exploration interests. US officials have acknowledged 20 occasions where lasers were used to target US pilots to interfere with operations. (Source)

An incident in 2018 near the base caused minor eye injuries to a US pilot. While these are small probes, in February 2020, a Chinese destroyer used a “weapons-grade laser”. (Source) No crew or equipment was hurt or damaged, but these tactics may create hesitation in future US maneuvers near Chinese forces. An escalation of this form of warfare could limit the willingness of operations, which is not yet the case. The Defense Intelligence Agency assesses that China will be able to deploy ground-based lasers during the 2020s. (Source) This indicates growing aggressive conduct to secure Chinese interests. 

Allied Eastern Ties

Japan and India have both been present in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Japan has its own military base in Djibouti which China perceives as a threat to the Belt Road Initiative. The ‘String of Pearls’ tactic exists to surround India with military and commercial facilities to achieve Indian Ocean Hegemony. (Source) Japan and India have been in close cooperation and an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement is likely. Japan and India are key partners of the US. An increase in tensions in Djibouti with China would highly likely bring AFRICOM into play.

Camp Lemonnier

Russia and Gulf States

Russia has been denied a military base in Djibouti, as Djibouti seeks to not become involved in a proxy war. This is already becoming the case. Russia has a military footprint in Sudan and Eritrea, which seeks to expand Russian geopolitical influence. (Source) Saudi Arabia is also seeking a base, but due to their alliance with UAE and the Djibouti DP port breakdown of relations, this prospect is unlikely.

NATO Presence

Italy and France both have military bases in Djibouti, prompting support for AFRICOM in the region. (Source) The partnership also boosts intelligence collection and sharing which will likely benefit US interests in the region. German and UK forces are also present, and a reduction of AFRICOM footprint would also severely affect allied capabilities. This would result in advantageous conditions for China and Russia. 

Far Away from Camp Lemonnier: Predictions

Chinese Hegemony Scenario

It is likely that China will increase its strategic strength in Djibouti and undermine AFRICOM’s presence. This is based on the extent of existing economic and infrastructure and the high likelihood that this will increase. It is also likely maneuvering to disrupt US operations in the Indian Ocean will increase around 2027. This is due to China’s increased military capacity.  Failure to increase AFRICOM funding or an actual decrease will limit the strategic benefits of the base.

Though there has been an increase in US imports, increased Chinese trade may limit the benefits of the US-Djibouti partnership. Djibouti’s political inclination sides towards China for authoritarianism policies, limiting US partnership. Chiba makes this scenario is possible as it avoids all-out conflict with AFRICOM. This itself fails to embrace hybrid warfare to the same degree of success.

AFRICOM Surge Scenario

There is an even chance that US strategic goals will consider the significance of AFRICOM’s presence in Djibouti. Budged and presence would thus increase. This will limit the growth of China if synonymous with closer military cooperation and trade agreements. Investment and loans on more favorable terms will entice future African nation cooperation while limiting Chinese and Russian expansion. This would strengthen the US interests. Nonetheless, it will to a degree, contain the considerable gains from China and Russia. These have involved military base establishment and infrastructure network building. Investment and loans on more favorable terms will entice future African nation cooperation.

Worst Case Scenario

Conflicting interests and lack of dialogue among the US and non-competing nations escalate. An incident such as laser targeting could cause an international crisis. Conflict in the region has instability reverberations on a wide scale and existing military assets suffer heavy casualties. This is a highly unlikely scenario but not impossible. The ongoing South China Sea crisis would likely impact the stability in the Indian Ocean. This would likely raise the likelihood of conflict for AFRICOM.

Consideration after Camp Lemonnier analysis

It is likely that some aspects will materialize in mentioned scenarios to a degree while some will not. AFRICOM is likely under an existential threat by the end of the time scale provided. This is more likely not to be through military force. It will rather be strategic maneuvering from China if no one addresses the current issues.


Eren Ersozoglu
Eren Ersozoglu
Eren Ersozoglu is an analyst at Grey Dynamics. A former history graduate from Coventry University with a focus on links between terrorism and organised crime and intelligence and security studies graduate at Brunel University.

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