This small airstrip is the future of America’s way of war

January 5, 2016

Members of the Marine Air Traffic Control Mobile Team, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit prepare equipment to lay down a landing zone at Chabelley Airfield, Djibouti, October 21, 2011. REUTERS/Michelle C. Lawrence/U.S. Army/Handout

The Pentagon is quietly building up a small airstrip in a remote region of east Africa as part of its war against Islamic militants. More importantly, the airfield is a complex microcosm of how Washington runs military operations overseas — and how America’s way of war will probably look for the foreseeable future.

Chabelley Airfield is less than 10 miles from the capital of the small African nation of Djibouti. The small airport is the hub for America’s drone operations in the nearby hotspots of Somalia and Yemen.

But in spite of all of this, Chabelley isn’t what it might otherwise seem – at least not officially. You see, the site is not technically an American base.

“Chebelley [as the Pentagon likes to spell it] was categorized by the U.S. Global Defense Posture Report to Congress as an enduring Cooperative Security Location based upon the U.S. strategic interests in maintaining access for the foreseeable future,” U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Anthony Falvo, a public affairs officer with the Pentagon’s top command for operations in Africa, explained in an email..

In plain English, Washington does not own the site, sometimes referred to by the acronym CSL. In contrast to the big American bases in Europe and Asia during the Cold War, the Pentagon has favored cutting deals with countries for access to existing runways and ports in its fight against militants around the globe. And in an era of shrinking budgets, this all makes a lot of sense.

“The U.S. military is being pressured into considering the adoption of more of a lily pad basing model in the wake of so much turbulence and warfare across the region,” Dr. Geoffrey Gresh, an associate professor at the National Defense University said. “Djibouti is a small, relatively safe … ally that enables the U.S. special operators to carry out missions effectively across the continent.”

As per any agreement with the hosting nation, the Pentagon will often expand or improve the facilities to meet their requirements. In general, the deals benefit both sides. American troops will rotate in and out of these locations, training with local forces and performing other missions.

“For Djibouti, they stand to gain from investment in its infrastructure and port facilities, in addition to any other aid programs and [foreign direct investment] that arrives,” Gresh added. “The Djibouti government would also receive training and other equipment assistance, which is what many small developing nations desire.”

Officially a republic with free elections, opposition politicians and human rights groups describe President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, the handpicked successor to his uncle and predecessor Hassan Gouled Aptidon, as a dictator. In 2011, Gulleh won a third term as head of the majority Muslim nation after most of his opponents boycotted the election over accusations of fraud and intimidation.

In September 2013, the Pentagon announced it was moving the pilotless aircraft from its main base at Camp Lemonnier to Chabelley with almost no fanfare. Ostensibly, American commanders agreed to make the move for safety reasons.

The only formal base Washington acknowledges in Africa, Camp Lemonnier occupies a part of Djibouti’s main international airport. After more than a decade of operation and numerous drone crashes, Djiboutian authorities worried the unmanned planes posed a danger to civilian air traffic and nearby residences.

For Chabelley, the situation is even more complex. More than just a bilateral deal between two countries, the site is true bureaucratic maze.

“Chebelley is a French-operated airfield, which our French allies use for training and as a divert location,” Falvo said. The U.S. Air Force’s 870th Air Expeditionary Squadron handles the American side of things.

So, American drones fly regular missions from an airstrip the French run with the approval of the Djiboutian government. Washington pays Djibouti for access to Paris’ outpost.

Part of the reason for this circuitous chain of responsibility could be the fact that the Pentagon’s drone missions are often controversial. Critics contend targeted strikes against militants are illegal under American and international law and tantamount to assassination.

But there’s more to it. Given the legacy of European colonialism, African governments worry about how regional allies and their own people view the sudden appearance of large numbers of foreign troops.

“The Chebelley base … [is] a reflection of the growing presence of the U.S. military in Africa,” Dr. David Vine, author of Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, told Reuters in an email. “The [U.S.] military has gone to great lengths to disguise and downplay its growing presence in Africa generally in the hopes of avoiding negative attention and protests both in the U.S. and in African countries wary of the colonial-esque presence of foreign troops.”

The Pentagon does not list Chabelley in its annual Base Structure Report, the only official compendium of American military facilities around the world. The complicated accounting of CSLs and other such “non-bases” means the document does not have a full record of America’s military infrastructure.

With increasing competition for resources and economic markets, plus the continued threat of terrorism and regional strife around the word, Washington will no doubt continue to rely heavily on Chabelley and other small “non-bases.”


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