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The advantages of Rota to host the US Africa Command

As the United States considers moving its AFRICOM from Germany, the relocation to US Navy Station Rota in Spain offers some opportunities and benefits

The United States is considering moving its Africa Command (USAFRICOM) to a place closer to Africa and the US base in Rota, Spain, in one of the main alternatives. This change in location would undoubtedly benefit Spain, but especially the United States, we argue. Over the past years, there has been a ‘migration’ of US troops from Europe, particularly stationed in Germany, to their home country or other parts of the hemisphere. In this trend, it has been considered to move AFRICOM from “Kelly Barracks,” in Stuttgart, Germany, to Rota, located in the province of Cádiz, near the Gibraltar Strait.

Entrance to the premises of the US Navy Station Rota [US DoD]

▲ Entrance to the premises of the US Navy Station Rota [US DoD]

ARTICLE / José Antonio Latorre

The US Africa Command is the military organization committed to further its country’s interests in the African continent. Its main goal is to disrupt and neutralize transnational threats, protect US personnel and facilities, prevent and mitigate conflict, and build defense capability and capacity in order to promote regional stability and prosperity, according to the US Department of Defense. The command currently participates in operations, exercises and security cooperation efforts in 53 African countries, compromising around 7,200 active personnel in the continent. Its core mission is to assist African countries to strengthen defense capabilities that address security threats and reduce threats to US interests, as the command declares. In summary, USAFRICOM “is focused on building partner capacity and develops and conducts its activities to enhance safety, security and stability in Africa. Our strategy entails an effective and efficient application of our allocated resources, and collaboration with other U.S. Government agencies, African partners, international organizations and others in addressing the most pressing security challenges in an important region of the world.” The headquarters are stationed in Stuttgart, Germany, more than 1,500 kilometers away from Africa. The United States has considered to move the command multiple times for logistical and strategic reasons, and it might be the time the government takes the decision.

Bilateral relations between Spain and the United States

When it comes to the possible relocation of AFRICOM, the main competitor is Italy, with its military base in Sigonella. An ally that has been increasingly important to the United States is Morocco, which has offered to accommodate more military facilities as its transatlantic ally continues to provide the North African country with weapons and armament. However, it is important to remember that the United States and Spain cooperate in NATO, fortifying their security and defense relations in the active participation in international missions. Although Italy also belongs to the same organizations, it is important to emphasize the strategic advantages of placing the command in Rota as opposed to in Sigonella: Rota it is a key point which controls the Strait of Gibraltar and contains much of the needed resources for the relocation. Spain combines the fact that it is a European Union and NATO member, while it has territories in Africa and shares key interests in the region due to multiple current and historical reasons. Spain acts as the bridge with Northern Africa in the West. This is an argument that neither Morocco nor Italy can offer.

The relations between Spain and the United States are regulated by the Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement and Agreement on Defense Cooperation (1988), following the Military Facilities in Spain: Agreement Between the United States and Spain Pact (1953), enacted to formalize the alliance in common objectives and where Spain permits the United States to use facilities in its territory. There are two US military bases in Spanish territory: US Air Force Base Morón and US Naval Station Rota. Both locations are strategic as they are in the south, essential for their proximity to the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea and, particularly, to Africa. Although it is true that Morocco offers the same strategic advantages as Rota, it is important to take into account the similarities in culture, the Western point of view, the shared strategies in NATO, and the shared democratic and societal values that the Spanish alternative offers. The political stability that Spain can offer as part of the European Union and as a historical ally to the United States is not comparable with Morocco’s.

If a relocation is indeed in the interest of the United States, then Spain is the ideal country for the placement of the command. Since the consideration is on the Naval Station in Rota, then the article will evidently focus on this location.

Rota as the ideal candidate

Rota Naval Station was constructed in 1953 to heal bilateral relations between both countries. It was placed in the most strategic position in Spain, and one of the most in Europe. Naval Station Rota is home to Commander, Naval Activities Spain (COMNAVACT), responsible for US Naval Activities in Spain and Portugal. It reports directly to Commander, Navy Region Europe, Africa and Southwest Asia located in Naples, Italy. There are around 3,000 US citizens in the station, a number expected to increase by approximately 2,000 military personnel and dependents due to the rotation of “Aegis” destroyers.

Currently, the station provides support for NATO and US ships as well as logistical and tactical aid to US Navy and US Air Force units. Rota is key for military operations in the European theatre, but obviously unique to interests in Africa. To emphasize the importance of the facility, the US Department of Defense states: “Naval Station (NAVSTA) Rota plays a crucial role in supporting our nation’s objectives and defense, providing unmatched logistical support and strategic presence to all of our military services and allies. NAVSTA Rota supports Naval Forces Europe Africa Central (EURAFCENT), 6th Fleet and Combatant Command priorities by providing airfield and port facilities, security, force protection, logistical support, administrative support and emergency services to all U.S. and NATO forces.” Clearly, Naval Station Rota is a US military base that will be maintained and probably expanded due to its position near Africa, an increasingly important geopolitical continent.

Spain’s candidacy for accommodating USAFRICOM

Why would Spain be the ideal candidate in the scenario that the United States decides to change its USAFRICOM location? Geographically speaking, Spain actually possesses territories in Africa: Ceuta, Melilla, “Plazas de Soberanía,” and Canary Islands. Legally, these territories are fully incorporated as autonomous cities and an autonomous community, respectively.

Secondly, the bilateral relations between Spain and the United States, from the perspective of security and defense, have been very fluid and dynamic, with benefits for both. After the 1953 convention between both Western countries, there have been joint operations co-chaired by the Secretary General of Policy of Defense (SEGENPOL) of the Spanish Ministry of Defense and the Under Secretary General for Defense Policy (USGDP) in the United States Department of Defense. Both offices plan and execute plans of cooperation that include: The Special Operations “Flint Lock” Exercise in Northern Africa, bilateral exercises with paratrooping units, officer exchanges for training missions, etc. It is important to add to this list that Spain and the United States share a special relationship when it comes to officers, because all three branches (Air Force, Army, Navy) have exchange programs in military academies or bases.

Finally, when it comes to Spain, it must be noted that the fluid relationship maintained between both countries has created a very friendly and stable environment, particularly in the area of Defense. Spain is a country of the European Union, a long-time loyal ally to the United States in the fight against terrorism and in the shared goals of strengthening the transatlantic partnership. This impeccable alliance offers stability, mutual confidence and reciprocity in terms of Defense. The United States Africa Command needs a solid “host”, committed to participating in active operations in Africa, and there is no better candidate than Spain. Its historical relationship with the countries in Northern Africa is important to take into account for perspective and information gathering. The Spanish Armed Forces is the most valued institution in society, and it is for sure more than capable of accommodating USAFRICOM to its needs in the South of the country, as it has always done for the United States, however, this remains a fully political decision.

The United States’ position

Rota is an essential strategic point in Europe, and increasingly, in the world. The US base is well known for its support to missions from the US Navy and the US Air Force, and its responsibility only seems to increase. In 2009, the United States sent four destroyers from the Naval Base in Norfolk, Virginia, to Rota, as well as a large force of US Naval Construction units, known as “Seabees” and US Marines. It is also worth noting that NATO has its most important pillar of an antimissile shield in Rota, given the geographical ease and the adequate facilities. From the perspective of infrastructure, on-hand station services, security and stability, Rota is the ideal location of the USAFRICOM compared to Morocco.

Moreover, Rota is, and continues to be, a geographical pinnacle for flights from the United States heading to the Middle East, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently, USS Hershel “Woody” Williams arrived in Rota and joined NATO allies in the Grand African Navy Exercise for Maritime Operations (NEMO) that took place in the Gulf of Guinea in the beginning of October of 2020. In terms of logistics, Rota is more than equipped to host a headquarters of the magnitude of USAFRICOM and it would be economically efficient to relocate the personnel and their families as the station counts with a US Naval Clinic, schools, a commissary, a Navy Exchange, and other services.

The United States has not made a formal proposition to transfer Africa Command to Rota, but if there is a change of location, it is one of the main candidates. As Spain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs González Laya stated, the possible transfer of USAFRICOM to Rota is a decision that corresponds only to the United States, but Spain remains fully committed with its transatlantic ally. González Laya emphasized that “Spain has a great commitment to the United States in terms of security and defense, and it has been demonstrated for many years from Rota and Morón.” The minister reminded that Spain maintains complicity and joint work in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel with an active participation in European and international operations in terms of training local armies to secure order. A perfect example of the commitment is Spain’s presidency of the Sahel Alliance, working for a secure Sahel under the pillars of peace and development.

In 2007, when USAFRICOM was established, it could have been reasonable to install the headquarters in Germany, but now geographical proximity is key, and what better country for hosting the command than Spain, which has territories in the continent. The United States already has a fully equipped military base in Rota, and it can count on Spain to guarantee a smooth transition. Spain’s active participation in missions, her alliance with the United States and her historic and political ties with Africa are essential reasons to heavily consider Rota as the future location of USAFRICOM. Spain has been, and will continue to be, a reliable ally in the war against terrorism and the fight for peace and security. Spain is a country that believes in democracy, freedom and justice, like the United States. It is a country that has sacrificed soldiers in the face of freedom and has stood shoulder to shoulder with its transatlantic friend in the most difficult of moments. As a Western country, both countries have been able to work together and achieve many common objectives, and this will only evolve. As the interests in Africa expand, it is undoubtedly important to choose the best military facility to accommodate the command’s military infrastructure as well as its personnel and their families. The United States, in benefit of its strategic objectives, would be making a very effective decision if it decides to move the Africa Command to Rota, Spain.