Founded in 1952, Big Safari is a specialised and secretive USAF acquisition programme, referred to as a ‘rapid procurement force’
Operationally, the secretive Big Safari facilitates private contractors and systems into the US chain of command
The January 5th, 2020 Manda Bay attack in Kenya by Al-Shabaab led to the death of three Americans, of which two were private military contractors
Manda bay is used as a key launchpad for USAF surveillance and airstrikes in neighbouring Somalia. Contractors are integral components in the intelligence ‘kill chain’ in the US AFRICOM mission
Since 2008, the Big Safari programme has spent $158 billion on private companies such as L3Harris Technologies, in a bid to streamline operational requirements for the USAF. In the 2019 US federal fiscal year alone, L3Harris was awarded $4 billion in federal government contracts. Two of the contractors killed in the January Manda Bay attack were also L3Harris contractors. BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management firm, T. Rowe Price Group, another large asset management firm, and Vanguard Group, with $6.2 trillion in assets managed, make up the three controlling shareholders of L3Harris.
Critics of the programme cite the interconnection of military officials joining L3Harris, which skips the competitive betting process in military private contracts. In practice, the operational benefits of the programme provide the USAF with swift delivery of contractors in material and human assets for operations. For example, a 2018 Pentagon report relayed that the US military was relying on 5,500 contractors in Iraq and Syria. North Carolina firm IOMAX built 50 weaponised border patrol aircraft and dropped more than 4000 bombs on ISIS targets in the Middle East.
The Big Safari programme contracts extend into West Africa and has already been active with Yemen government contracts against Houthi rebels. While there are critics of the programme, the drawdown of US military presence globally will likely only see an increase in similar contracts. As seen with the Al-Shabaab terror attack on Manda Bay, there is much less public reaction for American contractor deaths compared to uniformed troops.
In partnership with the US, Kenya now has access to the Big Safari programme, of which it is reported $15 million was spent to access the system. The Manda Bay base is an integral part of AFRICOM operations in East Africa, with the Camp Simba mission officially changing from ‘tactical’ to ‘enduring operations’. The Manda Bay contractor presence is utilised mainly for the intelligence gathering stage, through air reconnaissance and surveillance, leading to subsequent airstrikes on identified targets. This integrates private contractors into the US kill chain. US AFRICOM defends the use of contractors, citing they are legal under domestic and international law.
Between February and March 2020, OCCRP analysed flight tracking data, observing a private Gulfstreams jet flight patterns. The flight pattern indicated that it was likely collecting intelligence with specialised sensors, supported by the subsequent airstrikes in the flight pattern. The integration of contractors into the US military kill chain, while cost and time effective, has raised ethical questions in light of the mounting civilian deaths following airstrikes in Somalia.
In the first seven months of 2020, there has been more US airstrikes in Somalia than the administration period of George W. Bush, and Barack Obama combined. While the airstrikes are making progress against Al-Shabaab, the civilian casualties go hand in hand with Al-Shabaab’s recruitment mission and ‘foreign invader’ narrative. To support US regional allies and strategic interests, the Big Safari programme has a high probability of extending contracts significantly to support growing logistical challenges against USAF operations abroad.
Image: Senior Airman Cory Payne / USAF