In light of the recent Russian move of sending advanced MiG-29 fighter and SU-34 ground attack jets to Libya, the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), is in talks with neighboring Tunisia to bolster ties between the two nations.
U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend, the Commander of AFRICOM, spoke via phone with Imed Hazgui, Minister of Defense of the Republic of Tunisia. They discussed opportunities for upcoming training and planning exercises and reaffirmed the strong ties between the two countries.
Since 2011, the United States has invested more than $1 billion in the Tunisian military. The two countries have worked together and have enhanced Tunisian border security, military intelligence, and air-ground operations.
Tunisia’s military faces the violence raging in Libya to its east; while on its western border with Algeria it faces Islamic jihadist fighters from both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS).
With the civil war in Libya and the Russian move to pump more advisors and combat aircraft into the fray, Townsend and Hazgui agreed as to the need for improved security in the region. Townsend, while trying to increase the value of cooperation between the American and Tunisian militaries, was quick to point out that U.S. combat troops will not be part of the personnel influx.
Russian military aircraft are being deployed to provide close air support and support the Wagner Group contractors that are supporting the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) in the ongoing civil war. Russian fighter aircraft arrived in Libya, via Syria where they were repainted to camouflage their Russian origin. AFRICOM posted satellite photographs of a MiG-29 at the Libyan al-Jufra airbase.
“Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya. Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner,” said Townsend. “For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now. We watched as Russia flew fourth-generation jet fighters to Libya — every step of the way. Neither the LNA nor private military companies can arm, operate, and sustain these fighters without state support — the support they are getting from Russia.”
The SU-34 will be used as close-support attack aircraft while the MiG-29s are air superiority fighters and may be used to counter Turkish drones which have decimated the LNA in recent fighting.
“As Russia continues to fan the flames of the Libyan conflict, regional security in North Africa is a heightened concern,” Townsend added. “We’re looking at new ways to address mutual security concerns with Tunisia, including the use of our Security Force Assistant Brigade. Tunisia recognizes the benefits of American values, professionalism, and commitment. They very much value our partnership.”
The Security Forces Assistance Brigade (SFAB) that General Townsend referred to is a training unit that deploys as part of a military assistance program. They are not combat troops.
“We know many of our African partners are under siege from malign actors and terrorist networks,” the AFRICOM Commander said. “We also know we can’t surge trust. Therefore, we remain committed to strengthening critical partnerships and working together to deliver solutions to common challenges.”