The Pentagon has confirmed 30 U.S. military personnel have been dispatched to Yemen to begin training forces there in counter-terrorism tactics. But defense officials may be contemplating an even more extensive military relationship with another strategically-positioned Red Sea state, Eritrea.
Top Pentagon African affairs official Michael Westphal acknowledges closer military links between the United States and Eritrea would be beneficial.
Still, in a VOA interview, Mr. Westphal is careful to say no concrete decisions have been made about the direction of any future defense cooperation with the small Red Sea country, regarded by military officials as a front-line state in the war against terrorism. "I can see a lot of benefits from us having a more formalized relationship with Eritrea, military-to-military," he said. "But there isn't anything that is decided, or this is where we want to go. "
Mr. Westphal sidesteps the question of whether U.S. forces are specifically interested in gaining access to airstrips, ports or other facilities in Eritrea.
But the Voice of America has learned, basing issues have been among the topics discussed in recent visits to Eritrea by General Tommy Franks, the four-star commander of the U.S. military's Central Command.
General Franks has, in particular, voiced interest in the possible creation of a naval bombing and gunnery range in southern Eritrea. U.S. naval groups transiting the Red Sea en route to the Gulf region could use such a training facility.
Eritrean officials have reportedly said the United States is welcome to use military facilities in the country.
Following World War II, the United States maintained a naval repair base at the port of Masawa and an intelligence post at Asmara. However these have been closed for years.
Pentagon African Affairs official Westphal indicates human rights and other concerns have been a limiting factor in renewing closer defense links, as has the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
But he expresses hope a resolution of the border dispute between the two Horn of Africa neighbors will be the key to improved military ties. "My hope is that, now that we've had the border commission make their decision dealing with the border, this can be demarcated, and we can hopefully put this war behind us," he said. "We can look to Ethiopia, as well as Eritrea as future, potential partners."
At the moment, U.S. defense relations with both countries are limited to small exchange programs for what the Pentagon terms International Military Education and Training.
However, even these small programs have come under criticism from independent activists who note security forces in both Eritrea and Ethiopia have been accused of human rights abuses.