By David Lewis
DAKAR (Reuters) - The United States urged African nations on Tuesday to pool their air force assets in a NATO-style effort to take on terrorists and international criminals rather than struggle to fund costly independent operations.
Many African air forces are small components of the national military and Washington, concerned about Africa-based al Qaeda agents, traffickers and illegal fishing, wants to help improve cooperation across the continent.
General Philip Breedlove, commander of the U.S. Air Forces, Europe, told African air chiefs meeting in Senegal the situation meant any one nation would struggle to tackle groups operating across borders.
"Taking them on requires a regional approach ... by developing partnerships, countries can assist one another in meeting these requirements," he said.
"We can best support these efforts by effectively deploying our air assets as an air team against these extremists."
Breedlove made no reference to specific threats and did not give details on any U.S. support but warned: "The consequences of insignificant action, I believe, are dire."
Outside a few rich nations, African air forces are often limited to a handful of helicopters and sometimes ageing fixed wing jets.
While U.S.-backed African forces have made progress retaking parts of rebel-held Somalia, the takeover of northern Mali by Islamists linked to al Qaeda has created a new security void that many countries fear is a launch pad for radical violence in the region.
Latin American drug traffickers, sometimes aided by local officials, have taken advantage of West Africa's porous borders to use the region as a transit point for a cocaine trade valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Illegal fishing in under-policed waters cost governments in West Africa as much as $1.5 billion in lost revenues.
U.S. officials speaking at the start of three days of talks between American officers and their African counterparts drew comparisons to NATO and its policy of pooling resources between nations.
"That applies equally to West Africa as it does to Europe," said Lewis Lukens, the U.S. ambassador to Senegal.
Law enforcement officials say varying abilities of regional forces, a wide array of legislation and basic barriers like language have prevented regional cooperation.
Lukens said cooperation could change this.
"There is no reason that in the future, information from a Senegalese aircraft couldn't use be used to support Senegal, the Gambia, Cape Verde as they pursue illegal fishing boats or narco-traffickers through each other's waters," he said.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)