The US Navy Warship, the Hershel “Woody” Williams, is now off the west coast of Africa as part of a multinational exercise in countering piracy. Nearly 800 feet long and topped with a flight deck for helicopters, the Williams can provide tremendous logistical support – fuel, stores, spare parts – while remaining at sea almost indefinitely because it has two separate crews that exchange places every four months.
The Gulf of Guinea, which is vital to European maritime trade and home to vast petroleum resources, requires a multinational counter-piracy strategy. According to the International Maritime Bureau’s worldwide piracy reporting center, there were 46 successful and attempted pirate attacks in the Nigerian and Benin coastal areas alone last year — roughly a quarter of all assaults worldwide. The United Nations predicts that maritime crime costs more than $750 million each year in West Africa.
In 2009, the US Navy’s NATO forces launched a major anti-piracy effort in Somali waters, Operation Ocean Shield. The Somali pirates, featured in the film “Captain Phillips,” have perpetrated a small number of daring raids on large ships. The problem is more complex and widespread in the Gulf of Guinea than significant incidents like those captured on the news.
The majority of assaults occur near the coast, with refined petroleum products being the primary targets on bulk carriers, container ships, and small tankers. Workers on commercial vessels have been the target of other assaults, including taking hostages from ships transporting employees to offshore oil-drilling platforms. The captives are taken to the jungle on the coast and held until their employers pay the ransom. In certain situations, the crewmembers and supposed hostages collaborate with the pirates, receiving a share of the ransom after the oil firms pay up.
Operation Guinex, the current military exercise, will continue until the end of September. It is led by the U.S. Africa Command and involves navies from both sides of the Atlantic, including ten African countries. The Nigerian navy, the region’s most powerful force, has a half-dozen vessels on the scene. A leading maritime power, the Brazilian navy has launched their frigate called “Independencia” to strengthen naval force in the region. There is also a focus on training local special forces, similar to the U.S. Navy SEALs, in addition to naval exercises.
For decades, the United States has used a strategy of building a sea-based coalition with regional allies in Latin America and the Caribbean to improve security without dealing with the expense or political difficulties associated with a big logistical footprint.
Operation Guinex strives to create interoperability between American naval platforms and local partners, including point-to-point secure radio communications, data links with tracking information on commercial shipping, and access to unclassified satellite feeds. Intelligence-sharing among African countries and the United States may provide strategically valuable information to the militaries and offer insight into terrorist dangers. According to the reports, some of the pirates’ loot may have been transferred to terrorist organization Boko Haram, which has sworn loyalty to the so-called Islamic State.
The Navy should continue to expand on the Williams’ deployment by increasing the number of port visits to the Gulf of Guinea. They may not be Arleigh Burke destroyers or Ticonderoga cruisers; instead, they can be smaller US Coast Guard vessels better suited for local naval forces.
The Gulf of Guinea nations should be integrated into a comprehensive effort with the Drug Enforcement Agency teams, the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NATO discovered in Somalia a decade ago, stamping out piracy can’t be done solely at sea; the problem is exacerbated by social and political upheaval on land.
For the United States, strengthening Africa’s military and diplomatic ties will become increasingly important, especially as Chinese political outreach and investment expand.
Africa has traditionally been wary of allowing a permanent U.S. military presence, such as giving home ports to naval vessels on the continent, and this attitude appears to be changing. However, the government of Nigeria unexpectedly urged the Pentagon to relocate the Africa Command headquarters from Germany to an African country this spring.
Africa’s population is predicted to reach 2.5 billion by 2050, a fifth of the planet’s population. Droughts, poor infrastructure, religious disputes, and invasive outside powers contribute to the instability that breeds civil war, piracy, and terrorism. Guinea’s government was removed in a military takeover only days ago.
Hershel “Woody” Williams is the United States’ representation in the world’s fastest-growing continent, and not only fighting modern-day pirates but also demonstrating that America has a responsibility to preserve global stability and security.