AFRICOM’s Obangame Express Exercise Starts Up in the Gulf of Guinea

This year’s Obangame Express maritime exercise, led by US Naval Forces Africa (NAVFORAF), began on April 16th in the Gulf of Guniea. This year’s exercise is taking place off the coasts of Cameroon and Nigeria. As with the other Express series exercises, Obangame Express will consist of an in-port preparatory phase, followed by an at-sea exercise to test the participants maritime security skills. This year, 31 ships from Angola, Belgium, Benin, Brazil, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, France, Gabon, Germany, Ghana, The Netherlands, Nigeria, Portugal, Republic of Congo, Sao Tome & Principe, Spain, Togo, Turkey and the United States will participate in the exercise. The majority of these ships will operate from the Port of Lagos. This includes the USNS Spearhead (JHSV-1), which is the first of its class and on its maiden voyage.

USNS Spearhead (JHSV-1) maneuvers alongside the pier in Lagos, Nigeria on 13 April 2014. Spearhead was in Nigeria for Obangame Express 2014.

USNS Spearhead (JHSV-1) maneuvers alongside the pier in Lagos, Nigeria on 13 April 2014. Spearhead arrived in Nigeria to participate in Obangame Express 2014. The ship was on its maiden voyage in the region as part of the Africa Partnership Station mission.

Obangame Express 2014 will test maritime security skills such as: VBSS (visit, board, search and seizure), medical response, radio communication, and information sharing across regional maritime operations centers (MOCs). According to the US Navy, Participants will execute tactics and techniques within scenarios that mirror real world counter-piracy and counter-illicit trafficking operations.

Obangame Express, which began in 2011, is currently one of four so-called “Express series” exercise in Africa run annually by NAVFORAF.  “Obangame” means “togetherness” in a local Cameroonian language. These exercise focus on maritime security issues around the continent and look to build on other bilateral security cooperation events between the US and African nations. Most notably, the Express series exercises are intended to support existing US Navy security cooperation efforts as part of the Africa Partnership Station program. Obangame Express is also especially concerned with the issue of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. With the decline in piracy off the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, more attention has been focused on the matter of piracy in West Africa.

The plans for this year’s exercise were finalized back in February. The US Navy said the objective was to mirror the positive results of the 2013 exercise, tailoring scenarios closely to real-world maritime security challenges. This year’s exercise involves almost three times as many ships from more than twice as many countries when compared to Obangame Express 2013.

Profiles of Operations Sandy Beach and Sandy Beach II Now Available

For those of you who might have missed my recent piece on War is Boring regarding US Air Force missions to Mali in the early 1960s, I now have profiles of these operations available here. Operation Sandy Beach in 1961 was probably the first organized US military operation in Mali, which had only become independent in September 1960. It was also the first overseas operation for 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron, the progenitor of Air Force special operations elements. Operation Sandy Beach II was a follow-on effort that also included Army Special Forces personnel in early 1963.

These operations are an important part of American special operations history, as well as the history of US operations in Africa. They are important examples of how invested the US military has been in operations in Africa historically. They also represent early special operations missions, most of which were quickly overshadowed by operations in Southeast Asia. Operation Sandy Beach, in fact, was a dry run for 4400th CCTS, which deployed later in the year to South Vietnam for Operation Farm Gate.

These new profiles are in the same vein of a post I made last November on American special operations efforts in Libya in the early 1950s. I find these historical pieces often provide important context for current US military operations in Africa and I hope to be able to continue to add them to Codebook: Africa’s records.

UN Security Council Approves Peacekeeping Force for CAR

Yesterday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2149, which approves the establishment of a UN peacekeeping force in Central African Republic. The resolution provides for a force of approximately twelve thousand personnel under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, including some ten thousand troops and almost two thousand police. The crisis in CAR has left thousands dead, displaced almost seven hundred thousand people internally, and forced almost three hundred thousand to flee the country. The UN estimates that over two million people, approximately half of the country’s population, are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Map showing numbers of IDPs (in thousands) by state in CAR, refugees in neighboring countries (in thousands), along with highlighting of areas of significant tensions, from OCHA's Humanitarian Snapshot, dated 10 February 2014.

Map showing numbers of IDPs (in thousands) by state in CAR, refugees in neighboring countries (in thousands), along with highlighting of areas of significant tensions, from OCHA’s Humanitarian Snapshot, dated 10 February 2014.

The decision comes as the African Union’s African-led International Support Mission in the CAR (MISCA), support by French forces, continues to struggle with violence in the country. MISCA, which is already operating with a UN mandate, had some six-thousand personnel at the beginning of last week. Last Friday, Chadian forces pulled out of the country following clashes in the capital Bangui in which ten people were killed. Chadian troops claimed they were acting in self defense, but other reports suggested they had fired indiscriminately into a crowd. This is not the first time Chadian peacekeepers have been involved in questionable incidents or had been accused of complicity with ex-Seleka rebels. The loss of the eight-hundred and fifty-man contingent was a significant blow to MISCA.

MISCA is scheduled to turn over responsibility for peacekeeping to the new UN force, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in CAR (MINUSCA), by 15 September 2014. There is no word yet what countries might step forward to provide MINUSCA with the additional forces it requires. Many African nations are already participating in the effort, as well as efforts elsewhere. France, who has been a major contributor to peacekeeping efforts on the continent and who has been in CAR since the beginning of the year as part of their Operation Sangaris, has had only limited success in rallying the rest of the European Union to contribute forces. In January, the EU approved the deployment of a small five-hundred strong force to the country. The force, dubbed EUFOR RCA (EU Force République Centrafricaine) was eventually expanded to one thousand personnel, but was delayed and only arrived in the country last week.

The United States has also supported the efforts in CAR, as part of Operation Echo Casemate. However, so far this support has been limited to logistical support and the airlifting of additional African peacekeeping forces. The US will likely continue to provide this support to the expanded UN mission, but there is no indication that any American troops will deploy to the country to take a more active part in the peacekeeping mission.

Crisis Response Marines Train in Conjunction With African Lion 14

Last week, Marines from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response (SPMAGTF-CR) conducted a training exercise in Morocco, in conjunction with the annual African Lion bilateral training exercise. On 3 April 2014, Marines from SPMAGTF-CR flew in two MV-22B Osprey aircraft from Moron Air Base in Spain to Tifnit, Morocco. On arrival, the Marines set up security for a hypothetical United States government compound to protect US citizens and property within.

Marines from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force - Crisis Response board an MV-22B Osprey for a training exercise in Tifnit, Morocco on 3 April 2014

Marines from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response board an MV-22B Osprey for a training exercise in Tifnit, Morocco on 3 April 2014.

The training event is yet another instance where the capabilities of SPMAGTF-CR have been highlighted as of late. The unit was created last spring in the wake of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012. Since then, the Marines have forward deployed to Djibouti and Uganda to be able to respond to the crisis in South Sudan. More recently, Marines from SPMAGTF-CR have deployed to Romania to reinforce US units in that region. Officially that deployment has nothing to do with the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

African Lion, which ended last Saturday, is also an important annual bilateral training exercise with Morocco, which has a long history of cooperation with the US, dating back to the American Revolution. African Lion dates back at least to the 1990s, at which time it was a biennial exercise sponsored by US European Command (EUCOM) and conducted by the Southern European Task Force (SETAF). US Marine Corps Forces, Europe (MARFOREUR) subsequently took over the exercise in the 2000s.

With the creation of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2008, EUCOM relinquished responsibility for the exercise. Marine Corps Forces, Africa (MARFORAF) also took over the actual conduct of the event. The annual exercise also involves members from other US military services, such as the Army and the Air Force, and is observed by numerous foreign partners.

This year, approximately 150 soldiers of the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces, 350 U.S. servicemembers participated in the African Lion exercise.  The focus of African Lion 14 was on interoperability with military-to-military engagements in stability operations, rapid response to contingencies, a multinational observer program with 13 different countries, non-lethal weapons and peace enforcement, live-fire and weapons familiarization training, humanitarian and disaster-relief response. Other nations observing the exercise included: Belgium, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Mauritania, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Tunisia, Turkey, Spain, Senegal, and the United Kingdom.

US Africa Command Sends Marines to Romania

Last week, the US Department of Defense announced that it would be sending an additional one hundred and seventy-five Marines to Romania. The US Marine Corps already maintains a rotational task force with some three hundred personnel in that country at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, as part of existing regional security cooperation efforts.

A KC-130T Hercules carrying Marines and sailors with Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Africa 13 takes off from NAS Sigonella on route to a security cooperation engagement in Burundi on February 16, 2013.

A KC-130T Hercules carrying Marines and sailors with Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Africa 13 takes off from NAS Sigonella on route to a security cooperation engagement in Burundi on February 16, 2013.

What is particularly interesting about this deployment is that the Marines from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina will be assigned to Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response (SPMAGTF-CR) rather than Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Black Sea Rotational Force (SPMAGTF-BSRF). This is likely because the decision had recently been made to increase the overall size of SPMAGTF-CR, headquartered at Moron Air Base in Spain, and the only approval required was to forward deploy the personnel to Romania. The personnel will be collocated with SPMAGTF-BSRF, but will remain under the control of SPMAGTF-CR, which is assigned to US Africa Command (AFRICOM).

SPMAGTF-CR is part of a DoD-wide response to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya in 2012. DoD established a number of crisis response task forces around the world as a result. The Marines in Spain are assigned to AFRICOM, but according to DoD they can be tasked to respond to any crisis. The deployment of the Marines to Romania shows off their capabilities and officials say that it is specifically to allow the task force “greater flexibility.”

Officially, the deployment is not related to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, where a popular protest movement ousted the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year. Russia responded to this change by supporting a secessionist referendum in Ukraine’s Crimea region and subsequently voting to annex the province. Crimea had been made part of the Ukrainian Soviet Social Republic in 1954, at which time the country was a part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The province has a sizeable ethnic Russian population, in addition to ethnic Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, and others. Ukraine and Russia have now traded veiled threats and the US and other NATO members have reinforced allies on Ukraine’s borders to ease fears of further Russian interventions. The US has also recognized the new interim Ukrainian government and said that the Crimea referendum and annexation are illegal.

The US is Giving a Boost to Forces Looking for the LRA

Four CV-22B Ospreys, two MC-130P Hecrules, and a single KC-135R Stratotanker will arrive at Entebbe airport in Uganda by the end of the week. The entire task force has approximately one hundred and fifty personnel supporting it. This is the latest deployment in support of Operation Observant Compass, the US operation to support efforts to hunt down the elusive Lord’s Resistance Army and its leader, Joseph Kony. The LRA has terrorized central Africa for decades, looting and raping, as well as most notably kidnapping thousands of children over the years to serve as soldiers and sex slaves.

Two CV-22B Ospreys taxi to their new home on June 24, 2013, at RAF Mildenhall, England. The Ospreys, assigned to the 7th Special Operations Squadron, were the first of 10 slated to arrive as part of the expansion of the 352nd Special Operations Group.

Two CV-22B Ospreys taxi to their new home on June 24, 2013, at RAF Mildenhall, England. The Ospreys, assigned to the 7th Special Operations Squadron, were the first of 10 slated to arrive as part of the expansion of the 352nd Special Operations Group.

The US has support efforts to end the LRA’s campaign of violence over the years, but until recently this was limited mostly to intelligence gathering, military aid, and training events. In October 2011, a small number of special operations forces deployed to Uganda to better coordinate efforts in that country, as well as in Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and South Sudan. The African Union’s Regional Task Force (AU-RTF) still leads the fight against the LRA, with the US firmly in a supporting role.

Soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, assigned to the East Africa Response Force, provide security as pararescuemen of the 82d Expeditionary Rescue Squadron (ERQS) return to an HC-130 of the 81st ERQS during a training exercise on January 12th, 2014.

Soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, assigned to the East Africa Response Force, provide security as pararescuemen of the 82d Expeditionary Rescue Squadron (ERQS) return to an HC-130 of the 81st ERQS during a training exercise on January 12th, 2014.

That support is significant, however. Spy planes flown by US forces and private contractors have searched for Kony and his men as part of Operation Tusker Sand and other efforts. They have also shuttled AU troops between a number of small airstrips in the region and airlifted them into battle. When the LRA moved its main base of operations into CAR, the US helped establish an intelligence fusion center there.

Instability in the region has caused the anti-LRA to wax and wane to some degree. The US military put the operation on hold for a period last year. Crises in CAR and South Sudan have also threaten to derail the campaign. The US military, however, says the latest deployment is not in any way related to those regional crises.

According to the Pentagon, the more significant problem has been that the aircraft available are limited in their capabilities and availability to take full advantage of the intelligence gathered. AU troops often arrive to reported LRA base camps after the rebels have already left. The CV-22Bs are faster than the existing aircraft and their deployment is designed to help the AU-RTF pounce on LRA fighters once they’ve been located before they can flee into the jungle. The MC-130Ps will be able to refuel the Ospreys to help extend their range and on-station time. The KC-135R will be able to refuel the MC-130Ps, again increasing their range and on-station time.

US Africa Command (AFRICOM) had sought the Ospreys months ago, but it appears the aircraft are few and far between. The Air Force did not request any more in its latest budget either. US Central Command (CENTCOM) is providing the aircraft for the latest deployment, in an arrangement that gives hints at a larger picture of US operations in the region. While the CV-22Bs are based in Djibouti in the AFRICOM area of responsibility, they are tasked to support CENTCOM, and it remains unclear what unit they report to. The focus of their operations is likely in Yemen on the other side of the Gulf of Aden. There is no information as to what their usual missions might entail.

This also means that the deployment will definitely be temporary. Yesterday, the Pentagon’s Press Secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby, confirmed this by saying that he did not expect the new elements to remain in Uganda for long. However, there is the possibility that rotations from Djibouti to Uganda could become a more regular occurrence.

AFRICOM has had some experience with this recently. It is likely that the CV-22Bs involved in the aborted rescue attempt in South Sudan last December came from the same contingent in Djibouti as the aircraft going to Uganda now. Marines from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response also forward deployed to Djibouti and then sent elements further on to Uganda at the beginning of this year, also in response to the crisis in South Sudan. Whatever happens, the Ospreys appear to be proving their worth and we are likely to see them used more and more in the near future, both in the Middle East and Africa.

You can also read about this in a piece I wrote for War is Boring.

US Navy SEALs Take Control of Oil Tanker in the Mediterranean Sea

Last night, US Navy SEALs boarded an oil tanker in international waters southeast of Cyprus. The ship, the Morning Glory, which is flying under the North Korean flag, took on oil at the port of As-Sidra in Libya on March 8th. The oil was loaded onto the ship by a militia seeking greater autonomy for the country’s eastern portion, Cyrenaica. The oil was proprety of the Libyan government’s The North Koreans have denied any connection to the vessel and have since canceled its registration with their country.

A map showing the regional divisions of Libya, with Tripolitania in the northwest, Fezzan in the southwest,  Cirenaica (Cyrenaica) in the east. As-Sidra, which is close to the boundary between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica is highlighted.

A map showing the regional divisions of Libya, with Tripolitania in the northwest, Fezzan in the southwest, Cirenaica (Cyrenaica) in the east. The port city of As Sidrah (As-Sidra), which is close to the boundary between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, is highlighted.

The incident is the latest in a series of serious confrontations between Libya’s fragile government and militias who continue to operate with virtual autonomy in various areas of the country. Libya’s Prime Minister Ali Zeidan had said the country’s navy had prevented the tanker from leaving the area last Monday. The tanker actually evaded capture and moved further into the Mediterranean Sea. Libya’s parliament responded by ousting Zeidan in a vote of no confidence. Separatist militiamen have been in control of As-Sidra’s oil terminal since last July. The hope is that the US raid will act as a deterrent to future attempts to export the oil independently.

The operation, reportedly conducted at the request of both the Libyan and Cypriot governments, is part of a noticeable uptick in special operations forces raids on the continent. Last October, a raid was launched into Libya that resulted in the capture of Abu Anas al Libi, wanted in connection with the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988, as well as other terrorist attacks.

Navy SEALs attached to Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) reportedly conducted the raid, which was launched from the USS Roosevelt, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. The SEALs took control of the ship from Libyan rebels, but a team of sailors from the USS Stout, another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, will supervise the transit of the tanker back to Libya. There was no official information on what SEAL team was involved in this operation, but the use of the word “attached” suggests that they may have come from outside of Europe and then been placed under the operation control of SOCEUR’s Naval Special Warfare Unit Two (NSWU-2) for the actual mission. It is also worth noting that the decision was made to place the SEALs under the control of SOCEUR rather than Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) and its assigned Naval Special Warfare Unit Ten. SOCEUR and SOCAFRICA are both located in Germany.