Tag Archives: piracy

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.

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Security Assistance News from the Sahel, Gulf of Guinea, and North Africa

Providing assistance to national security forces has long been one of the key elements of international assistance to developing nations broadly.  The basic concept is that professional militaries and police forces can help instill a sense of confidence in governments, making them more stable as a result.  The stability in turn promotes development in other areas.  Essentially, more security equals more stability, when in turn equals more development.

Libya

This is definitely the goal behind the announcement last year to work on the development of a so-called “General Purpose Force” in Libya, where the central government has been largely ineffectual following the ouster and killing of the country’s former leader, Moammar Gadhafi, in 2011.  The various militias in the country that helped overthrow the previous regime continue to hold significant power, especially at the local level, and act with relatively impunity.  In addition, the lack of a functional national security apparatus has meant that much of the country has slipped into what might be described as an under-governed state.  Concerns about terrorists using these regions to establish bases of operation have been voiced by Libya’s neighbors, as well as partners farther afield.

Last week, Libya’s interm Prime Minister Ali Zidan said that almost eight hundred personnel had either been sent to Europe recently or were on their way as part of the new General Purpose Force effort.  Four hundred had already deployed to Turkey, and another four hundred were to go soon to Italy.  Another four hundred are scheduled to eventually travel to Britain.  In total, some eight thousand Libyan personnel are expected to go through twenty-four week training programs in Europe, with additional support provided by the United States.  Zidan also said that there are currently some five thousand Libyan personnel around the world receiving training.  Countries providing training for Libyan forces were said to include Algeria, Britain, Germany, Italy, Morocco, Persian Gulf states, Pakistan, Turkey, and the United States.

Gulf of Guinea

Also last week, Maritime professionals from West Africa, Europe, South America, and the United States met in Lagos, Nigeria to finalize the exercise plan for this year’s iteration of Obangame Express, a US maritime cooperation exercise held in the Gulf of Guinea.  Angola, Belgium, Benin, Brazil, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Denmark, Equatorial Guinea, France, Gabon, Germany, Ghana, Italy, Netherlands, Nigeria, Portugal, Republic of Congo, Sao Tome & Principe, Spain, Togo, Turkey, and the United States will participate in Obangame Express 14, which is the fourth iteration of this exercise.

The exercise is designed to help improve regional capabilities to deter piracy and drug smuggling, as well as other maritime contingencies.  As the threat of piracy has reduced in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia, attention to the problem has turned to the Gulf of Guinea, where it remains a serious issue.  Last November, the were reports of a proposal to base US Marines afloat to help address the problem.

Somalia

Today, the German government announced its intention to contribute troops to the European Union training mission in Somalia.  Germany had previously been involved in the training of Somali security forces when the EU mission was located in Uganda.  When the EU moved the operation to Somalia’s capital Mogadishu last May, the Germans dropped out of the program, citing the increased risk of operating there.  The EU had relocated the program as a gesture meant to affirm its support for the central government in Somalia.

Germany, which has some five thousand personnel taking part in nine international missions, has been urged recently by other European powers, notably France, to become more involved in such efforts.  The bulk of Germany’s international commitment is its three thousand personnel in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.  Last week, Germany also announced it would be increasing the size of its contribution to international peacekeeping efforts in Mali.

These announcements potentially signal a change in German foreign policy, which has since the end of the Second World War traditionally been inclined to avoid international commitments where there is a significant potential for violence and casualties.  This month, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said earlier this month that “Germany, with all its diplomatic, military and aid capacity cannot stand by when its help is needed”.  Steinmeier is a member of the country’s Social Democrat party, which entered into coalition with the conservatives led by Chancellor Angela Merkel.  It has been suggested that this new coalition has been instrumental in these changes in German foreign policy.

Two Somali Pirates Sentenced in the US

Today, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar were convicted of murder, kidnapping, hostage-taking, and piracy by a US court in Norfolk, Virginia.  Both men were given 21 consecutive life sentences for their part in the taking of the yacht Quest and the four Americans aboard in February 2011.  During the seizure, a distress signal was sent out, to which the US Navy responded.  Negotiations to secure the release of the hostages were conducted for four days before an altercation with US forces and reported gunfire aboard the Quest led to a rescue attempt.  By the time US Navy personnel boarded the vessel, the Americans had been fatally wounded.  Four Somalis were also killed during the operation and the rest were taken into custody.  Prior to today’s verdict, eleven other individuals had already been sentenced for their involvement in the seizure of the Quest.

Piracy off the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden and the surrounding environs has been a significant threat and is now a relatively well known security issue in the United States.  The events surrounding the seizure of the MV Maersk Alabama in 2009, which saw the captain of the ship released after a rescue operation conduct by US Navy SEALs, were even recently turned into a dramatic movie.

ocean-shieldRecent reports suggest that subsequent efforts by the US, NATO members, and other nations have, however, led to a significant decline in piracy in the region.  NATO began active patrolling of the region in 2008, as part of Operation Allied Protector, which was followed by Operation Ocean Shield in 2009.  In 2009, the US also began conducting surveillance operations involving manned and unmanned aircraft operating from the Seychelles, as part of Operations Ocean Look and Trident Reach.

Marines to the Gulf of Guinea?

The the gist of a proposal in a Marine Corps briefing according to Stars and Stripes yesterday.  According to the article, the Marines would look to base the notional force afloat, possibly on an Landing Platform Dock (LPD) type ship.  This afloat force, which would likely include MV-22B Osprey aircraft, would reportedly come under the command of the Marine’s recently created Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response (SPMAGTF-CR), currently based at Moron Air Base in Spain.

MV-22B Ospreys from  Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 365 at Moron Air Base, Spain, after having arrived to join Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force - Crisis Response

MV-22B Ospreys from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 365 at Moron Air Base, Spain, after having arrived to join Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response.

The article does not mention that the Marines have already had to be on the look out for new basing options for SPMAGTF-CR given that the Spanish only agreed to allow the US to station the unit at Moron for one year, with the understanding that a permanent location would be secured thereafter.  It is possible that one option would be to simply base SPMAGTF-CR afloat permanently.  The unit is rotational so this would not be hard to imagine.  It still does not provide an obvious solution to the issue noted in the article of finding even one spare LPD for such a deployment.

Photograph of the USS Ponce (AFSB[I] 15) in the US Fifth Fleet Area of Operations in August 2012.

Photograph of the USS Ponce (AFSB[I] 15) in the US Fifth Fleet Area of Operations in August 2012.

Currently, the US Navy only has one ship configured for this sort of arrangement, the USS Ponce, which was converted into an interim afloat forward staging base instead of being decommissioned as planned last year.  Ponce remains in the US Fifth Fleet area of operations, at least according to information available.  In April it was announced that the US Navy planned to deploy for the first time a solid-state laser aboard a ship in fiscal year 2014.  The ship selected was the USS Ponce, believed to primarily be engaged in counter piracy and special operations.

The proposed Marine force for the Gulf of Guinea would be primarily directed at counter piracy as well.  Though piracy in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia has recently garnered the most attention, international efforts, through multinational efforts and unilateral deployments, as well as steps taken by private industry, have led to a significant drop in incidents there.  Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, however, remains a significant threat and maritime security in the region has been a concern for some time.  In 2004, US European Command (EUCOM) proposed a Gulf of Guinea Guard initiative to improve maritime security force capabilities in the region.  Though this did not come to fruition as planned, the US did eventually inaugurate a maritime training exercise in the region, called Obangame Express, in 2011.