US looks to increase cooperation with African navies


Both the United States Navy and US Coast Guard are looking for increased opportunities to partner with African countries, including South Africa.

Speaking to journalists via conference call earlier this month, Admiral Karl Schultz (Commandant of the US Coast Guard) and Admiral Robert Burke (Commander of US Naval Forces Europe-Africa and Allied Joint Force Command Naples) discussed American partnerships with African nations to strengthen partner capacity, uphold the rules-based order and facilitate the free flow of commerce.

US Naval Forces Africa, a component of US Naval Forces Europe-Africa headquartered in Naples, Italy, assists African partner nations to increase their maritime safety and security through the African Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership programme, established more than 10 years ago.

Operating alongside African nations, the US Coast Guard assists partner states to uphold and assert their own sovereignty through engagement, partnership and presence. One such operation is that the US Coast Guard has taken a global leadership role in countering Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing; engaging international, interagency and non-governmental partners to strengthen global maritime security, regional stability and economic prosperity.

Noting that fish is a strategic resource, Schultz emphasised that IUU fishing “is a criminal enterprise that weakens the global rules-based order and threatens the sovereignty and economic security of many African nations with a maritime nexus. The loss of that security can destabilize the fragile economies of many coastal states.”

Schultz said that the US Coast Guard’s expansive capabilities, technical expertise and international relationships have helped over 30 countries across the African continent improve law enforcement capacity and governance of their maritime environment.

“In the past four years alone, the US Coast Guard has sent 45 mobile training teams to 16 different countries and provided 350 days of direct operational support with employed cutters or law enforcement detachments,” he said.

In August, the 270-foot Coast Guard Cutter Bear (with two Cabo Verdian ship-riders on board) conducted training and joint patrols at the request of the Republic of Cabo Verde Government to enhance maritime domain awareness and combat transnational organised crime, whilst in 2019 the Medium Endurance Cutter Thetis conducted a joint operation to reduce piracy and monitor fishing fleets in the Gulf of Guinea with a Nigerian navy ship which was formerly a Coast Guard high endurance cutter that was transferred in 2011 as an Excess Defence Article.

A particular concern is that IUU fishing is symptomatic of a larger security vulnerability, particularly to those nations who currently have limited capacity to patrol their maritime domain or apprehend and prosecute criminal actors.

“We become particularly concerned when IUU is perpetrated or abetted by state actors,” Schultz explained. “Such states may use government resources to support unlawful fishing operations, encourage or assist their commercial fishing fleets to violate sovereign waters and exclusive economic zones, obtain dubious licensing and other certifications through illegal arrangements with corrupt officials or even intimidate legitimate local fishermen using armed vessels and unsafe navigation practices.”

The US Navy has also been working alongside African nations to improve maritime security in Africa, teaching them techniques, tactics and procedures to provide their own security in their own territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.

Last year the Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport vessel USNS Carson City deployed to the Gulf of Guinea with US Coast Guard sailors on board and currently the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams (a Lewis B Puller-class expeditionary sea base) is in the Gulf of Guinea working with African partners.

Burke expounded: “We have an exercise programme with our partners in Africa which we call the Express Series. Along the West African coast it’s called Obangame Express and in East Africa it’s Cutlass Express. In North African waters we call the series Phoenix Express. Each of these exercise series address a number of law enforcement-related scenarios, including smuggling, illicit fishing, and piracy.”

Whilst neither the US Coast Guard nor the US Navy have formal joint exercises with Southern African countries, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Carney completed port visits to Port Victoria (Seychelles) and Cape Town in March of this year. Planned interaction with the South Africans was cancelled at the last minute due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our visit in South Africa in particular was an effort to open a dialogue with South African officials, the South African Navy in particular, and begin the conversation of how to build a lasting naval relationship,” Burke said in response to a question by defenceWeb. “Toward that end, that visit yielded an agreement for a future visit. We’re still working out the particulars of that future visit, but we expect sometime in 2021 we’ll conduct a subsequent visit to South Africa, but the particulars haven’t been established yet.”

“But I think there’s a lot of opportunity there,” Burke continued, “and as we get that up and running in South Africa we’ll look to expand that to other partners in the region just as soon as we can.”

The US Coast Guard is currently not partnering with any Southern African defence or security services, but it welcomes opportunities to partner in areas of mutual concern.

“I would say interest could be facilitated through our embassies in the South African region for potential future opportunities,” said Schultz.

Both Admirals were keen to emphasise that the goal of the American assistance, as Burke noted, “is to support other nations developing abilities to have their homegrown maritime domain awareness and ability to defend their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. And that’s really what we’re striving for: self-sufficiency.”

Emphasising this point, Burke said that even NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command Naples “is very, very interested in the security – maritime and land-based security – of Africa.”

The NATO Strategic Direction South office “helps African nations identify solutions to African problems and bringing together all the right players – regional political leaders, military leaders, academic experts, whatever it takes to solve those issues.”

As a result, NATO brings together US Navy, European navies, the US Coast Guard and others to assist.

“Although that won’t result in a permanent presence in the region, what you’ll see is an increased and more organised presence in the region,” Burke observed.

Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic has been “challenging” to US Coast Guard operations, Schultz said that his forces have “been very resilient and it has not kept us down” and have been involved in multiple interdictions and boardings at sea.

“We are continuing to push ships forward to the African continent and other parts of the globe,” he said in answer to a question posed by defenceWeb, “What I would say is we have been forced to cancel a few activities here on the continent. We cancelled three mobile training team evolutions and 15 resident courses, unfortunately. But we are always looking for ways to conduct those trainings virtually when and where we can.”

Burke said that the US Navy was able to conduct the majority of what it wanted to do in Africa with the exception of a number of portions of Obangame Express as “COVID really just wasn’t going to allow us to have the person-to-person interaction that we needed to have for the training for the law enforcement techniques, the boarding techniques, the person-to-person hands-on training that we needed to do. So, we postponed a number of the operational portions of that and we’ll regroup in March 2021.”

However, at-sea exercises continued with allied and partner navies that didn’t have a lot of person-to-person interaction, into which category the vast majority of at-sea exercises fall into.

The US Navy was also able to preserve a two-day senior leadership symposium for Obangame Express which was virtually held a couple of weeks ago, attended by a large number of African Heads of Navy and African Chiefs of Defence.

Both the US Coast Guard and US Navy view each other as partners at Naval Forces Africa, working to build partner capabilities of African nations to enhance Africa’s maritime security and sovereignty.