US Navy and Africa Command engaging with SA Navy during ship visit


Senior officers from the US Navy and US Africa Command (Africom) are holding talks with the SA Navy as part of the United States Navy Expeditionary Sea Base USS Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams’ (ESB 4) visit to Cape Town.

Following a meeting with the SA Navy, Chief of Staff US Naval Forces Africa (NAVAF), Rear Admiral Nancy Lacore, spoke to defenceWeb about building regional partnerships in Africa, issues of African maritime security and the relationship between the SANDF and Africom.

The USS Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams arrived in Cape Town for a scheduled port visit on Saturday 25 September, its second visit to the South African port. Lacore said Africom is thrilled to have the engagement and training vessel back in Cape Town harbour.

The USS Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams is circumnavigating Africa. Arriving from Namibia, the vessel spent three days hosting Namibian government and military leaders as well as undertaking a number of joint exercises. Lacore mentioned that when Africom purposed the stop in South Africa, the SANDF said it was happy to host the vessel.

With less than two years of service in the US Navy, the Lewis B Puller-class Expeditionary Support Base (ESB) was commissioned on 7 March 2020. It is designed to support special forces missions, counter-piracy/smuggling operations, maritime security operations and mine clearance, as well as humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions.

Africom and by extension USS Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams’ main goal is building regional relationships to handle not only maritime threats but also threats from land. “We [NAVAF] are cognisant of the presence of other nations who might not have Africa’s best interests. Our goal is to make sure Africa can police Africa,” said Lacore, emphasising that while the US provides training, it is preferred to have African states doing the training where possible.

The theatre security vessel is primarily assigned to Africa to engage with African states on building regional capacity through partnership, training and establishing frameworks. The vessel has military and civilian crew and also trains US marines and special forces.

No at-sea exercises are planned with the SA Navy, but the visit will include engagement opportunities with South African government and military leaders, cultural presentations, ship tours as well as religious and medical exchanges. NAVAF strives to involve the public during such stops but is unsure if the vessel will be open to a public visit, COVID-19 restrictions pending.

The next exercises planned for the USS Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams are Flintlock, and Obangame Express in 2022, hosted by Senegal.

The effect of having the USS Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams assigned to Africom and the US’s larger commitment to Africa is paying off, as Lacore mentioned that in early spring this year, the US Navy visited Sudan which maybe a first, if not in a “very long time”. Similarly, engagements were had last month with Equatorial Guinea, which had not happened for quite some time.

USS Hershel Williams is the first warship permanently assigned to the US Africa Command area of responsibility and is the fifth ship the US Naval Forces Africa has sent to Africa’s Atlantic coast in the past two years. US Coast Guard ships visit African waters periodically and do law enforcement training with many African littoral states. Lacore believes this law enforcement training is a major key to holding a country and its citizens accountable for illegal trading in African waters and ports.

The recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan could spell an increase in the drug trade along the East African coast. “I would guess that we are going to see an increase in drug trafficking from Afghanistan,” said Lacore.

African navies have improved a lot in the past ten years since Lacore has been involved with NAVAF. ‘Sea blindness’, a term referring to how much and what ship traffic navies and their governments know about in their territorial waters and beyond, is getting better, according to Lacore. “Ten years ago, we were trying to get countries to talk to each other at a tactical level. Now we are trying to come up with frameworks that will help navies communicate with their leaders to build political will.”

Budgetary constraints are a problem for all navies, not just African. The political will involved in whether to increase a navy’s budget or provide services for citizens will almost always fall on the latter. Who a country partners with and spends resources on is an important question for regional politics and effective budgeting. When asked if the US is the right partner for maritime security, Lacore said the US should be considered one of many options, reiterating the idea of a regional approach to maritime security.

Well trained, capable, cooperating navies aside, Lacore emphasised the final step to the African maritime security challenge is the legal framework and prosecution of criminals in territorial and international waters. Lacore said, “As much progress as we make, I feel the actual prosecution, justice piece of it is still a long ways off… We have those discussions at higher levels association with our exercise. We invite Admirals and Generals from the countries that are participating to start to talk through that type of stuff.”