United States: The U.S. Navy and Africa
The USS Fort McHenry (LSD 43) is concluding the first Africa Partnership Station deployment, which is emblematic of both a new U.S. maritime strategy and the U.S. Africa Command’s theoretical operational practices. But it remains to be seen just how much priority Washington will ultimately give these efforts — especially when other missions compete for resources.
The amphibious dock landing ship USS Fort McHenry (LSD 43) has spent the last six months deployed along the Western and Central African coast training with African naval forces, providing humanitarian assistance and promoting maritime security. The deployment, which will wrap up in Dakar, Senegal, later in April was the first for the Africa Partnership Station (APS) program, which is representative of both the new U.S. maritime strategy and U.S. military operations in Africa in the years to come.
Just last year, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard released a joint maritime strategy that emphasized cooperation across branches and sought to increase deployments like this one, where Washington’s maritime services would work hand-in-hand not just with their foreign counterparts, but with other governmental and non-governmental organizations in small, distributed and cooperative efforts. The APS deployment is a good example of doing more with less by fostering maritime security through cooperation with local forces. (Also, the deployment has demonstrated that a large U.S. warship can sustain itself — with some replenishment support — on a lengthy deployment in an area with minimal infrastructure and no permanent U.S. military facilities.) Though this deployment was under the aegis of the U.S. 6th Fleet, it is just the sort of thing the new U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) will foster as well.
Intended to more coherently address Africa’s emerging strategic importance, AFRICOM will consolidate all of Africa except Egypt under one geographic combatant command (it is currently divided among three). AFRICOM aims to have an operational headquarters in Africa by October 2008 (AFRICOM activities are currently conducted out of U.S. Europe Command bases in Stuttgart, Germany). Washington’s principal strategic concerns at this time are:
* fostering maritime security and stability in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea region, where Nigeria exercises considerable influence;
* combating piracy off the coast of the Horn of Africa (U.S. Naval warships have long conducted counter-piracy operations in this area);
* denying sanctuary to international terrorist organizations; and
* undermining the spread of radical Islam in the Horn of Africa and across North Africa.
The United States already has a robust array of amphibious forces with immense sealift capacity and the ability to deliver troops, vehicles and cargo ashore. APS has just demonstrated what the U.S. Navy can do with what it already has. But the United States still faces challenges in less-permissive threat environments in littoral areas, such as the area in which the Fort McHenry has been operating. This gap is to be filled by the littoral combat ship, whose development has experienced massive cost overruns and is behind schedule. This means that one of the platforms most congruent with the new maritime strategy and further APS cooperation will be unavailable in the near term.
The ability to operate and respond effectively given Africa’s size (4,500 miles from east to west and 4,500 miles from north to south) will present military planners with another tactical challenge. This challenge likely will drive AFRICOM planners to seek at the very least provisional “lily pad” logistical hubs in each of Africa’s sub-regions: West Africa (Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe are possible leading candidates), Southern Africa (South Africa’s Simonstown naval base and the Seychelles are strategic locations), East Africa (Kenya’s port of Lamu has been a tried and tested staging location for joint U.S.-Kenyan military training exercises, and Djibouti hosts the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa Command) and North Africa (Morocco has hosted joint training exercises with the United States).
Meanwhile, the Navy has yet to make more than a token move toward these new strategies and missions; Africa remains (somewhat justifiably) a tertiary priority for the Pentagon. In a time of extremely tight budgets and a high deployment tempo, the Navy still has many choices to make. There will be U.S. Naval support for AFRICOM, no doubt. But the degree to which that support will be provided when convenient, and the degree to which it will be prioritized, remain to be seen.