World Politics Review
ABOARD THE U.S.S. NASHVILLE -- In 2007, the U.S. Navy amphibious ship Fort McHenry sailed on a six-month cruise down the West African coast. Her mission: to deliver training and humanitarian aid to new and emerging U.S. allies, in a bid to foster good will and security in a troubled and rapidly growing region. The Navy called the mission "Africa Partnership Station," and aimed to make it a regular affair.
Two years later, U.S.S. Nashville, a ship similar to Fort McHenry, sailed a similar route, calling at the countries of Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, Gabon and Sao Tome and Principe, expanding and refining the Africa Partnership Station concept. Since January, Nashville's 500-person crew has delivered tons of humanitarian aid, provided free medical care to hundreds of patients, helped rebuild schools and, perhaps most importantly, trained thousands of African sailors and coast guardsmen to better look after their waters.
Nashville's successful cruise, observed by World Politics Review during a five-day visit to the ship, has helped establish Africa Partnership Station as the centerpiece of a new national "smart-power" strategy for preventing conflict.
It's a strategy that's quickly catching on, not just in U.S. circles, but around the world. Nations are racing to copy the American model for early prevention of conflict, especially at sea. The Dutch navy is planning its own version of Africa Partnership Station, and West African nations might follow suit.
Smart power, previously known as soft power, emerged during the bloodiest years of the Iraq war, as the Bush administration looked for ways to prevent another "trillion-dollar war," to use defense-industry analyst James McAleese's phrase. "Ultimate success or failure will increasingly depend more on shaping the behavior of others -- friends and adversaries, and most importantly, the people in between," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
Reinvigorated international alliances, especially at sea, comprised one early tenet of soft power. In 2006, U.S. Navy chief Adm. Mike Mullen called for friendly nations to band together in a "thousand-ship navy" to promote security on the high seas, a concept that was formalized in the official U.S. Maritime Strategy published in 2007. Not coincidentally, Africa Partnership Station launched the same year aboard Fort McHenry.
The top officer for that mission, Commodore John Nowell, stressed Africa Partnership Station's international flavor. "All nations face similar challenges in the maritime security realm: illegal fishing, drug trafficking, environmental degradation, piracy," he said. "But no one country can handle all these threats alone." To encourage international cooperation, Fort McHenry's command staff included officers from Europe and Africa, and the ship's enlisted crew was reinforced by sailor-trainees from several West African navies.
As a result of Fort McHenry's experiences, Africa Partnership Station is considered by many to be "the premier example of the whole maritime partnership concept," Commodore Cindy Thebaud, senior officer aboard Nashville, told World Politics Review. She said Nashville's cruise will only reinforce that perception, as it has included more international staff and more African trainees.
"It's a great news story that more countries want to be involved," Thebaud said. Perhaps most encouragingly, the Dutch navy is working alongside U.S. Navy planners in Europe to put together its own similarly styled mission, slated to sail aboard the amphibious ship Johan de Witt this summer in the Gulf of Guinea. Thebaud said the Dutch mission, planned to last around eight weeks, might include U.S. officers, in the same way that U.S. Navy smart-power missions often include Dutch officers.
There's even the possibility that West African nations might organize their own cooperative naval missions, not requiring the presence of an American or European warship, Thebaud said. That would help overcome some of the "friction" that Thebaud said exists between some West African nations. Disputes over borders and resources are common in the region.
For starters, the Africans will plan a "tabletop exercise," where naval commanders sit around a table and brainstorm ideas for defeating common maritime threats together. The U.S. Navy catamaran warship Swift will help facilitate that exercise when it deploys to the Gulf of Guinea this summer, as a sort of "Africa Partnership Station-lite." A real-word training event -- involving actual boats and sailors from across the region, with no U.S. presence -- might follow, Thebaud said.
The growing international interest in cooperative naval smart-power missions will not diminish the U.S. Navy's commitment to the region, officers on Nashville said. The next major Africa Partnership Station is already slated to begin in December, after Swift's "mini" deployment. The December mission will again be anchored by an amphibious ship similar to Fort McHenry and Nashville.
But looking ahead, the Navy might break the current model of using large amphibious ships to perform the major Africa Partnership Station deployments. "Many of the navies and coast guards with which we work are very small and easy to overwhelm," Thebaud explained. She said smaller vessels with fewer crew might be better suited to the mission. By that token, Swift's deployment could be a harbinger of Africa Partnership Station's future.
Additionally, Thebaud said Africa Partnership Station might evolve to involve longer stays at fewer ports, to maximize training time. Beyond that, the most important improvement, she said, is to bring aboard more translators. For all the talk of hardware, what Thebaud called the "linguistics bridge" represents the "biggest challenge for us in what you'd term the soft-power arena."
David Axe is an independent correspondent, a World Politics Review contributing editor, and the author of "War Bots." He blogs at War is Boring. His WPR column, War is Boring, appears every Wednesday.