US Navy’s sole ship for Africa returns to Europe after Gulf of Guinea mission

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Wednesday, 27 April 2022 10:50

The Military Sealift Command expeditionary sea base USNS Hershel 'Woody' Williams is at anchor in the Chesapeake Bay, US on 15 September 2019 during mine countermeasure equipment testing. (U.S. Navy photo by Bill Mesta/Released)
The Military Sealift Command expeditionary sea base USNS Hershel 'Woody' Williams is at anchor in the Chesapeake Bay, US on 15 September 2019 during mine countermeasure equipment testing. (U.S. Navy photo by Bill Mesta/Released)

The first and only Navy ship permanently assigned to US Africa Command (Africom) has ended its latest deployment to the Gulf of Guinea, underscoring the American military’s lack of resources as it looks to counter Chinese encroachment in the region.

The USS Hershel “Woody” Williams returned to the US naval base in Rota, Spain, on 18 April after assisting African partners to combat drug trafficking and illegal fishing in coastal waters. The end of its maritime security mission leaves African waters without a US patrol presence until a US Coast Guard cutter can be dispatched later this year.

“Obviously we are not a command that has unlimited resources. We are forced to prioritise,” Capt. John Tully, the director of African Engagements for US Naval Forces Africa, told reporters on a media call this week.

“When you have one ship, it can only be in one place at a time, so we have to make some decisions about where we go. And while there are problems in Atlantic Africa, there are problems in the Mediterranean to assist with as well as in the Indian Ocean.”

Pirate cove

Williams is an Expeditionary Sea Base, a kind of auxiliary support ship based on an oil tanker hull whose decks have room for four helicopters and an array of small craft. Its crew of sailors were joined on this deployment by liaison officers from Sierra Leone, Cabo Verde, and Senegal as well as members of the US Marines, Coast Guard and Interpol.

The latest month-long deployment comes as the Gulf of Guinea has overtaken the Horn of Africa as a hotbed of piracy in recent years. The crisis has fuelled regional cooperation efforts as well as calls for aid donors to provide more training and equipment for both interdiction and for the prosecution of piracy, drug trafficking and illegal fishing.

“Due to the massive size of the continent, we also recognise that no one country can provide that safety and security alone,” Tully said. “Since the ocean is directly tied to economic prosperity, we see one of our key missions being to help our partners provide this environment. And we believe that the best way to do this is by supporting African-led institutions and initiatives to help them develop the capacity and capability to manage this challenge.”

During its recent deployment, the ship helped stop two maritime crimes, according to the US Navy.

When we talk about a problem like IUU fishing, it is a massive problem globally and it’s a massive problem in the Atlantic Africa region.

On 25 March, the joint US and African maritime team interdicted an illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing vessel operating in Sierra Leone’s economic exclusive zone. The crime could result in more than $2m in fines, Tully said.

An AFRICOM spokesman told The Africa Report that the boarded vessel was Chinese flagged. Unregulated over-fishing by Chinese trawlers off the Atlantic coast is blamed for ravaging fish stocks and local fishermen’s livelihoods.

“When we talk about a problem like IUU fishing, it is a massive problem globally and it’s a massive problem in the Atlantic Africa region,” Tully said. “According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, within just the region of Mauritania to Sierra Leone, you’re talking about a loss of in the neighbourhood of $2.3bn to IUU fishing and the loss of over 300,000 jobs. So it really is a crisis out there, and we’re dealing with fish stocks that are either approaching or already at the point of not being recoverable.”

Then on 1 April, a joint team led by Cabo Verde boarded a Brazilian-flagged vessel and seized about 6,000 kg of cocaine with an estimated street value of more than $350m.

Williams also participated in the annual Obangame Express exercise off Africa’s Atlantic seaboard in early March. Some 32 African and European partners  participated in the largest multinational maritime exercise in Western Africa, along with Brazil and Canada.

The ability to practice boarding and search-and-seizure tactics is “key” to training African maritime security partners, Williams Commanding Officer Capt. Michael Concannon said on the call.

“All of these events are focused on partner-led supported evolutions where we are able to help countries build capability and capacity, understanding their concerns are to protect their maritime domain,” Concannon said. “These patrols, these exercises, allow us to help them build capability and act as a good partner to help them on interdiction operations to combat illegal maritime activity.”

Limited resources

Williams’ return to port comes amid rising calls to build a 500-ship Navy to project US sea power across the globe, up from the current 296.

The shortfall has left Africom with few resources of its own. Instead, they’re mostly shared with European Command, the older combatant command also based in Stuttgart, Germany.

“It’s not like there’s a whole pool of Africa assets just sitting and waiting for (Africom) to use,” says Jeremy Greenwood, a Coast Guard commander who’s currently a federal executive fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They usually have to pull them from Europe.”

Growing tensions with China, notably in Africa, have empowered advocates of a larger Navy, however. Greenwood said that’s one reason Africom was able to obtain Williams in 2020 and configure it for service along the West African coast.

Africa is “popping on the radar, but mostly because of Great Power competition with China,” Greenwood tells The Africa Report. “The increased Chinese presence, both commercially and militarily in West Africa, has driven an interest by the Department of Defense, to include the DoD seeking more Coast Guard presence for that purpose.”

Partner of choice?

In the meantime, the US military has taken advantage of its tri-service maritime strategy uniting resources from the Navy, Coast Guard and Marines.

“We try to use each other as best we can to take advantage of the natural advantages that each service has,” Tully said in the press call. So while Williams is not down off the coast of Africa right now, “we do expect that we are going to get some support from the U.S. Coast Guard later this year to send a Coast Guard cutter into the region.”

Furthermore, he said, just because Williams is gone now “doesn’t mean she’s not going to be coming back again sometime soon.”

Greenwood however cautioned that the overlap between deployments isn’t perfect.

“Don’t think of it as a 24/7 continuous coverage for 365 days a year. Because that’s not how it is,” he says. “There’s a Navy ship, and then there’s a long gap. And then there’s the Coast Guard ship. And then there’s a long gap.”

That gap carries a cost, he says.

“I think presence equals influence,” he says.

“There’s obviously the immediate deterrence. A war ship that’s there … deters pirates, deters criminal activity,” Greenwood says. “But in the long run, I think us being there, and being the partner of choice for some of these countries, is what’s really going to build the momentum to get their law enforcement programme going, their maritime domain awareness, just knowing what’s out there.

“And then also, being the partner of choice when the Chinese come in with cheap loans, and cheap construction projects, and security cooperation. But you can’t do that if you’re not there.”

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