By Donna Miles
WASHINGTON, July 5, 2006 – The U.S. military is stepping up operations in the Gulf of Guinea to enhance security in this strategic and resource-rich region, the commander of U.S. European Command's naval surface combatant warships told the Pentagon Channel. U.S. military engagement along southwestern Africa's Atlantic coast has increased exponentially, Navy Capt. Tom Rowden, commander of Task Force 65, said during a Pentagon interview last week. It's increased from almost no activity in 2004 to 130 "ship days" in 2005 to even more planned ship days this year, he said.
The goal is to build long-term relationships that promote greater security and stability in the region, Rowden explained. The region faces several potentially destabilizing factors: narcotics trafficking from South America, smuggling of illegal aliens into Europe, about $1 billion a year in illegal fishing, and pollution that threatens the coast and the local food supply, among them.
"We're looking at building the capacity and capability of the nations down there to secure the maritime domain to address these destabilizing activities," Rowden said. Maritime security is critical for the region to benefit from its natural resources and prosper economically, he said. Africa provides almost 15 percent of the United States' oil supply, much of which comes from the Gulf of Guinea. In addition, the region is rich in timber, iron ore, copper and other resources.
"Our goal is to ensure a more stable maritime environment to ensure their ability to get those resources to market," Rowden said. The focus is on helping African nations increase their naval capabilities, with help from the United States, he said.
Toward that end, the submarine tender USS Emory S. Land recently wrapped up a three-month deployment to the region, where its crew conducted a series of security cooperation activities. The deployment included port visits to Senegal, Sao Tome and Principe, Gabon, Ghana, Angola, and the Republic of the Congo.
U.S. Navy training teams helped their West African counterparts increase their capabilities in damage control and ship maintenance. They provided survey teams to help develop more accurate navigational charts. They also helped the African navies build leadership within the ranks and strengthen their noncommissioned officer corps.
Meanwhile, U.S. Navy leaders met with senior navy leaders from more than 20 African countries in Nigeria during the late May Seapower for Africa Symposium to encourage them to work cooperatively to promote regional security. "No single country can do it alone, including my own," Adm. Henry G. "Harry" Ulrich III, commander of Naval Forces Europe, which has operational control of operations in most of Africa, told the group.
The USS Land's deployment and maritime symposium were the latest in a series of engagements that Rowden said are building important new relationships in the Gulf of Guinea. "One of the important things we need to realize about operating in Africa is that the personal relationships are absolutely vital in order to be able to begin to understand how we can best assist them in building that maritime capacity and capability," he said.
The African sailors have "tremendously" received the U.S. sailors, Rowden said. "There's no better ambassador for the United States of America than the sailor of the United States Navy," he said. "I was absolutely blown away by their ability to go out and make friends and the willingness on their part to give."