Navy deeds in West Africa aim to curb terrorism, secure access to oil

CENTRAL-WEST AFRICA — Naval officers accompany an African official in West Africa. The meeting was part of an outreach program run by the U.S. Navy 6th Fleet, based in Naples, Italy, to help African nations boost their maritime defense forces. (DoD photo)

WEST AFRICA - Worries about the expansion of Islamic extremist groups in Western Africa and the growing influence of China have spurred U.S. military presence there, particularly along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea.

One of the most recent initiatives to strengthen U.S. clout in the region is an outreach program run by the U.S. Navy 6th Fleet, based in Naples, Italy, to help African nations boost their maritime defense forces.

West-Central Africa — rich in natural resources but plagued by extreme poverty and corrupt governments — has become a friendly habitat for radical al-Qaida-like organizations, contends Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones, leader of the U.S. European Command.

That region of Africa has turned into one of EUCOM's major areas of interest, and Jones periodically has traveled to Washington, D.C., to convince administration officials and Congress that steady U.S. military engagement in Africa will pay long-term dividends.

The U.S. not only should worry about Africa welcoming and harboring terrorists, Jones says, but also must be concerned about China's calculated moves to gain leverage in the area, and ensure access to Africa's rich reserves of oil and other natural resources. "As Asia's emerging industries expand, requirements for petroleum products and strategic metals will grow exponentially and will likely compete more intensely for these resources with the United States," Jones says at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

China, for example, offers military aid, cash and political support in exchange for access to oil, Jones suggests.

According to EUCOM briefing charts, the United States imported more oil from Africa than from the Persian Gulf in 2005. As a rule, about 14.6 percent of all U.S. oil imports come from West-Central Africa.

Navy Capt. Thomas Sumner Rowden heads a 6th Fleet task force that is responsible for reaching out to African navies. The intent is to help them build their capabilities and sharpen their training in coastal security. Controlling the coast and nearby waters is important, he says in an interview, because much of the illegal trafficking of narcotics and immigrants, as well as fish poaching, occurs at sea. Illegal fishing costs sub-Saharan African nations $1 billion a year.

Naval forces under Rowden's command have worked with the navies of Sierra Leone, Congo, Cameroon, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Benin, Sao Tome and Principe, Liberia, Gabon, Cape Verde, Senegal and Ghana.

"It's important that we work with our emerging partners in that part of the world to assist them in increasing their ability to secure the maritime domain," Rowden says.

He cautions that the U.S. Navy does not give away ships or weapons to these countries, but teaches them how to maintain and repair their vessels, and guides their training regime. To help the African navies cope with widespread pollution, U.S. sailors advise them on how to deal with hazardous materials and dispose of them properly, says Rowden.

Most of the nations he works with have small fleets and older ships. One exception is Gabon, which recently purchased 12 new Rodman 66 patrol craft.

The Rodman 66, built in Spain, are lightweight yet strong and have the capacity for mounting minor caliber guns, says Richard E. Dorn, a naval analyst at AMI International, in Bremerton, Wash. He estimates that each Rodman costs about $1.4 million, including two 12.7 mm machine guns and a navigation radar.

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