Armed pirates have run rampant off Africa's west coast for years, overtaking Somali pirates as the biggest maritime marauders in the world. But they may have a new outfit to reckon with: The U.S. Marine Corps is exploring expanding its presence in the region to fight off piracy and other threats, Foreign Policy has learned.
The new force, still in notional stages, would be based on a Navy ship floating in and around the Gulf of Guinea, according to Marine officials and a briefing slide from an Oct. 30 speech delivered by Lt. Gen. Richard Tryon. The slide includes a map in which a single ship is based in the gulf, and Marines have the ability to perform missions from it as far inland as Algeria to the north, and Kenya and Tanzania to the east.
The plan comes as the Marine Corps withdraws thousands of personnel from Afghanistan and realign forces for new missions across the globe, including in Africa. They will do so at a time when there are fewer Navy ships available than there has been in decades, forcing Marines to use the ships available in unconventional ways. In other words: this isn't the deployment of a single group of Marines; this could be a model for how the entire Corps operates for years to come.
Dozens of acts of piracy occur in the Gulf of Guinea annually, according to the International Chamber of Commerce's maritime bureau. The area now surpasses even the infamous pirate hotspot of the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia in its maritime hijackings. In October, pirates kidnapped two U.S. civilians from an American-flagged oil vessel off the coast of Nigeria, where the majority of the region's piracy occurs. Attacks there are often violent, and have occurred both in rivers and at sea, the maritime bureau says.
The new Marine force would fall under the command of a larger crisis-response unit the service first established earlier this year in Spain, to respond to emergencies in northern Africa, said Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine Corps spokesman at the Pentagon. That land-based force is commanded by a Marine colonel, and currently includes about 550 Marines (pictured above) and six MV-22B Ospreys. The tilting rotors on the aircraft allow it fly with the speed and range of an airplane, but land like a helicopter, quickly delivering armed infantrymen on board to hot spots across the globe.
Like other pieces of the crisis-response force, the Marines operating in western Africa would perform missions ranging from embassy reinforcement to humanitarian assistance, Flanagan said. But counter-piracy missions are definitely on the table.
"If the pirates in the region know that there is a ship there, it would serve as a deterrent," he said.
There's still a catch, however: It's uncertain whether one of the Navy's new landing platform dock ships will be available for the mission. The Corps is examining the idea, however, and would base both infantry Marines and Ospreys aboard the ship, Flanagan said.
The piracy problem off the coast of Somalia has plummeted - there have been 11 incidents reported there this year, as opposed to 30 off the coast of Nigeria - following several years of the U.S. Navy and other allied nations conducting anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and surrounding waters. Commercial shipping companies also have increasingly hired armed guards for their vessels.
However, not all of those practices are easily transferrable to western Africa, said a source with U.S. Africa Command, speaking on condition of anonymity. Attacks in the Gulf of Guinea frequently occur close to shore, making it tougher for floating naval forces to respond.
U.S. Africa Command works with local African forces to boost their ability to conduct maritime security. The missions are known as Africa Partnership Station and the Africa Maritime Law Enforcement Program. In both cases, small teams of U.S. personnel train and advise them. The U.S., however, does not currently have an enduring counter-piracy presence for the Gulf of Guinea.
"Comprehensive, inter-agency and multi-national approaches and collaboration with industry are key for African maritime security, especially in west Africa," said Army Maj. Fred Harrell, a spokesman for Africa Command.
The new Marine force would come as the service is realigning to respond to more crises worldwide. The service's initial crisis-response force first deployed in April following the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012. Marine officials say the service is examining realigning the force to include personnel deployed from Romania to Libya to perform everything from military training exercises to hair-raising rescue missions.
The Marine Corps is planning similar crisis-response forces for the Middle East and Caribbean, according to Marine officials and Tryon's briefing slides. The force for the Middle East is likely to be based in Bahrain, where U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Navy both have forward-deployed headquarters.
Michael S. Oxton/ Marine Corps