US and partners work to strengthen sea policing in the Mediterranean

Tunisian navy sailors take part in a board and search exercise during Phoenix Express 2019.


By SCOTT WYLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 5, 2019

A U.S.-led exercise designed to improve protection of vital shipping lanes in the Mediterranean Sea and thwart seaborne crimes in North Africa wraps up this weekend, amid growing tensions in the region.

Fourteen countries participated in the weeklong Phoenix Express exercise near Morocco, U.S. Africa Command’s third and final sea policing drill this year, where the navies worked together on training to combat drug smuggling, illegal immigration, unlawful fishing and other activities that can hurt local economies and fund violent extremism.

The exercise, focused on the waters between Europe and Africa, is smaller than its predecessors – Obangame Express in West Africa and Cutlass Express in East Africa – but still considered an important part of bolstering security in and around Africa, where U.S. forces are helping battle terrorist threats and seeking to bring stability.

Navy leaders have said that improving sea policing there falls in line with the White House’s Africa strategy, which seeks to further U.S. interests partly by helping counter threats in the region.

Africa’s security challenges are “some of the most diverse in the world,” with threats that range from insurgency and armed conflict to smuggling and illegal fisheries, Maj. Gen. Roger L. Cloutier, U.S. Army Africa commander, said in a statement.

Stronger maritime policing reduces the number of illegal African immigrants making the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean, Navy officials have said. Those migrants can fall prey to human traffickers and are increasingly unwelcome in countries that had accepted them in the past, such as Italy.

More recently, Italy’s government has refused to let refugee ships enter its ports, including one this week loaded with 64 migrants that were rescued near Libya.

One of the participants in the exercise, Libya, has been divided by conflict since the 2011 ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Fresh fighting there this week brought calls from the U.S. and others to ease tensions and prevent further violence in that country.

Also this week, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead U.S. Africa Command expressed concerns about Russian and Chinese efforts to expand their access and influence on the continent.

While the Trump administration has sought to shift its focus to countering inroads being made by Moscow and Beijing, the White House’s Africa strategy still acknowledges the need to quell both terrorism and crime that can weaken local economies there.

U.S. efforts have long focused on combating extremist groups in Africa, including organizations affiliated with al-Qaida or the Islamic State. In the Central African region, such groups profit from drug trafficking, said Christopher Jasparro, national security affairs professor at the Naval War College.

With hashish coming from Morocco, cocaine from South America and heroin from the Indian Ocean region, the Mediterranean is a gateway for the illicit drug trade, Jasparro said.

As part of this week’s exercise, the participating navies worked together to spot, raid and search suspicious ships, and detain suspects, in simulations designed to improve international teamwork to combat traffickers and other criminals.

“It is through continuing military cooperation and collaboration that we meet our goals of a secure, stable maritime environment around the African continent,” Cloutier said.

The scenarios in each exercise become more complicated every year to help build the capabilities of America’s partners in Africa, Adm. James Foggo, Naval Forces Europe and Africa commander, said in a recent podcast.

“These exercises not only highlight our common goal of enhancing maritime security, they also incrementally support the vital institutions that provide economic growth and opportunities for our African partners,” Foggo said.

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Maritime Enforcement Specialist 2nd Class Joe Kelly, a U.S. Coast Guardsman, demonstrates tactical combat casualty care during a training session at Phoenix Express on March 26, 2019.