US-led Obangame Express boosts policing of African seas

Rear Adm. Shawn Duane, 6th Fleet vice commander, rides in a Sea Hawk helicopter while conducting flight operations on March 24, 2018, during Obangame Express. Sponsored by U.S. Africa Command, 31 countries took part in the exercise designed to strengthen cooperative policing in West African waters.


By SCOTT WYLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 29, 2018

A U.S.-led naval exercise that brought together 31 countries to strengthen efforts to combat piracy, drug smuggling and human trafficking ended Thursday in West Africa.

The eight-day Obangame Express in the Gulf of Guinea aimed to close gaps in policing West African waters by improving communication and teamwork between countries.

The navies worked together during simulations to spot, raid and search suspicious ships.

“Our joint presence during this important exercise sends a powerful message throughout the region,” said Capt. G. Robert Aguilar, commander of the USS Mount Whitney, in a statement. “The U.S. and West African nations will work together to protect important trade and shipping routes in the Gulf of Guinea.”

The exercise gave the Mount Whitney, 6th Fleet’s command ship, a chance to use its new computerized communications systems installed during a recent $45 million overhaul.

The ship’s officers help coordinate communications among the many participants. The Mount Whitney has 300 crew members — half sailors, half civilians — and can transmit large amounts of secure data to any point on earth.

Hosted by U.S. Africa Command, Obangame is the largest of three yearly maritime-policing exercises. The other two are Cutlass Express in East Africa and Phoenix Express in the Mediterranean.

African governments and U.S. authorities created joint exercises in 2010 — when maritime crimes in the region had reached record levels — to improve African countries’ ability to protect their seas.

Boosting cooperative policing to thwart crimes that don’t directly threaten U.S. national security such as illegal fishing can also deter crimes that affect American interests, like piracy, said Christopher Jasparro, national security affairs professor at the Naval War College.

“Illegal fishing can help spur piracy, and fishing vessels may employ forced labor or traffic drugs,” Jasparro said. “Preventing crime at one end of the spectrum can help prevent it more generally.”

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The USS Mount Whitney, 6th Fleet's command ship, transits the Mediterranean Sea on March 24, 2018, en route to Liberia to take part in Obangame Express.

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