Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Smart Power is Global Power

The African Partnership Station quietly represents one of the most interesting activities of US soft power today. I have got to find a way to spend a few weeks on one of these ships.

What makes the African Partnership Station so special? I'm not really sure to be honest, but they must be doing something right because once again, a major European power is sending one of their major naval assets to participate. This time its the Dutch.

The amphibious transport ship HNLMS Johan de Witt will be leaving today from Den Helder to participate in 'Africa Partnership Station' for two months. With this operation the naval vessel will offer a contribution towards the realisation of a stable coastal region in West and Central Africa.

During the tour HNLMS. Johan de Witt will operate in the waters of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana and around the Cape Verde islands. Together with these countries they will, amongst others, do hydrographic recordings of ports and do exercises. The vessel also carries, at the request of several non-governmental organizations (NGO), a large quantity of relief goods for the African coastal countries. Furthermore, Americans and Dutch on board will give training to many African sailors.
The article ends by saying:
Africa Partnership Station
The Africa Partnership Station operation is part of the U.S. global maritime strategy for the 21st century. Part of that strategy is to strive for a safe, stable and prosperous West and Central Africa, through good coastal management. This is done by setting up fishery inspections, combating illicit trade in commodities and trafficking. Moreover, the focus will also be on the creation of a good 'Search and Rescue' organization and the protection of drilling platforms and combating environmental pollution.

In order for this to succeed, Africa Partnership Station promotes cooperation between countries and between various maritime authorities and organizations.
The US Navy is clearly doing something right with APS, because the Europeans have bought in. We have seen consistent presence with the French, and it is hard to call HNLMS Johan de Witt (L 801) anything other than a major contribution from the Dutch. With the efforts of the European nations combined with our efforts, all of the activities create sustained presence and increased efficiency for maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea. The participating nations in the region benefit by getting training and exposure with different tactics and techniques from the various professional participants.

African Partnership Station is beginning to represent a unique convergence of the two big US Navy strategic concepts of the 21st century: the 1000-ship Navy and Sea Basing, or put another way: a cooperative international global fleet station.

It is interesting to observe what the (East) African Partnership Station is doing, but lets examine the question differently. Have you considered where (East) African Partnership Station is going? What does the Gulf of Guinea look like in 10 years? What does it look like in 20 years? What does this mega cooperation of US and European nations with regional partners in the Gulf of Guinea lead to? I can't say I know yet, but there is clearly a 21st century form of naval diplomacy here many nations find quite attractive.

It may not be self evident, but somehow the naval vessel used for amphibious assault in wartime has become one of the most important soft power tools in the arsenal of major naval powers during peacetime. The flexibility of amphibious ships continues to represent an investment that politicians globally can agree with. This is something the Navy and the Marine Corps needs to get their head around. It is commonly said the LPD-17 is a well designed ship built poorly. To be fair, only the first two ships of the class have the reputation of being built poorly, the rest of the class suffers from being very expensive, although I don't know how we make a 24,000 ton combatant any cheaper without quantity increases (which I recommend for LSD(X)).

I would like to know if the QDR asked the question whether the Navy should built a Global Fleet Station ship, and what the arguments were for and against. When you start thinking about the smaller, inexpensive LPD hull one would want for a GFS ship, it is easy to see how a commercial specification vessel operated by the MSC could coordinate with DHS domestically and State internationally for humanitarian assistance and disaster response. With a range of options including acting as a C4 node following disasters that typically stress communication networks, an offshore medical facility, or a station ship able to support coastal vessels and Coast Guard cutters, such a ship appears to be very flexible and suitable for current requirements. An inexpensive, commercial specification vessel also wouldn't be a bad way for the US shipbuilding industry to get in on the amphibious ship export market, which one would expect to increase as climate change becomes more and more of a global political issue.

The success of the African Partnership Station can now be validated by the 'buy in' of major European powers who see the political value of such soft power operations. In my mind, that is a much larger validation of the strategic concept than taking public opinion polls from the population in areas of activities and attempting to understand the results will ever be.

HT: Gijs!

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