Africa is the continent on which the United States has the greatest latitude to shape future operations—the continent of maneuver—and the U.S. Coast Guard can play a vital role there.
In the mid-2010s, the Obama administration began to refocus away from the war on terror and toward the challenges posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). China’s attempt to dominate the Pacific region through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and other efforts has made the increased emphasis on the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command area of responsibility strategically prudent. But such attention should not come at the expense of engagement efforts in other parts of the globe, especially Africa.
Perhaps more than any other region, African nations eagerly await partners with whom they can begin to realize their vast potential. The United States should not miss this opportunity to shape this incredible continent for generations to come, and the Coast Guard can play an outsized role in engagement efforts with countries hungry to grow their littoral maritime forces. Africa’s 54 countries will engage with someone—and the United States should work hard to be the partner of choice in the region.
In 2013, China’s President Xi Jinping emerged as an unexpected visionary for the PRC, advocating a forward-looking program of investment in Asia, Eurasia—and Africa. Though Asia and Eurasia were the initial focal points of BRI investment, Africa—a subject of Chinese interest and investment for several decades—quickly became a target-rich environment for Chinese state-owned enterprises eager to extract natural resources from a largely untouched continent. Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and, of course, the small yet strategically located Djibouti became early BRI participants. East Africa now boasts dozens of Chinese-built construction projects, including harbors, railways, roads, power plants, and more.1
Whether this investment will ultimately benefit the region is unknown. China’s lending practices are under fire from the United States, Europe, Japan, and even many BRI participants, who now realize they may have struck a Faustian bargain with the PRC, gaining important infrastructure development at the expense of debilitating sovereign debt.2 The specter of Sri Lanka’s concession of the strategic port of Hambantota in exchange for forgiveness of Chinese debt looms large in Africa and elsewhere, leaving leaders to wonder if they, too, will fail to meet China’s onerous debt obligations.3
Still, the need for investment and engagement in Africa is extraordinary. Sitting astride the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and the strategic Mediterranean and Red Seas, Africa is poised to become a major global economic powerhouse. Poised, that is, if it then can overcome the large challenges of mediocre and ineffective governance and a lack of logistical resources, such as roads, railways, airports, and modern commercial harbors. The United States cannot match China’s current level of economic investment on the continent, but it does not have to.
The United States shines at engagement. Its melting pot values of inclusion and acceptance often make it the partner of choice against the frequently heavy-handed Chinese or even Europeans, who—deservedly or not—still carry today the baggage of past colonialism.4 But this is true only so long as the United States chooses to show up. Too often, it fails to assign necessary resources, understaffing its diplomatic posts in the region and maintaining only one major military installation and command on the entire continent, Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) on Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.5 Compared with the number of U.S. military installations and commands in Europe and Asia, the lack of African partnerships makes the U.S. focus clear. Even the combatant command for Africa itself, AfriCom, is based elsewhere, in Stuttgart, Germany. The first step in shaping operations is simply being present—and the United States has more showing up to do.
At first glance, it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that the Coast Guard, the smallest U.S. military service, is part of the solution to the nation’s challenges in Africa. The Coast Guard, however, is arguably the best-equipped service to function in a resource-deprived environment that prizes multilateralism and brings together disparate groups in the pursuit of common objectives. This is where the Coast Guard excels. Rarely having enough manpower or resources to overwhelm problems, the Coast Guard is forced to find creative and partnership-based solutions. It has a long history of working in interagency and multilateral frameworks, and it often sees partnerships as a first-order solution, not a choice of last resort.
Obviously, the Coast Guard cannot bring the scale or specialties the Department of Defense can, but in Africa, it does not have to. That continent’s countries are hungry to grow their own littoral navies and coast guards, and the knowledge and skills the U.S. Coast Guard brings to the table would fill a major need on the continent. In Africa, the Coast Guard would offer a unique strength to advance U.S. strategic interests, and it can be argued that nowhere in the world could the U.S. Coast Guard have a greater impact than in and around east Africa. There is no question that the United States has strategic objectives across the entire continent, but only in east Africa does there exist the military infrastructure to support strategic lines of engagement.
The Coast Guard could provide value to the United States and its regional partners in the months and years ahead in three specific areas:
Assign Coast Guard Personnel to The Horn of Africa
Currently, no Coast Guard personnel are assigned to CJTF-HOA. A team of Coast Guard officers and senior enlisted should be assigned to the staff to focus exclusively on engagement with east African partners in the littoral maritime domain. There are one to three Coast Guard members on Camp Lemonnier at any given time, as part of the Navy’s Coastal Riverine Squadron, but their chain of command does not run through the joint task force, and their focus is on the port-security mission in Djibouti. They have neither the time nor the authority to focus on regional maritime engagement. There are a small number of Coast Guard personnel assigned to Afri-Com in Stuttgart, Germany, but none of them is forward deployed. Though there is no question they work diligently to increase Coast Guard presence in the AfriCom area of operations, there is no substitute for having people present in the region of focus, working daily with the countries they wish to support.
Djibouti’s coast guard is just eight years old, and Kenya only launched its own coast guard in 2018.6 Landlocked Ethiopia is planning to rebuild its navy, and U.S. Naval Forces Europe–Africa tweeted recently that it plans to support those efforts, though for the time being it appears Ethiopia has chosen France as its military partner.7
These are prime opportunities in the near- to midterm for the U.S. military in general and the Coast Guard, well versed in building and maintaining partnerships, in particular to have significant and timely impact on the continent. In addition, CJTF-HOA has an assigned civil affairs battalion, which has a wealth of experience conducting engagements throughout the region. It could assist with Coast Guard engagement efforts, leveraging the battalion’s wealth of knowledge about the various countries and cultures in east Africa and its political and military contacts.
Make More Cutter Port Visits to Africa
The Coast Guard should set to work immediately with the Navy’s Fifth and Sixth Fleets to increase the periodicity of Coast Guard cutter operations off the coasts of Africa. The USCGC Thetis (WMEC-910) recently completed a 90-day mission on Africa’s Atlantic Coast with significant accomplishments—saving lives at sea, working with west African militaries, and participating in Afri-Com’s Obangame Express exercise. This was the first cutter visit in support of AfriCom since 2012—and seven years between visits is too long.8 The Coast Guard can and should do more in east Africa, where the countries are hungry for more maritime engagement.
The Navy is stretched thin in the western half of the Indian Ocean, as it focuses its own limited resources in the eastern Mediterranean, the Arabian Gulf, and the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean. The Coast Guard could pick up some of the slack on Africa’s east coast and use its port visits and overseas patrols as readymade opportunities for maritime engagement. As the success of regional law-
enforcement exercises (such as AfriCom’s Cutlass Express, Obangame Express, and Phoenix Express) has shown, African countries are eager for exactly the type engagement the Coast Guard can offer. There are few better expressions of U.S. interest in the region than a bright white U.S. Coast Guard cutter in a foreign port. President Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet may long ago have been painted gray, but his public affairs coup still resonates today, and the Coast Guard should continue to exploit its valuable image and brand abroad.
Increase Coast Guard Maritime Engagement Around the Horn
During this year’s Cutlass Express exercise, a five-person detachment from the Coast Guard’s Patrol Forces Southwest Asia Maritime Engagement Team (MET) joined with groups from the Netherlands’ Royal Dutch Marines and the Indian Navy to work with navy and coast guard personnel from several east African countries.9 The Coast Guard MET exchanged best practices with the other participants and demonstrated the service’s skill at vessel boarding, search, and seizure techniques—arguably, the kind of training east African countries need most. They want to learn how to secure their littoral regions from smugglers, pirates, and law breakers, and these skills provide tremendous value to them.
The Coast Guard has noteworthy talent in this area and a practiced hand at both regulating and facilitating commercial traffic in the maritime domain. The Coast Guard should find a way to have a MET working in and around east Africa continually. There certainly would be no shortage of demand, and working in conjunction with a U.S. Coast Guard staff at CJTF-HOA and an increased regional presence of Coast Guard cutters, the MET could have an impressive impact on the development of the region.
In the end, it is critical for U.S. decision makers to understand that Africa will develop with or without U.S. involvement. Held back first by centuries of the slave trade and then the numbing effects of colonialism, Africa finally is ready to come into its own. Its people fully realize the wealth of natural resources held in the ground, on their land, and—perhaps most important—in their citizenry. As they find new ways to bring these resources to the global marketplace, the potential of the African continent will begin to be realized. The U.S. shift toward balancing China’s rise is understandable, but part of the increasing competition with China lies not in the Pacific but in Africa. Tunnel vision cannot blind the United States to needs and opportunities around the globe. Limited resources must be applied carefully—and the U.S. Coast Guard always finds ways to meet its mission and succeed.
1. “China Global Investment Tracker,” American Enterprise Institute.
2. Jonathan Hillman, “Game of Loans: How China Bought Hambantota,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2 April 2018.
3. Maria Abi-Habib, “How China Got Sri Lanka to Cough Up a Port,” The New York Times, 25 June 2018.
4. Viola Rothschild, “China’s Heavy Hand in Africa,” Council on Foreign Relations, 22 March 2018; Maya Berinzon and Ryan Briggs, “60 Years Later, Are Colonial-Era Laws Holding Africa Back?” The Washington Post, 20 January 2017.
5. Robbie Gramer, “State Department Vacancies Increase Embassy Security Risks, Report Warns,” Foreign Policy, 7 March 2019.
6. “President Launches Kenya Coast Guard Service,” Kenya Ministry of Defence Press Release, 19 November 2018.
7. Dickens Olewe, “Why Landlocked Ethiopia Wants to Launch a Navy,” BBC News, 14 June 2018; U.S. Naval Forces Europe–Africa Twitter Feed, 2 April 2019; John Irish, “Ethiopia, France Sign Military, Navy Deal, Turn ‘New Page’ in Ties,” Reuters, 12 March 2019.
8. Ben Werner, “The Coast Guard’s Mission to Africa,” USNI News, 22 April 2019.