Matt Hein is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer currently studying for his Masters in Security Studies at Georgetown University. He can be found on Twitter @Matt_TB_Hein. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: Low intensity maritime conflict and engagement in Eastern Africa.
Date Originally Written: February 11, 2018.
Date Originally Published: May 21, 2018.
Author and / or Article Point of View: This article addresses U.S. naval force posture options in East Africa and the implications for a resource-constrained force.
Background: Demands for counter-piracy operations, countering maritime human smuggling, countering the growth of violent extremism in Sub-Saharan African countries, and partner nation capacity building require the constant presence of U.S. naval forces in East African littoral zones. Friction arises when high-end combatants such as aircraft carriers and destroyers divert from their East African littoral mission to the nearby Persian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea to conduct other missions.
Significance: U.S. naval presence in East Africa has improved maritime security and facilitated operations on land. Coalition efforts reduced piracy incidents from 237 attempted hijackings in 2011 to only three such attempts in 2017. Joint exercises, such as Cutlass Express, have developed partner nation maritime law enforcement capacity. Intelligence gathering from sea based platforms has enabled multiple U.S. military missions ashore. Increasing demand for high-end combatants in the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea leaves the East African littoral mission vulnerable to having its gains reversed and questions the utility of those ships for low intensity missions. Enhanced naval presence from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the region, most notably the establishment of a port facility in Djibouti, further complicates force posture decision-making. Despite the incredible gains realized for maritime security in the region, there is a demand signal for deliberate planning to match appropriate naval assets with a growing range of regional needs.
Option #1: The U.S. maintains its current naval force posture for the East Africa littoral mission.
Risk: Current naval force posture rotates multiple Expeditionary Strike Groups and Carrier Strike Groups through the region annually, in addition to several independent deployers dispatched for counter-piracy operations. The opportunity cost of these deployments is enormous. These ships were designed for much more complex operating environments and can often be better utilized in those environments. Using multi-billion dollar warships for low intensity engagement not only limits the utility of these ship’s advanced combat systems but also inflates the likelihood they will be diverted to other specialized missions such as ballistic missile defense or integrated air defense.
Gain: The existing force posture is responsible for enhanced maritime security already realized in the region. While expanding threats may challenge the ability to maintain these gains, this hasn’t happened to the extent that a dramatic rise in piracy or a drop in partner nation capacity has occurred. Further, the historical integration and corporate knowledge of U.S. ships deploying to the theater gives them an inherent advantage for conducting these types of operations.
Option #2: The U.S. forward deploys two Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to Djibouti Naval Base.
Risk: Forward-deploying the LCS is expensive and would require a large logistics and maintenance footprint in Djibouti. Maintenance issues have plagued the LCS and will be exacerbated by a remote maintenance infrastructure with little experience. Maintenance issues are compounded by difficult crew rotation schedules that have already hampered a similar forward deployment of LCS to Singapore. The probability that forward deployed LCS will provide a persistent capability for the East Africa littoral mission is limited significantly by these LCS-wide problems.
Gain: The LCS surface warfare mission package is uniquely suited for the East Africa littoral mission. The LCS uses a combination of high speeds and shallow draft to operate aviation facilities, dedicated boarding teams, and anti-surface capabilities in littoral environments. These attributes make the LCS ideal for intelligence gathering, capacity building, and counter-piracy missions. Additionally, the use of LCS allows the multi-billion dollar warships currently conducting these missions to operate in more contested environments and across a broader swath of missions in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Option #2 also builds on the surge of LCS in similar mission sets from counter-drug operations in the Caribbean to fisheries patrols and bilateral engagements in Southeast Asia.
Option #3: The U.S. decreases its naval presence in East Africa.
Risk: The construction of the PRC naval base in Djibouti means the gap in activity from the U.S. Navy would likely be filled, at least in part, by a PRC presence. The construction of a military docking facility, capable of berthing most People’s Liberation Army (Navy) ships, means previous PRC task forces deployed to the region could become a permanent fixture. As foreign investment pours into East Africa, a reduced naval presence could cause countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, and Somalia to turn elsewhere for maritime security support of their burgeoning economies. Option #3 could further challenge the efficacy of counter-extremist efforts on land that require logistical and intelligence support from offshore assets.
Gain: Decreasing U.S. naval presence does not mean disavowing the East Africa littoral mission entirely. A P-3 squadron forward-deployed to Djibouti naval base combined with transiting strike groups still leaves intermittent capacity in the region to continue to support the East Africa littoral mission. Option #3 also eliminates the requirements of keeping ships off the coast of Djibouti. Not having to keep ships off Djibouti would allow a refocus towards heightened Iranian tensions, threats from Houthi rebels in Yemen, or even relocation to the Pacific fleet operating area in support of growing requirements.
Other Comments: The Surface Navy Strategic Readiness Review, released in December 2017, stated that increasing readiness “require(s) a variety of naval assets and capabilities tailored to best achieve desired results.” Shifting from a “demand” to “supply” model for naval surface forces means capabilities must be optimized against the mission with which they are tasked. The options presented in this paper are three examples, of many, for shifting to a supply-based model for naval assets without sacrificing the East Africa littoral mission.
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