By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 3, 2013 – More than 90 U.S. Marines set sail this weekend for a three-month mission along the West African coast – but for the first time in the Africa Partnership Station program, it was aboard a Dutch navy ship, alongside their counterparts from Holland, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Through the next three months, the crew will visit Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and Benin, exercising security techniques and tactics with host-nation militaries, Watkins told American Forces Press Service during a telephone interview as the crew prepared to leave Rota.
The combined military engagements stem from Africa Partnership Station, one of U.S. Africa Command’s most successful programs. The international security cooperation initiative, established in 2007, aims to strengthen global maritime partnerships through training and shared activities.
The goal is to improve maritime safety and security along the Gulf of Guinea, Watkins explained. By building capacity among African partner nations, the mission increases their ability to strengthen their borders, control their territorial waters and crack down on illicit trafficking and other destabilizing activity.
Africa Partnership Station 13 includes a new dimension. Rotterdam, home ported in Den Helder, Netherlands, is supporting the mission under a companion capacity-building program called “African Winds.” The ship’s sailors will work with African partners to build capabilities in maritime activities such as visit, board, search and seizure; maritime operations center planning and execution; and small boat operations.
Meanwhile, the security cooperation task force will work with African ground forces to conduct amphibious landings and exchange best practices in jungle warfare, hand-to-hand combat, humanitarian assistance and noncombatant evacuations.
The 2nd Marine Division’s 2nd Assault Amphibious Battalion from Camp Lejeune, N.C., is contributing the ground forces. The Marine Corps Reserve’s Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 773, headquartered at Warner Robins Air Force Base, Ga., is providing two UH-1N Huey helicopters and crews for the mission.
Watkins called the opportunity to help build capacity among African partners while working hand-in-hand with other NATO forces “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for the participants.
Some have never deployed before, and Watkins said he personally was looking forward to his first deployment in a noncombat role.
“The main, driving force is relationship building,” he said. “We want to build relationships, not only among the NATO forces, but also among the African forces. So getting to work hand in hand with the Dutch, the Spanish and the Royal Marines is a huge thing.”
Africa Partnership Station 13 provides a forum to increase interoperability as participants work through the challenges of different languages, equipment and standard operating procedures, he said.
For example, as a pilot, Watkins described the challenges of landing a U.S. helicopter aboard a Dutch ship. The crews practiced the procedures they and their Dutch hosts had worked through during a planning conference in Amsterdam before departing Rota, he reported.
For participants aboard Rotterdam as well as in Africa, the mission “is an opportunity for all the Marines to work side by side, working on [standard operating procedures], sharing with our partners and learning from each other and learning how we can work better together,” Watkins said.
That understanding, he said, strengthens their ability to mutually respond to a future crisis, if required.
U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa welcomed the Rotterdam’s contributions as an extension of Africa Partnership Station’s international collaboration.
“We are thankful for the U.S.-Dutch partnership, as well as the involvement of the U.K. and Spanish Marines, and our African partners as we collaboratively seek to enhance the security environment in Africa,” said Navy Capt. John B. Nowell Jr., deputy chief of staff for strategy, resources and plans. “African navies have made great strides to increase their maritime capabilities, and this iteration of APS sets the stage to further sharpen those skills.”
Other participants shared Nowell’s enthusiasm about the mission.
“The Royal Netherlands Navy recognizes the U.S. Africa Command APS program as the most effective way of gradually improving the West African maritime security environment,” said Dutch Marine Corps Col. Frederik R. Swart, commander of Netherland Landing Forces participating in the mission. “Also, working with an international marine task force enhances interoperability among all coalition forces involved.”
This year is the second time the Dutch Navy has contributed a major naval asset to Africa Partnership Station. HNLM Johan De Witt, a landing platform dock ship, participated in 2009.
“The U.K. sees this engagement as an excellent opportunity to contribute to the security of the West African maritime environment and to conduct some valuable cross training with African partners and members of the combined security cooperation task force,” agreed Royal Marines Maj. Anthony Liva, officer in charge of the Royal Marines’ Whisky Company of the 45 Commando aboard Rotterdam.
“Training will be progressive and focused,” Liva said. “I have no doubt that every nation involved in this initiative will benefit immensely.”
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