By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class (SW/AW) David R. Krigbaum
GULF OF GUINEA – Involving 23 countries and taking place across Africa’s Gulf of Guinea, Exercise Obangame Express 2015 is one of the largest military exercises in Africa. The annual U.S. Africa Command-sponsored multinational exercise is designed to increase maritime safety and security in the Gulf of Guinea.
In order to be successful, an exercise this broad in scope needs almost a year of planning from a collective network of navies. Like the exercise itself, preparation for it involved a network approach from all participating nations.
The exercise is an opportunity for African, European, South American and U.S. ally and partner maritime forces to work together, share information and refine tactics, techniques and procedures intended to assist Gulf of Guinea maritime nations in building their capacity to monitor and enforce their territorial waters. The ability to govern their seas counters problems such as trafficking of persons and illegal material, oil bunkering, drug trade, illegal fishing and piracy.
“When talking about piracy and illegal fishing, that affects the global economy,” said Cmdr. Sean Rutter, exercise control group lead and planner for Obangame Express 2015. “If a sea lane is disrupted, it hurts more than just the local economy so that’s why it’s important for all these countries to get involved and we’re thankful they do.”
Organizing a new exercise begins with the basics. Planners identify participating nations and locations, and consider available manpower and equipment from all involved when setting the stage for the next Obangame Express. This year marked participation of ships from the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Brazil, Germany and the United States as well as Portuguese maritime surveillance aircraft and vessels from all the Gulf of Guinea nations.
These assets play a critical role in determining what training is possible, but the African host nations ultimately decide what needs to be done with these assets. Every nation sets its own priorities, so scenarios involving one nation may play toward counter-piracy, and another nation’s is built around stopping illicit trafficking or illegal fishing.
Some of these objective goals, such as honing skills in certain areas or deterring certain types of crime, are common and multiple partners may work on the same scenario.
When plans become action and the documents are replaced with personnel on ships, land and in the air, exercise planners stay involved to ensure the exercise plays out correctly. The Exercise Control Group (ECG) creates the scenarios and then sets them into motion to spur the exercise into taking action.
“Here we constitute the brains of the exercise,” said Cameroon navy Cmdr. Emmanuel Sone, an exercise planner and liaison officer for Obangame Express 2015. “We want to make sure everything is going according to plan. We don’t just sit back and observe.”
The planners monitor the action from a remote room at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center in Accra, Ghana. Working on laptops in a makeshift work center, they manage multiple scenarios from Angola to the Ivory Coast, 2,000 miles away in real time. The ECG also monitors and evaluates the actions of 51 ships, 21 maritime operations centers, and six aircraft taking part in the scenario.
As a scenario plays out on the gulf, the ECG throws additional challenges at the participants such as handling a medical emergency during a boarding. These ECG injects help guide the exercise along and tests the partner nation’s capabilities.
“By injecting scenarios into the exercise, you can make sure the overall objectives are met,” said Sone.
After it’s all over the experience gained by participants has a real-world impact as they hone skills needed for information sharing and team work. The lessons learned from this exercise are also used to improve future exercises and strengthen the Global Network of Navies.
“It has brought together the Gulf of Guinea nations to tackle a common enemy,” said Commodore Mark Yawson, flag officer fleet, Ghana navy. “Now there’s awareness, information sharing and interoperability among the Gulf of Guinea maritime states and even including the civilian maritime agencies. This has decreased illegal activity in the gulf.”