STUTTGART, Germany - When pirates hijacked the MT MAXIMUS in the Gulf of Guinea in mid-February, collaboration between four West African nations, with assistance from the U.S. and France, allowed the African navies to track, interdict the vessel, free 18 hostages and apprehend the pirates.
The successful resolution of this piracy case underscores the importance of the U.S. Africa Command’s ongoing partner capacity building efforts throughout the Gulf of Guinea region. This also highlights the tremendous advances the region has made in maritime security endeavors.
“The training and exercises, as well as the combined operations that have taken place over the years, directly contributed to the successful interception and takedown of the pirates onboard the MAXIMUS,” said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cdr. Todd Behney, U.S. Africa Command maritime programs officer. “The collaborative efforts that have taken place throughout the region by the Africans and their respective countries has been impressive and highly commendable.”
The incident began when the French Embassy to Ghana notified the U.S. Navy’s USNS Spearhead, through the Ghanaian Western Naval Command Maritime Operation Center, that pirates have taken control of a vessel south in the Gulf of Guinea south of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. The USNS Spearhead was conducting Africa Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership (AMLEP) operations with the Ghanaian Navy when they were notified. AMLEP is a five-phase program that includes a feasibility analysis, training, and participation in AFRICOM’s component led exercises and an operational phase, which is conducted alongside a U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment and aims to operationalize the skills gained during the training and exercise participation.
When the USNS Spearhead received the call about the MAXIMUS, they were conducting the operational phase of AMLEP alongside Ghanaian forces.
“The timing was fortunate that Spearhead was underway conducting operations with an embarked Ghanaian inter-ministerial maritime law enforcement team alongside a U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment and could be diverted to intercept and shadow the MAXIMUS while African surface assets were mustered,” said U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tom Pickering, AFRICOM’s Nigeria & Cameroon Country Desk Officer.
The MAXIMUS travelled nearly 800-miles passing through the waters of four nations, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. Communication between each was key to ensuring the partner nations never lost track of the MAXIMUS.
“At a small cost, the U.S. government has slowly assisted the countries of Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria to develop their national maritime operations centers (MOC) through standardizing response procedures and helping to outfit them with Maritime Domain Awareness Systems,” Pickering said. “These capabilities allowed for the MAXIMUS case to be tracked and handed off between countries as the case moved east across the maritime domains of these four countries.”
Maritime Domain Awareness Systems, which are comprised of sensors, radars, automated information systems and databases that allow personnel in a MOC to monitor who or what is in a country’s waters at any given time, are key to the success of any MOC, Behney said.
U.S. Naval Forces Africa and U.S. Sixth Fleet is the lead military component for the international capacity building program, Africa Partner Station (APS). APS is a U.S. Government maritime security cooperation program that executes the majority of maritime training that takes place on the African continent. That includes tactical training as well as training on technological training like Maritime Domain Awareness and other systems.
“One of the major fruits of these efforts is the region’s enhanced ability to share information via technological means ultimately allowing them to monitor a situation and respond accordingly,” he said. “As a result, the MOC’s team can decipher and share information throughout the region significantly enhancing the response capabilities.”
When the MAXIMUS was approximately 300 miles off the coast of Nigeria, the Nigerian Special Boat Service, which previously participated in combined training with U.S. forces, forcibly boarded the vessel and regained control from the pirates, Pickering said. The first Nigerian Naval vessel to be dispatched to interdict the MAXIMUS was a former US Coast Guard Cutter, formerly the CGC GALLATIN, which had been transferred to Nigeria in 2014 through the Excess Defense Articles Program (EDAP). The U.S. Department of Defense’s EDAP program, administered by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, allows for the transfer of excess defense articles to U.S. allies to aid in capacity building and defense force modernization efforts.
“From the initial response of the USNS Spearhead with the Ghanaians to the information sharing between each country’s Maritime Operation Center ultimately allowed the Nigerian Special Forces team to safely and effectively intercept, board and take command of the vessel,” Behney said.
Over the past five years, AFRICOM and the component commands combined with the initiative of African partners played a vital role in significantly enhancing the regions maritime capabilities, which enabled the region to work together to achieve these results, he said. “This is a great story that showcases the effectiveness and impact of AFRICOM, the U.S. government, and the regional partners’ efforts in a coordinated approach, to build maritime capacity in West Africa.”