Category Archives: Africa

Analysis relating to USAFRICOM AOR.

West African Navies Coming of Age?

By Dirk Steffen

On 11 February 2016, fourteen Nigerian and Ghanaian pirates in two speedboats attacked the product tanker MAXIMUS (ex-SP BRUSSELS) 70 nm south of Abidjan, Ivory Coast. They hijacked the ship with the intention to steal part or all of its 4,700 metric tonne diesel fuel cargo, sailing it to a position ca. 300 nm south of Lagos, Nigeria over the next few days. The case ended with an opposed boarding of the tanker by the Nigerian Navy, which left one pirate dead and six apprehended; the remainder fled on their support vessel, taking two crewmembers of the MAXIMUS as hostages.

What began as just another product tanker hijacking developed into a model case for regional maritime security cooperation under the Yaoundé Code of Conduct. The first asset to track the hijacked tanker was the Military Sealift Command’s expeditionary fast transport vessel USNS SPEARHEAD, stationed in the region for training and exercise support as a part of the African Partnership Station. SPEARHEAD identified the hijacked ship and shadowed it for two days as it sailed from Ivorian into Ghanaian waters. Then the CTF 63, Capt. Heidi Agle, handed over to the Ghana Navy, which continued to shadow the ship until it crossed the extension of the maritime boundary to Togo, about 200 nm offshore at that point. While Benin and Togo were not able to mobilise vessels to that distance from the shore, Nigeria was.

USNS SPEARHED leaving Douala in March 2015 (Photo: Dirk Steffen).
USNS SPEARHED leaving Douala in March 2015 (Photo: Dirk Steffen).

On 17 February the MAXIMUS, now re-named MT ELVIS-5 by the hijackers, had reached a position about 300 nm south of Lagos, roughly north-west of the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe. While an unknown mother ship had probably supported the actual attack on the tanker, another vessel, the small Cambodian-flagged tanker DEJIKUN, was likely used by the pirates in an attempt to steal part of the MAXIMUS’s cargo. The DEJIKUN was tracked heading south from Lagos on 16 February, arriving in the general area of the MAXIMUS on midday of 18 February.

The hijacking of the product tanker MAXIMUS and the tracks of the pirate support vessels between 8 and 19 February 2016 (source: MaRisk by Risk Intelligence).
The hijacking of the product tanker MAXIMUS and the tracks of the pirate support vessels between 8 and 19 February 2016 (source: MaRisk by Risk Intelligence).

Close on her tail was the Nigerian offshore patrol vessel NNS OKPABANA followed by NNS SAGBAMA. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Navy’s Chief of Training and Operations (CTOP), Rear Admiral Henry Babalola, obtained permission to operate in Sao Tomé and Principe waters although the MAXIMUS was technically in international waters (albeit inside the Sao Tome and Principe exclusive economic zone). What followed on 19 February were eight hours of negotiations via VHF before a Nigerian Navy boarding team from NNS OKPABANA boarded the MAXIMUS in the evening of 19 February. The pirates briefly offered resistance, before one of their number was killed and the remaining six on board the MAXIMUS fled into the engine room where they eventually surrendered.

Both from an operational point of view, especially with regards to regional co-operation as well as from a tactical perspective, the mission was a success. None of the MAXIMUS’s crewmembers were injured, although several pirates escaped with two hostages onto the DEJIKUN. The ship was later found drifting off Benin, abandoned by the pirates who had also taken the hostages with them.

Nigerian Navy SBS team (Photo: German Navy/Steve Back).
Nigerian Navy SBS team (Photo: German Navy/Steve Back).

The liberation of the MAXIMUS was lauded as a model of regional co-operation under the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, even though Sao Tome and Principe, a nation with virtually no maritime security capacity, never reported to Nigeria or to the relevant Zone D reporting centre in the region (contrary to the official statements) when the MAXIMUS or DEJIKUN entered her waters. Nigeria eventually asked for permission to pursue the MAXIMUS into the Sao Tome and Principe exclusive economic zone under a bilateral agreement, which in the end achieved its objective, but also exposed some of the still extant weaknesses in the regional framework and capacities.

While diplomatically relevant, the message that the operation sent to the criminals was equally important: Gulf of Guinea states are increasingly willing and able to suppress maritime crime. It may only have been a beginning, but it may well be that the prospect of a forceful naval intervention has upset the plans of would-be tanker hijackers at a time when the economic situation in Nigeria is becoming increasingly conducive to the theft and smuggling of fuel into the country.

For the navies of the region, especially the Nigerian Navy, success may become self-reinforcing. The Nigerian Navy has long labored under its dismal performance and reputation relative to its assets and manpower potential. It remains beset by corruption and inefficiency, but it appears that the change that the Buhari presidency has brought over Nigeria may have begun to affect the navy as well. The Nigerian Navy had already responded with some alacrity to the brief hijacking (turned kidnapping) of the LEON DIAS on 29-31 January, the attempted kidnapping of crewmembers from the SAFMARINE KURAMO on 5 February near Bonny River Fairway Buoy and more recently, assisting the BOURBON LIBERTY 251, which had two crewmembers kidnapped on 23 February 2016. In all cases, the Nigerian naval vessels arrived well after the attacks, although in the case of the SAFMARINE KURAMO the attackers had to abandon their attempt to extract the crew from their citadel and were forced to leave the ship. While not entirely satisfactory to those involved, it is progress over previous years. Before, the navy hardly ever responded to distress calls at all, and when they did, it more often than not created bad blood between them and the merchant marine community through heavy-handed practices.

It is likely that the response to similar incidents will remain hit-and-miss for some years to come, especially if the circumstances are less favorable than in the MAXIMUS case. The MAXIMUS episode benefited from the presence of the USNS SPEARHEAD, which was conveniently deployed in the area for the upcoming African Partnership Station’s OBANGAME EXPRESS 2016 exercise (17-25 March 2016) as well as from some serious tactical mistakes made by the pirates. However, amongst other contingencies, the OBANGAME EXPRESS exercise series rehearses responses to precisely this type of scenario. In a way, the incident therefore reflects the journey the navies of the regions have made since the inception of OBANGAME EXPRESS and it will surely provide interesting input for the upcoming iteration of the exercise. The Nigerian Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), Vice Admiral Ibok- Ete Ekwe Ibas, has credited OBANGAME EXPRESS with meeting its objectives. His challenge will now be to follow up and maintain, as he said, the “resolve of the navy to deploy more ships to maintain the current record of sea patrol in order to tackle maritime security challenges.”

Dirk Steffen is a Commander (senior grade) in the German Naval Reserve with 12 years of active service between 1988 and 2000. He took part in exercises OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014 and 2015 both at sea and ashore for the boarding-team training and as a Liaison Naval Officer on the exercise staff. He is normally Director Maritime Security at Risk Intelligence (Denmark) when not on loan to the German Navy. He has been covering the Gulf of Guinea as a consultant and analyst since 2004. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone, and do not represent those of any German military or governmental institutions.

Book Review: Piracy and Armed Robbery at Sea

Robin Geiss and Anna Petrig. Piracy and Armed Robbery at Sea: The Legal Framework for Counter-Piracy Operations in Somalia and the Gulf of Aden. Oxford University Press, 2011. 340 pp. $110 


9780199609529

By Alex Calvo

The Law of Counter-Piracy Operations: From Hollywood films to some Chinese popular perceptions of their Eastern neighbors, piracy and pirates retain a powerful hold in contemporary culture. However, it is their most recent incarnation in areas like the Gulf of Guinea, the Malacca Straits, and the Horn of Africa, that is carefully followed by anybody involved in maritime affairs, from ship owners and operators to naval officers and international lawyers. Among other aspects of piracy, the legal regime of pirates and operations against them is of the foremost importance, and therefore any volume devoted to them proves a welcome addition to the literature on the sea and what Julius Caesar labeled as “hostis humani generis,” or the enemies of humankind. This is exactly what Piracy and Armed Robbery at Sea purports to be, and actually is: a single-volume treaty on the law applicable to counter-piracy operations, with a regional focus on Somalia and the Gulf of Aden. The book achieves the goals of providing a comprehensive approach to the subject, with plenty of primary sources, case law where applicable, and legal commentary on controversial or unclear aspects. While readers may note the absence of topics such as the rights of victims, the ransom industry, and non-Western legislation, this does not detract from the overall quality of the work, which furthermore contains a number of sources in its appendixes which can be very useful to the practitioner.

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As clear from the title, the subtitle, and introduction, this book seeks to provide the reader with a detailed explanation of the different legal regulations and principles under which piracy is fought in one of the corners of the world where it is most pervasive, and which, crisscrossed by myriad SLOCs (sea lanes of communication), no major power can ignore it. In connection to this, the first aspect of the text we should note is that this is indeed a law book, and perhaps more accurately a “black letter law” book, in the sense that it focuses on positive law, with just the minimum amount of social, economic, and other considerations provided in Chapter one and later interspersed in the text. When the authors delve outside the strict borders of the law, it is to better explain the rationale behind legal rules, a good example being their discussion of judicial and prison capacity in- countries like Kenya (p. 174-179) and the Seychelles, which supports and complements their explanation of the agreements signed between them and the European Union for the local trial and imprisonment of pirates. Having said that, they also discuss possible future developments of the law, such as specialized international tribunals to deal with piracy (p. 179-184).

A second important characteristic we may stress is the logical fashion in which the text is divided into parts, and then subdivided into chapters, which very much aids for the reader who wishes to go through the text from beginning to end, and those who prefer to go straight to one of the issues discussed in the volume. A third strong point is that, while focused on positive law, the authors stop to discuss areas where applicable rules may not be clear or even be controversial, providing a summary of arguments and their own views. An example is the practice of embarking law-enforcement personnel from one country on a naval (or state) ship of another, with the associated legal complexities.

This photo taken Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009 provided by French Defense Minister shows suspected pirates arrested by Marine commandos of the French Navy in the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia coasts. French government officials say the Jean de Vienne intercepted and captured 19 pirates Sunday as they tried to take over two cargo ships, one Croatian and the other Panamian. French Navy vessel Jean de Vienne is seen on background. (AP Photo/French Navy/French Defense Minister/HO)
This photo taken Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009 provided by French Defense Minister shows suspected pirates arrested by Marine commandos of the French Navy in the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia coasts. French government officials say the Jean de Vienne intercepted and captured 19 pirates Sunday as they tried to take over two cargo ships, one Croatian and the other Panamian. French Navy vessel Jean de Vienne is seen on background. (AP Photo/French Navy/French Defense Minister/HO)

The Book’s Strong Points: The text provides a comprehensive look at applicable legislation and extensive discussion of unclear aspects. As noted, the authors make an extensive effort to cover the different legal aspects of the fight against piracy, adding their commentary and summaries of other views where positive law is unclear or developing. Examples include three possible interpretations of Article 105 UNCLOS, providing universal or limited criminal jurisdiction, a conflict-of-law rule, or a reaffirmation “that prosecution is based on domestic criminal law and procedure” (p. 149-151), and a discussion of the differences between transfers and extradition, noting how generally speaking “in the piracy context, the change in custody is not brought about by the formal means of extradition” and “transfers in the piracy context do not fulfill the characteristics of deportations or exclusions.” (p. 192-194)

The Expanding Range of Somali Piracy
The Expanding Range of Somali Piracy

Three gaps: Non-Western Views, Piracy Victims, and the Ransom Industry and Middlemen

There are three aspects that, if incorporated in future editions of the book, may make this work even more complete. First of all, we should note a lack of Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Russian, and South Korean views, even though all these countries contribute to the struggle against piracy in the Horn of Africa. It would be interesting to find some legal commentary, domestic legislation, or actual cases, from these jurisdictions. Second, we cannot fail but note a complete and utter disregard for piracy victims, who are basically absent from the text. While the death penalty, torture, and the principle of “non-refoulement” are dealt with extensively (p. 210-220), there is no discussion of reparations for victims, and of their procedural standing other than when serving as a connection point for states to exercise jurisdiction.

The authors’ concern with the human rights of alleged and convicted pirates is commendable, and so is their extensive treatment of those rights in their book, but caring about the rights of the accused should not be seen as incompatible with at least providing some cursory explanation of those of the victims. Finally, another notable absence is that of the “middlemen” and more widely the “industry” managing ransoms, and their possible criminal liabilities. No look at the legal framework of the fight against piracy is complete without an examination of the rules and practice designed to strangle their finance, but despite the subject occasionally emerging in the pages of the book, there is no section specifically dealing with it. Is it perhaps too sensitive?

Conclusions: It is a useful and quite comprehensive study, though suffering from some gaps. We can thus conclude that this is a book that anybody interested in piracy and counter-piracy operations, the law of the sea, and more generally maritime and naval affairs, will find useful, both as a detailed introduction to the legal rules applicable to counter-piracy operations, and as a reference work. It is to be hoped, however, that future editions incorporate non-Western views, victims’ rights, and the law applicable to pirate financing.

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) focusing on security and defence policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean. Region. A member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and Taiwan’s South China Sea Think-Tank, he is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here.

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Egypt’s Acquisition of the Mistral Amphibious Assault Ship: An Operational Analysis

By Ben Ho Wan Beng

Introduction

The protracted “What happens to France’s two unwanted Mistrals” saga has seemingly drawn to a close with the agreement by Egypt late last month to acquire the highly capable amphibious assault ships (LHDs) for a total of €950 million. A number of commentators have argued that the rationale behind this eyebrow-raising decision is for Egypt to attain a maritime power-projection capability so as to hedge against rising Islamist violence in the region and a resurgent Iran. Indeed, one prominent defense journalist wrote of Egypt using the French-made Mistrals to quell trouble in neighboring hot-spots. In the same vein, another commentator spoke of the vessels giving their owners the ability to conduct expeditionary missions with significant ground and aerial assets.

That being said, the aforementioned statements are based on the assumption that Cairo would be able to effectively deploy the two ships in the first place. This is highly contentious, at least in the near term, for a number of reasons. They include Egypt’s dearth of experience in large amphibious-vessel and naval aviation operations, among others.

The Mistral’s Capabilities

Defense analysts often speak of the Mistral in glowing terms. Indeed, much has been made of the platform offering almost the same capabilities as the United States Navy’s potent Wasp-class LHD, but at only one-sixth the cost and crew size. And even though France officially calls the Mistral a bâtiments de projection et de commandement, or “projection and command ship,” it can also perform several other roles such as amphibious/heliborne assault and humanitarian

France's Mistral-class Dixmude warship in Jounieh bay, Lebanon. (Source: Wikicommons)
France’s Mistral-class Dixmude warship in Jounieh bay, Lebanon. (Source: Wikicommons)

assistance and disaster relief. With 69 beds for patients, it can even act as a hospital ship. An important component of the Mistral is its air wing, which consists either of 16 heavy or 35 light helicopters. It can also accommodate 450 troops (900 for surge operations), four small landing craft or two hovercraft, and a 40-strong Leclerc main battle tank (MBT) unit.

In recent years, France has put its Mistrals to good use in support of its foreign policy. For instance, during the 2006 Lebanon War, the lead ship of its class, the Mistral, was involved in the evacuation of French citizens from the Levant nation. Two years later, the same vessel provided humanitarian aid supplies, albeit indirectly, to victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. And in 2011, the Tonnerre was deployed with Tigre helicopter gunships off the Libyan coast to support France’s military intervention in that North African country.

Assessment

Ship Handling:

At first glance, therefore, the introduction of the Mistral into Egypt’s order of battle would seem to boost considerably the latter’s expeditionary capabilities. However, a more critical assessment  reveals that this would not be the case. Firstly, Egypt simply lacks the experience and know-how in handling a vessel like the Mistral. Warships are highly intricate technological entities. As cited in Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-first Century (Routledge, 2013):

To… operate [warships] requires a mass of technical, industrial and professional skills, ashore and afloat, and a sophisticated system of management to mold them into an effective whole… Ships can be constructed relatively quickly, but the skills and capabilities which make up an effective navy can only be built up with long years of investment.

Indeed, Cairo’s experience in handling warships is limited warships significantly smaller than Mistral. The Egyptian military’s current largest amphibians are its three Polnochnys. This Polish-made landing ship is some 70 meters long and displaces 830 tons; in stark contrast, the corresponding figures for the Mistral are 200 meters and 21,000 tons. Furthermore, the mainstays of the Egyptian surface fleet – the formerly Knox- and Perry-class frigates procured from the U.S. Navy ­– are around 4,000 tons in displacement. Even the largest warship currently in Egyptian service is nowhere near the specifications of the Mistral. Egypt’s sole FREMM frigate, which is 140 meters long and displaces 6,000 tons, was commissioned into service only in June this year.

This dearth of experience in operating a large and complex multi-purpose naval platform like the Mistral would arguably be exacerbated by a failing that plagues most Arab militaries: their personnel’s deficiency in terms of technical skills. In Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991 (University of Nebraska Press, 2004) Kenneth M. Pollack maintains that Arab armed forces, including Egypt’s, often show an inability to fully exploit the capabilities of the military hardware they possess. The Middle East defense expert adds that this lack of technical skills and other military weaknesses of the Arabs are likely to persist.

Then again, even First-World countries with highly educated citizens who are familiar with advanced technology can struggle with regard to operating LHDs. The time-frame in which Australia hopes that HMAS Canberra will achieve initial operational capability (IOC) and final operational capability (FOC) is illuminative of the challenges Egypt might face with its Mistrals. The Canberra – the lead ship of a new LHD class – was commissioned last November, and Australia is working towards its IOC and FOC to be attained in late 2015 and late 2017 respectively. In other words, Australia is hoping that HMAS Canberra will only be fully deployable a good three years after its commissioning.

That being said, media reports state the Mistrals will be delivered to Egypt in March next year and that their future crews have already begun training. To be certain, nobody will claim that Cairo could get its LHDs up and running within a meager six months. However, Egypt’s technical deficiency means that it could take a longer than than Australia to achieve operational capability with their LHD platforms. Furthermore, it must be noted that the Royal Australian Navy possesses some institutional knowledge in handling flat-tops, having operated light carriers during the Cold War. In stark contrast, Egyptian expertise in this area is essentially zilch. The crew of the two Mistrals will therefore need significant assistance from France and also Russia, as there are several Russian systems on-board the vessels.

Amphibious Operations:

A key mission the Mistral is expected to carry out is amphibious operations, and specialist skills and training are essential to the success of such endeavors, according to esteemed naval commentator Geoffrey Till.  Though Egypt has a small marine force, a Stratfor analysis suggests it is not proficient enough to deploy optimally from the Mistral. This particular report, however, does

Amphibious Operations aboard a Mistral during Exercise LION MISTRAL in 2014.
Amphibious Operations aboard a Mistral during Exercise LION MISTRAL in 2014.

not differentiate between the scales of amphibious operations to be conducted. Does it apply for large- or small-scale landings? It is certainly true that Cairo lacks experience in major amphibious operations. As a matter of fact, a Jane’s report argues that the Egyptian military cannot conduct “unilateral, opposed beach landings”, adding that it can only perform small-scale amphibious operations such as infiltrating special forces teams. Such an assessment is hardly surprising considering the fact the Polnochny landing craft can carry a maximum of 180 soldiers and six MBTs, while the Egyptian navy’s other amphibious asset, the Vydra landing craft of which it has nine, can deploy only 100 troops or three MBTs.

However, the Mistral is not built solely for major troop landings, but a range of missions scalable for different objectives. Indeed, Middle East security expert Ahmed S. Hashim believes that the platform would be used extensively for special forces ­­missions to combat Islamist extremism in the region. Such small-scale operations usually involve helicopters, but Egypt does not have the requisite experience vis-à-vis missions of this nature that are launched from ships at sea.

Sea-Based Aviation

This shortfall is manifested in the fact that Egypt’s sea-based aviation experience consists merely of operating an anti-submarine warfare helicopter or two from each of its formerly Perry- and Knox-class frigates. To be sure, the flight-deck and hangar-bay choreography on helicopter carriers like the Mistral is not as complex as that on regular flat-tops. That being said, operations involving several ship-borne helicopters – the Mistral has six launch spots on its flight deck for them ­– are nevertheless challenging, even more so for a navy with limited experience in sea-based aviation like

Flight Ops aboard Mistral during LION MISTRAL 2014.
Flight Ops aboard Mistral during LION MISTRAL 2014.

Egypt’s. To compound matters, the Arab nation will have to train the crew for the navalized Ka-52K helicopters – an asset currently not in its order of battle – which could be procured for deployment on the Mistrals.

Integrated Task Force Operations

Finally, the Egyptians do not have any experience organizing their warships into task forces centered on a capital unit like the Mistral. The LHD makes for an inviting target for adversaries and hence has to be screened by consorts such as frigates and other surface craft as part of a task force. Having a fully operational entity of this sort, however, requires the Egyptians to imbibe the intricacies of maritime task force operations, and this would involve learning from scratch the doctrinal and technical expertise critical to such endeavors. For instance, each component of such a task force will have to train and operate together so as to improve their ability to fight as a coherent whole.

Much has been said about the uphill task the People’s Liberation Army-Navy, which had no experience with flat-tops prior to the commissioning of the Liaoning, is facing in creating a viable aircraft carrier battle group, and the consensus is that this could become a possibility only after several years of concerted effort. The same goes for any Egyptian Mistral task force becoming an effective fighting force. The Egyptian fleet’s lack of operational experience as a whole further complicates the issue. Indeed, it was only tangentially involved in the various Middle Eastern conflicts during the Cold War. In the post-Cold War period, Egyptian warships have been largely placed in the back-burner and have not even joined international peacekeeping missions.

Conclusion

Rounding up, Egypt’s acquisition of the Mistral seems to mark a quantum leap in its capacity to project force; the platform offers multiple capabilities previously unavailable to Cairo. Nonetheless, Egypt is unlikely to utilize the Mistral optimally because of its lack of experience in such crucial areas like handling such a sizable and complex vessel, ship-borne helicopter operations, and integrated naval task force maneuvers. With these in mind, it would be an extremely steep learning curve for Egypt vis-à-vis her most ambitious naval acquisition so far. While most nations, including advanced ones, also struggle with regard to adopting new military technology, Egypt’s case is especially pronounced considering its people’s general lack of technical proficiency.

Going forward, there has been talk of the Egyptian Mistrals operating with Saudi units as part of a joint Arab force; after all, Saudi money is believed to be behind the procurement of these platforms. However, “jointness” is difficult to achieve even between the service arms of a particular country, let alone with another country. Such an arrangement, if it ever materializes, is likely to further complicate Egyptian Mistral operations.

In the final analysis, it is worth noting that countries that are able to operate effectively aviation-capable platforms like the Mistral belong at least to the category of nations regarded as “medium powers”. Think Japan with its Izumo-class “helicopter destroyers” and South Korea with its Dokdos. This invariably raises the following question: was the Egyptian Mistral acquisition grounded in operational realities, or was it an vainglorious decision conditioned by the fact that large amphibious warfare ships are so du jour nowadays? During the Second World War, there was a famous saying in Japanese naval circles that went: “The three great follies of the world are the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids and the battleship Yamato.” In the near future, could this statement be modified to include the Mistral? Based on the current state of affairs, it is highly probable.

Ben Ho Wan Beng is a Senior Analyst with the Military Studies Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies; he obtained his master’s degree in strategic studies from the same institution. He would like to express his heartfelt gratitude to colleague Colin Koh Swee Lean for providing his insights on this article. Ben can be reached at iswbho@ntu.edu.sg. 

Tuning into Tunisia: An Assessment of Tunisia’s Naval Forces

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While much international attention is directed toward the flow of refugees from Syria and Iraq to Europe, which has prompted the partial suspension of the European Union’s Dublin Regulation by the German and Czech governments and even sent shockwaves through Canada’s ongoing federal election, hundreds of Libyans continue to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. Kos Island has become famous around the world as the front line of the migrant crisis,

Migrants wait at a Lampedusa holding center. (Click image for source)
Migrants wait at a Lampedusa holding center. (Click image for source)

yet Italy’s Lampedusa continues to face an overwhelming number of both political refugees and economic migrants fleeing Libya in the wake of that country’s civil war and resulting unrest.

The Libyan Navy is in no position to be of assistance in managing the crisis. While it has a single Soviet-built Natya-class minesweeper still in operation, the remaining vessels of the Libyan Navy, comprised of a Soviet-built Koni-class anti-submarine warfare frigate and two Polish-built Polnocy-C-class landing ships, are reportedly undergoing refits in Malta and France. Though the Libyans doubtless possess some collection of small patrol craft, the force has thus far been unable to effectively police Libyan waters. In March 2014, an oil tanker from the rebel-held port of Sidra successfully evaded a Libyan Navy blockade, leaving a team of United States Navy SEALs to intervene and seize the tanker.

Fortunately, the Tunisian National Navy has proved itself to be a reliable partner in securing the Mediterranean and averting humanitarian disaster. In August 2015, Tunisia commissioned its first locally built patrol boat, Al Istiklal (Independence). This development made Tunisia the first country in the Arab world to develop a shipbuilding industry of its own and only the second in Africa, following South Africa’s lead. Reportedly, Al Istiklal is an 80-ton patrol boat that measures 26.5 meters in length and is 5.8 meters wide, enjoys a top speed of 25 knots and a range of 600 nautical miles, all while equipped with a 20mm cannon, two machine guns, and a thermal imaging camera. This expansion of  Tunisian maritime capabilities was bolstered by four patrol boats of unidentified classification from the United States Navy (USN) earlier in 2015, with a further three boats expected for delivery by the end of 2016.

It is difficult to accurately assess the size of the Tunisian National Navy, but best estimates place the total number of vessels operated by Tunisia at 40 gunboats or patrol

One of Tunisia's Combattante IIIM Class Fast Patrol Boats with MM-40 Exocet missiles. (La Galite 501 pictured)
One of Tunisia’s Combattante IIIM Class Fast Patrol Boats with MM-40 Exocet missiles. (La Galite 501 pictured). (Source: World Military Intel)

boats, one landing craft, and six other non-combat vessels. The largest vessel operated by Tunisia’s maritime forces, President Bourgiba, was a decommissioned Edsall-class destroyer escort, USS Thomas J. Gary, which was transferred to Tunisia in 1973 and rendered no longer operational by a severe fire in 1992, having served at sea for almost 50 years in total. Since then, the largest vessels operated by the Tunisian National Navy are its six Albatross-class fast attack craft manufactured in Germany by Lurssen, with a displacement of almost 400 tons each. In short, Tunisia’s maritime forces are non-expeditionary and have been focused entirely on coastal defense for more than two decades.

It is unclear whether the US sees the transfer of defense equipment like the aforementioned patrol boats as part of a broader effort to counter al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or other militant Islamist groups. But it certainly has paid dividends in rescue efforts. As recently as June 2015, Tunisian patrol boats saved some 650 migrants and refugees bound for Lampedusa on unsafe rafts. A June 2015 attack on a Tunisian beach resort by Libya-based terrorists, in which 38 people were killed, demonstrated how closely connected Tunisia’s security is with that of its neighbors, Libya and Algeria. As such, Tunisia is bound to continue to play a significant role in securing the North African coast. Nonetheless, it would be prudent for European members of NATO to press for a formalization of this relationship, similar in many respects to the Tactical Memorandum of Understanding struck with the Kingdom of Morocco in 2009 to secure Moroccan participation in Operation ACTIVE ENDEAVOR, NATO’s ongoing maritime mission to monitor traffic and combat terrorism in the Mediterranean. With or without European recognition, Tunisia appears set to be a maritime leader in its own right.

Paul Pryce is the Research Analyst for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Program and a long-time member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC).