Africa Handshake, Part Four: Oh Buoy

With two expensive land wars draining the treasury, the Pentagon wants to prevent future conflicts without spending a lot of money. Two years ago the Navy launched its first, roughly annual Africa Partnership Station, sending ships on solo cruises up the West African coast to deliver training and humanitarian aid. The idea: to win new friends and re-assure old ones, and boost their ability to handle security crises on their own. Our own David Axe joins the landing dock USS Nashville for APS 3.0 in Gabon.


It was just about the least war-like activity imaginable. U.S. Navy Commander James Cook, meteorologist for Africa Partnership Station, tipped a giant plastic science buoy, belonging to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, over Nashville’s side. APS is mostly about training African sailors to secure their nation’s own waters, but a lot of other stuff goes on, too — science, included.

Why? “Because we can carry a lot of stuff,” one officer explained. It’s no burden to the 575-foot Nashville, pictured, to pile on a few buoys and some scientists. If Nashville’s going to be in the region, anyways, making port calls and opening doors at various West African governments, why not take advantage for the sake of a little learnin’?

So in addition to Cook, there’s a Navy science rep aboard. The ship is carrying buoys for two different NOAA science programs. One of them, Argo, is building a global network of sensors for sampling water temperature and salinity, in order to model the effects of global warming on the deep ocean currents that largely drive the world’s weather. Ever see The Day After Tomorrow, that awful “world-freezes-in-an-hour” disaster movie? The flick exaggerated, a lot, but the principle is actually sound, according to Dr. Augustus Vogel, Nashville’s science rep. Argo is all about studying such a thing, so we might prevent it.

Does the Navy mind that its military training mission is being hijacked by scientists — not to mention diplomats, humanitarians and journalists, too? Not really. After all, fundamentally, APS is about breaking down barriers between countries, navies, U.S. agencies and other institutions. International military training is one big way to chip at those barriers. Science is another.

And if Vogel has his way, future APS iterations will include even more sciencey stuff. He talked about loading some turtle-safe nets aboard the next APS vessel for handing out to foreign fishing boats. Save the turtles, save Africa, save the world.

(Photo: David Axe)