Africa Handshake, Part Six: The Floating Schoolhouse

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.

sao-tome-coast-guard-april-18-2009.JPGAfrica Partnership Station is about a lot of things. It’s the major test-case for emerging “smart-power” doctrine. It’s also an excellent vehicle for “military diplomacy,” science and humanitarian work. But primarily, APS — now in its third year — is about delivering training aid to West African governments, on request. In that way, USS Nashville, the 40-year-old amphibious ship currently wearing the APS banner, is essentially a floating schoolhouse.

It’s simple: West African nations can appeal through their defense attaches for a particular type of maritime training assistance. Maybe they need help with fisheries protection, or boat-boarding operations, or coastal land combat. APS headquarters in Europe weighs each request and tries to match it with available resources. Eventually, the client and the customer compromise, and a training plan is put into place.

So Nashville calls at various ports in Ghana, Gabon, Nigeria, Cameroon and Senegal. She deploys her training teams ashore, or the students embark for their courses. Some of the training is strictly classroom stuff, with textbooks and Powerpoint presentations. Other training is hands-on. Trainees might handle hoses on Nashville’s flight deck to learn firefighting techniques. In this way, Nashville’s people have trained hundreds of West African sailors, marines and coast guardsmen since deploying in January.

But wait, there’s more. In addition to the training in each port, the Navy has invited aboard Nashville sailors from various West African navies. They are integrated into the crew as so-called “ship-riders.” Paired with a U.S. sailor, the ship-riders get on-the-job training operating Nashville’s systems. Plus, there are foreign staff officers on the APS staff that oversees Nashville’s activities. They’re not formally considered students, but working in an international staff is undoubtedly highly educational.

It’s a great construct, in theory. But for all Nashville’s eagerness to collaborate with West African nations, are the Africans themselves equally receptive?

Depends. “The individuals are in receive mode,” says U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Carl Friedrich, commander of the 30-man Marine training contingent on Nashville. By the same token, the African nations’ senior leadership are eager to accept what Nashville offers, according to APS Commandant Cindy Thebaud.

But officers on Nashville say there’s another, key level within African nations’ command structures that resists collaboration. West African militaries are strongly “garrison-minded,” in the sense that most soldiers, sailors and airmen in these countries spend the bulk of their careers performing a menial job at a single base under one commander. It’s a static, personality-driven model of military service. At the unit level, it’s all about comfort and job security, so there’s no incentive for commanders to release their subordinates to attend some American training course. A commander in a patronage military doesn’t need better-trained troops. He just needs his troops to keep pushing brooms and standing guard, so that he can keep up appearances and keep everyone paid.

No wonder, then, that the Marine training courses that Friedrich oversees never get as many students as APS planned for. Unit commanders just refuse to let people go.

Time and again, Thebaud has stressed that APS is a process, and an education for all participants. For our West African partners, APS must help break the garrison mentality in order to forge truly effective maritime forces.

(Photo: David Axe)