USS FORT MCHENRY, at sea — Marines from 4th Landing Support Battalion and Sailors from Amphibious Construction Battalion 2, position a seven-ton Medium Tactical Vehicle as it is moved from the USNS 2nd Lt. John Bobo, a maritime prepositioning ship, onto the Improved Navy Lighterage System (INLS) March 21. The Marines are transferring the equipment in order to evaluate the INLS at sea and to conduct a humanitarian assistance mission in Monrovia, Liberia as part of West African Training Cruise 2008. The WATC 08 exercise began March 17 and runs through April 5 in concert with the ongoing African Partnership Station deployment with a focus on the delivery of humanitarian assistance supplies to various clinics and schools here from a sea-based command. (Department of Defense photo by Marine Sgt. Rocco DeFilippis)

US Marines engaged in an exercise off the coast of Liberia to test sea basing capabilities. An AFRICOM base has not been welcomed in any African country except Liberia. The Pentagon has been planning for some time to create sea bases where they may not be welcome on the land. Implementation of sea basing has now begun. And where better to practice than offshore of a country where they are welcome, and by bringing much needed medical and school supplies.

Back in July 2007 Nick Turse wrote in Planet Pentagon:

The Pentagon is now considering — and planning for — future “sea-basing.” No longer just a ship, a fleet, or “prepositioned material” stationed on the world’s oceans, sea-bases will be “a hybrid system-of-systems consisting of concepts of operations, ships, forces, offensive and defensive weapons, aircraft, communications and logistics.” The notion of such bases is increasingly popular within the military due to the fact that they “will help to assure access to areas where U.S. military forces may be denied access to support [land] facilities.” After all, as a report by the Defense Science Board pointed out, “[S]eabases are sovereign [and] not subject to alliance vagaries.” Imagine a future where the people of countries at odds with U.S. policies suddenly find America’s “massive seaborne platforms” floating just outside their territorial waters.

That is now coming to pass:

With the help of the Navy’s Navy Cargo Handling Battalion One, 19 Marines of 4th LSB employed new concepts and equipment during the exercise designed to evaluate the progress of the seabasing model.

“This sea-basing portion is designed to take future operational concepts and execute them using today’s platforms,” said Michael Harvey, prepositioning officer, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Europe. “We are taking equipment that was originally designed for ship-to-shore movement and we are using it as a ship-to-ship connecter.”

Assisted by their naval counterparts, the Marines’ mission was to transfer seven Marine Corps vehicles embarked on the USNS 2nd Lt. John Bobo of the Maritime Preposition Squadron One, to the Navy’s new Improved Navy Lighterage System. The INLS is a system of floating causeways designed to move equipment from ship-to-shore. After a short ride on the INLS, the Marines drove the vehicles from the INLS platforms directly into the well deck of the USS Fort McHenry, where they are being prepared for the next phases of WATC 08.

“We are dealing with multiple naval platforms during this exercise, tying in with African Partnership Station,” said Marine Lt. Col. Clarence R. Edmonds, Eurasia regional planner, Marine Forces Europe. “[The INLS] gives us the stable platform we need to offload vehicles and equipment from one ship to another at sea.”

The exercise marked the first time that the INLS had been assembled and used in an open sea environment, Edmonds said. The capabilities provided by the INLS make it possible for the Marine Corps to operate in more flexible ways.

“The sea-basing environment gives us the opportunity to offload select equipment, materials and supplies to conduct arrival and assembly operations at sea,” Edmonds said. “This gives us multiple capabilities to execute a mission ashore, within a very limited time frame and with a very limited footprint [ashore].”

The mission was welcomed in Monrovia:

MONROVIA, Liberia (March 27, 2008) (linked page by Marine Sgt. Rocco DeFilippis no longer available)– The streets were lined with hundreds of smiling faces and thumbs-up signs. Happy shouts of “Marines!” were directed towards a humanitarian assistance convoy of two seven-ton trucks and several humvees laden with thousands of dollars worth of hospital and school supplies making their way slowly through the city of Monrovia, Liberia.
. . .

The supplies consisted of multiple disposable medical supplies, furniture, text books and other school supplies. The total value of the items to be delivered over the two days is $58,000.

“Today is a day that the Lord has made, because we have been long awaiting these supplies to come in,” said Rev. Elwood Jangaba, director of Agencies for Holistic Evangelism and Development International associated with the Logan Town clinic. “I think they are going to make a great impact to the community when we see the health care delivery system in this community brought to life.”

“We are working to establish those friendly relationships while at the same time exposing the Marines to a new and different culture,” said Maj. Jason Smith, convoy commander and a Marysville, Wash., native. “I wouldn’t call (the supplies) luxury items, but these supplies will provide a definite improvement to the quality of life at these facilities.”
. . .
“It’s not only a great training exercise, but it’s a good opportunity to experience something new working with another country in peace-time environment,” said Lance Cpl. Brandon S. Malone, 4th LSB heavy equipment operator and Vienna, Ohio native.

. . .

“Because of the magnitude of the exercise, the Marines knew that preparation for this mission would be key,” Smith said. “All of the Marines have put a lot of time into this outside their own regularly scheduled training. All of the Marines were really excited once they got this opportunity.”

The convoy fits into the larger picture of WATC 08, by serving as a component of a sea-basing exercise. During the first phases, equipment aboard Maritime Prepositioning Ships USNS 2nd Lt John Bobo and USNS Lance Cpl. Roy M. Wheat was linked up with forces from aboard the USS Fort McHenry (LSD 43), assembled at sea and then transferred between the naval platforms using the Improved Navy Lighterage System. Using the causeways and ferry system that makes up the INLS, the Marines were capable of moving vehicles from ship-to-ship in open seas for the first time.

“The importance of this phase for the Marine Corps is two fold,” said Lt. Col. Roy Edmonds, exercise support team officer-in-charge and native of Dallas. “Not only does it show that we can operate from a sea base, transit through an austere port and execute a humanitarian assistance mission; but it also gives us an opportunity to conduct security cooperation with the Armed Forces of Liberia and establish positive relations through good will.”

You can find pictures of the exercise and more at the Photo Gallery – African Partnership Station

I am very glad the US brought medical and school supplies to Liberia. I think the US owes Liberia a lot more than it has begun to deliver. But all of West Africa should take notice of this initial exercise in sea basing. AFRICOM is a combatant command. US assistance to Africa in recent years has mostly been massive military investment and transfer of arms and weapons, primarily to those countries that produce oil. A sea base provides far more freedom, flexibility, and access to interfere in the sovereign affairs of African countries. At this point, this is particularly true for West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea. The dangers have just gone up.