The U.S. Coast Guard has a ship operating off the coast of West Africa, working with countries in the Gulf of Guinea and elsewhere in the region to improve control of their coastal waters.  The ship is geographically far from its usual area of operation protecting U.S. homeland security, but its commanding officer says he is still pursuing the same mission.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter "Bear" is usually deployed in the Caribbean, scouting for drug traffickers and illegal migrants heading for the United States.  The Coast Guard is not part of the Navy, or even the Defense Department.  It is part of the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  But for the past two months, the Bear has been assigned to the U.S. Navy's 6th Fleet, and is currently visiting unfamiliar waters off the coast of West Africa.

"We're helping these countries be able to get boats and crews out onto the water," said Commander Robert Wagner, the Bear's commanding officer (speaking from the ship via satellite phone).  "We've been just doing some foundation-level work, basic law enforcement skills, basic boat operations skills and how to maintain some of the equipment that they have.  So we're just building for interoperability in future operations."

Commander Wagner and his crew of 100 have visited eight countries in West and North Africa, working with the local navies on basic operational skills and boat maintenance, and talking to senior military and civilian leaders about the importance of coastal defense.

The ship has visited Ghana, Equatorial Guinea, Benin, Sao Tome and Principe, Cape Verde, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.

At the headquarters of the U.S. Navy Command for Europe, which is responsible for U.S. naval activity in most of Africa, Lieutenant Commander Dan Trott explains why the United States is so eager to help build the capabilities of the African navies, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea, where he says the navies are "very small" or "almost non-existent."

"The reason there's a focus on the Gulf of Guinea is that there are quite a bit of resources there, quite a bit of trade and other activities that go through those waters.  But there's not a lot of maritime security forces," said Mr. Trott.

Lieutenant Commander Trott says piracy is on the rise in the area, along with illegal fishing and the theft of the Gulf's newly found resource, oil.  He says the concern is that such criminal activity could be used to fund terrorism, and that the lack of security along the coastlines could provide access to the region for terrorists. 

The U.S. military has frequently expressed concern about uncontrolled areas anywhere in the world that could become terrorist havens.  Last month, about a thousand U.S. Special Forces troops held joint counterinsurgency exercises with the armies of five West African countries.  Several more countries joined the group to participate in a regional command post exercise, learning to work together in a fictional scenario that involved terrorist attacks on the continent and terrorists on the run across national borders.

This week, the senior Pentagon spokesman said the Defense Department wants to do more training of foreign forces, and is seeking the legal authority to do so.  And one of the top U.S. military generals said such operations far from the battlefronts of Iraq and Afghanistan are important in preventing terrorists from establishing new bases.  Lieutenant General James Conway said there is some evidence terrorists have been moving into Africa.

Lieutenant Commander Trott says the U.S. Navy's effort is focused both on training African sailors and on convincing their leaders of the need to modernize their forces and begin to work together with neighboring countries.

"Part of our effort today is not only direct assistance to the Navy with training and with repairs, but also at the political level to assist with educating on the importance of maritime security and what's required to develop and maintain proper safety and security features," added Mr. Trott.

Out on the Gulf of Guinea, while his crew has been working on specific skills with the African sailors, Commander Wagner has been meeting with senior military and civilian leaders along his route, and urging them to spend more on maritime security, including much needed investments in ships and aircraft, maintenance, and training and safety programs.

"In order to do maritime security, you have to have the right mix of legal authorities, capabilities, capacities and regional partnership," explained Commander Wagner.

And Commander Wagner says although he and his fellow coastguardsmen are far from home, temporarily assigned to a Navy command and far from their usual area of operation, they are still pursuing their basic mission, to enhance U.S. homeland security.

"Homeland security does not start at the homeland itself," he added.  "By increasing the maritime security capabilities of other countries around the world, we're actually helping to increase the maritime security of America."

The U.S. Coast Guard deployment off the west coast of Africa will soon end, and Commander Wagner and his crew will return to their homeport in Virginia.  He says they'll take with them some memories they never thought they'd have, and the hope that they have demonstrated the importance of coastal security to countries that could someday find themselves on the front lines of the war on terrorism.