I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago with an officer from a British navy ship that had docked in Cork. The subject of the conversation varied, but it tended towards military/strategic plans of Britain and the US.
What I pointedly asked was why the British had embarked on a massive navy building programme in the last 10 years, specifically the Queen Elizabeth class carriers and the Type 45 destroyer. Besides replacing older generation vessels, to me it seemed to indicate something beyond current trends in conflict (counter-terrorist Littoral ships).
Since navies have to be planned decades in advance, I often look at them to see what the possible future strategic planning of nations are.
The discussion took place just prior to the conflict in Georgia. He indicated with some frankness that the first priority was securing shipping lanes, and the chief symmetrical threat was considered to be Russia, not China. Though China was an up and coming power, its abilities in terms of blue water navy was decades away.
Discussions then ranged around a number of topics, including possible defences against super-cavitation torpedoes, possible defences by carrier groups against supersonic cruise missiles, submarine defence mechanisms (specifically against ultra quiet subs such as the German Type 212).
Then it turned to energy security. Obviously in naval terms there are very few specific regional choke points. The Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, the Straits of Hormuz and the Malacca Straits are among the most notable. Since, I argued, so much of Western energy supplies are via Hormuz, and it borders with Iran, it would seem to be a weakness in energy security.
The solution he suggested was an interesting one. Navy survey ships, he said, from both the US and Britain were concentrating their efforts almost entirely on West Africa. Angola, for example, passed Nigeria to become Africa’s leading oil producer this year, at over 2.5m barrels of oil a day. Their reserves alone are estimated at over 10 billion barrels. The US imports 7% of its oil from Angola, about three times as much as it imported from Kuwait just prior to the Gulf War in 1991.
Other West African nations are also beginning production and the EIA has a good report here. It also reports on gas availability. Equatorial Guinea and Mauritania are also new producers.
And what is the biggest advantage of this region for the West, and our energy security? All that lies between West Africa and Europe/US is the Atlantic Ocean – no choke points. And their navies to secure the shipping lanes.
Update: I meant to add that earlier this year the US reactivated its Fourth Fleet after being deactivated for 58 years. This should allow the Second Fleet operate on the eastern Atlantic, while the Fourth concentrates on the Carribean and western Atlantic.