Pirates, beware — the U.S. Marine Corps could be coming to troubled waters near you.
As armed pirates continue to terrorize waters off Africa’s west coast at three times the rate than their Somali counterparts on the continent’s eastern coast, Marine officials are considering expanding its presence in and around the Gulf of Guinea to ward off piracy and other threats. Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine Corps spokesman, told FoxNews.com the force would be an extension of a larger crisis-response team established earlier this year in Spain to handle emergencies in northern Africa.
“What we’re doing is looking at potential extension of that same force,” Flanagan said. “With the current fiscal environment, it’s about the Marine Corps maintaining presence without the need for amphibious shipping.”
"At the moment, some of these things are still in the works, but this a potential response that the Marine Corps can provide."
- Capt. Eric Flanagan, Marines Corps spokesman
The speculative plan, first reported by Foreign Policy, would include the force of about 550 Marines and six MV-22B Ospreys, allowing quick transport for Leathernecks around the globe, Flanagan said.
“They can take off like a helicopter and fly like a plane,” he said of the aircraft. “We’re looking to have these crisis-response teams to be able to put Marines in various places so we can respond to a lot of high-threat areas.”
Similar crisis-response teams are also being considered for the Middle East and the Caribbean, according to Flanagan, who stressed the plan remains in early stages and likely a year or longer from actual deployment unless conditions in the area decline. But with a Navy ship stationed in or near the Gulf of Guinea, Flanagan said Marines could quickly respond to situations in northwest Africa and beyond.
“It’s being considered,” Flanagan continued. “At the moment, some of these things are still in the works, but this a potential response that the Marine Corps can provide.”
Lt. Gen. Richard Tryon detailed the possible extension during an Oct. 30 speech accompanied by a slide that depicted a single ship based in the Gulf of Guinea off Nigeria, where 30 reported piracy incidents have occurred this year, including two hijackings, according to the International Chamber of Commerce’s Maritime Bureau. By comparison, just 11 reported incidents, including two hijackings, have occurred off Somalia. Globally, 206 incidents and 11 hijackings have been tallied this year, according to statistics provided by the organization.
Separately, the International Maritime Bureau reported last month that attacks in the gulf were up by one-third, with more than 40 piracy attacks this year. A total of 32 crew members were taken off the coast of Nigeria, compared to two off Togo’s coast to the west. About 30 percent of U.S. oil and 40 percent of European crude supplies navigate the treacherous waters, according to The Soufan Group, a global security intelligence firm.
In October, two U.S. mariners were kidnapped off the coast of Nigeria from an American-flagged oil supply vessel. Rebels in the oil-rich Niger Delta later told The Associated Press that they had been contacted by the kidnappers and said a rescue operation was underway. And while almost all foreigners kidnapped are released once ransoms are paid, U.S. State Department officials told FoxNews.com that no new information pertaining to the kidnapping victims was available as of Thursday.
An email reportedly from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta to The Associated Press late last month indicated that the Americans were captured by a "heavily armed auxiliary outfit" off the town of Brass in the Gulf of Guinea.
"The Americans will not be handed over for our direct custody but we will have the influence to visit them and ensure that they are well looked after until their subsequent release," the statement said.
A U.S. civilian kidnapped last year from Nigeria's oil-refining city of Warri was freed after a week in captivity. Nigeria's navy has rescued at least two hostages this year and reported killing several pirates in counterattacks to prevent ship hijackings, The Associated Press reports.
Piracy, however, would not likely be the “top priority” for the new force ultimately put in place off Africa’s west coast, Flanagan said. Other potential missions could include embassy reinforcement or humanitarian assistance. But by simply being visible in the area, he said, Marines could potentially thwart would-be acts of piracy and serve as a formidable impediment.
In addition to clamping down on piracy, the forces could theoretically play a role in protecting U.S. and Western interests on Africa’s mainland, where the militant group Boko Haram has clashed with Christians and the oil-rich nation’s government.
“Not having to fire a shot is probably the best outcome we could hope for,” Flanagan told FoxNews.com. “But the overall goal would be to have Marines in the region who can act as a deterrent.”
Max Hoffman, a research associate at the Center for American Progress, questioned whether the potential force deployment is “absolutely necessary” since most of the attacks occur fairly close to shore and are related to the oil production in Nigeria.
“It would be a pretty big tool for a fairly small nail,” Hoffman told FoxNews.com. “The question becomes could the resources of a Marine deployment in the region be better utilized building local capabilities to combat these problems.”
As the Marines now pivot from Iraq and Afghanistan to other parts of the world, Hoffman said Africa is becoming a “major focus” and for good reason. But he also questioned what would follow if Marines do eventually engage with pirates in the Gulf of Guinea or elsewhere off Africa.
“It would raise questions as to what are the rules of engagement,” Hoffman said. “What happens if a vessel is seized and they go to the territorial waters off Nigeria? Do the Marines follow?”