Equatorial Guinea seeks to buy 3 corvettes from South Korea

A South Korean Pohang-class corvette (ROKS Gyeongju, PCC-758).

Equatorial Guinea is in talks with South Korea to buy 3 corvettes worth $90 million.

The government of the Middle African country of Equatorial Guinea is reportedly in negotiations for the purchase of warships from the Republic of Korea. The South Korean news agency, Yonhap, recently quoted a South Korean official who confirmed Equatorial Guinea’s interest in buying three corvettes at an estimated price of $90 million (100 billion won).

According to Yonhap, negotiations began after Equatorial Guinea’s President, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, met his counterpart, Lee Myung-bak, in mid-August 2010 during a visit to Seoul. Park Young-june, a vice minister in South Korea’s Ministry of Knowledge Economy, told the press agency that Obiang informed Lee about Equatorial Guinea’s plans to improve its national security by purchasing warships from abroad.

However, no further details about the possible purchase, including the specific type of vessels to be procured, have yet been provided. Considering the financial means of the small African country, despite prosperous prospects due to the discovery of significant petroleum reserves, it is not probable that Equatorial Guinea would acquire newly-built vessels. In recent years, Equatorial Guinea’s defence budget has been 0.1 per cent of its GDP ($10.413 billion; 2009 estimate).

As the two countries vowed to increase co-operation in the fields of petroleum and liquefied natural gas (LNG), it is likely that any agreement will include the export of resources to South Korea, which has few natural resources and needs to meet the requirements of its constantly growing population and thriving industry.

Despite South Korea’s strong shipbuilding industry, it can be assumed that Equatorial Guinea would purchase surplus vessels from the Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy. South Korea operates a considerable fleet of corvettes and patrol vessels, in light of its ongoing state of war with North Korea.

If Equatorial Guinea is set to purchase corvettes, as the Yonhap report suggests, these could be Pohang-class or Donghae-class vessels currently operated by the ROK Navy. The latter has been in service with the ROK Navy since 1983. Only one of the original four ships remains in service; the other three ships were decommissioned in June 2010 and are now only available for use in support of naval exercises.

However, it has not been confirmed whether Equatorial Guinea would buy the three decommissioned ships or slightly newer Pohang-class corvettes, of which 24 have been built since 1984. To date, only one corvette of this class has been decommissioned. This class of ship also attained sad attention when the Cheonan was lost in the Yellow Sea on 26 March 2010. South Korea has accused North Korea of sinking the Cheonan in a torpedo attack during its patrol near the disputed sea border. Forty-six sailors died in this incident, while 58 survived out of a crew of 104.

Equatorial Guinea’s fleet consists of few ageing patrol vessels of different origin, including a Dutch-built P-20 patrol craft which was donated by Nigeria, as well as two Chinese-built Shantou-class vessels. In 2008, the Equatorial Guinean Navy consisted of 120 sailors.

The 8-member Gulf of Guinea Commission (consisting of Angola, Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sao Tome and Principe) decided several years ago to set up a joint Gulf of Guinea Guard Force (GGGF) to ensure security within the Middle African gulf region, in particular of the valuable offshore oil facilities. However, planning and negotiations between the African countries has progressed slowly, despite Nigeria’s call for a quick implementation of the force, fearing further attacks by rebel groups on its oil facilities. The Commission has also requested the help of the US in setting up and training the guard force.

Equatorial Guinea has a strategically important position in the Gulf of Guinea, with the country basically being split into a continental region and the Bioko Island, with the country’s capital of Malabo. The island is located in the Bight of Biafra, some 200 kilometres east of Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger delta.

Portuguese-language reports in July suggested Equatorial Guinea was to purchase a Barroso-class corvette from Brazil. The reported deal follows a visit to the authoritarian former Spanish colony by Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The defensa.com website reports initial discussions apparently started in February 2010. A memorandum of understanding for that acquisition was reportedly signed July 6 with Emgepron, “a private company linked to the Ministry of Defence through the General Staff of the Brazilian Navy.”

Emgepron also built a 46.5 metre patrol vessel, the Brendan Simbwaye, for the Namibian navy. The defensa.com continues the final contract “should be signed” at the Euronavale 2010 exhibition, to be held in October at Le Bourget outside Paris, France. It is not clear if this happened.

Janes Defence Weekly reported somewhat differently that same month, saying that a letter of intent was signed in 2006. It expected the contract to be signed next year and the Grupo Synergy-owned EISA yard to build a modified Barroso design with a lower displacement than the 2350-ton ship in Brazilian service. It adds the new variant will feature a CODLAG (combined diesel-electric and gas) propulsion plant with MTU diesel engines and a reduced armament: instead of a Vickers 4.5-inch (114.3 mm) Mk 8 main gun, the vessel will be equipped with an Oto Melara Super Rapid 76 mm gun. The Exocet anti-ship missiles will also be left out, but the ship will retain a Bofors 40 mm anti-aircraft cannon “as well as the ability to operate a light to medium helicopter.” The vessel would reportedly be fitted with a Siconta Mk III tactical control system, a TTI (Terminal Tático Inteligente) tactical information system, an ET/SLQ-2X electronic countermeasures and an ET/SLR-1X electronic support measures system.

As a new African oil power with a Gross Domestic Product of US$15.7 billion in 2008, Equatorial Guinea can arguably afford such a ship, but its ability to operate or maintain it is highly suspect. The authoritative Military Balance annual of the International Institute for Strategic Studies put the size of the nation’s navy at just 120 in 2009. Its air force musters 100 and its army 1100. The navy, based at Bata on Malabo Island is listed as owning two inshore patrol craft, one larger patrol vessel as well as two river patrol boats. The Guardia Civil also owns an inshore patrol vessel. The operational status of these vessels are unknown but is unlikely to be high, even though the country seemingly spends a considerable amount on defence, an estimated US8.4 billion in 2007.

However, corruption and political repression is said to be rife in the 616 000-strong nation, with most people living in extreme poverty. The US Center for Public Integrity on a November 2002 report said “oil companies do not view Equatorial Guinea’s military – a product of decades of brutal dictatorial rule – with much confidence… Seven of the army’s nine generals are relatives of the president [who took power in 1979 after deposing and executing his uncle]; the other two are from his tribe. There is no clear command structure, the level of discipline is low, and professionalism and training are almost non-existent, according to locals and foreign oil workers. Even the presidential guard – an indication of the lack of trust in the country’s forces – is composed of 350 Moroccan troops.” The IISS does not list the Moroccans.

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