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WASHINGTON – Armed pirates have run rampant off Africa’s west coast for years, overtaking Somali pirates off the east coast of the continent as the biggest maritime marauders in the world.

But they may have a new outfit to reckon with: The U.S. Marine Corps is exploring expanding its presence in the region to fight off piracy and other threats, Foreign Policy has learned.

The new force, still in its early stages, would be based on a Navy ship floating in and around the Gulf of Guinea, according to Marine officials and a briefing slide from an Oct. 30 speech delivered by Lt. Gen. Richard Tryon.

The slide includes a map in which a single ship is based in the gulf, and Marines have the ability to perform missions from it as far inland as Algeria to the north, and Kenya and Tanzania to the east.

The plan comes as the Marine Corps withdraws thousands of personnel from Afghanistan and realigns forces for new missions across the globe, including in Africa. They will do so at a time when there are fewer Navy ships available than there have been in decades, forcing Marines to use the ships in unconventional ways.

In other words: this isn’t the deployment of a single group of Marines; this could be a model for how the entire corps operates for years to come.

Dozens of acts of piracy occur in the Gulf of Guinea annually, according to the International Chamber of Commerce’s maritime bureau. The area now surpasses even the infamous pirate hot spot of the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia in its maritime hijackings.

The new Marine force would fall under the command of a larger crisis-response unit the service first established earlier this year in Spain to respond to emergencies in northern Africa, said Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine Corps spokesman.

That land-based force includes about 550 Marines and six MV-22B Ospreys. The tilting rotors on the aircraft allow it to fly with the speed and range of an airplane, but land like a helicopter, quickly delivering armed infantrymen on board to hot spots across the globe.

Like other pieces of the crisis-response force, the Marines operating in western Africa would perform missions ranging from embassy reinforcement to humanitarian assistance, Flanagan said. But counter-piracy missions are definitely on the table.

The piracy problem off the coast of Somalia has plummeted – there have been 11 incidents reported there this year, following several years of the U.S. Navy and other allied nations conducting anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and surrounding waters.