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Issue 489 -- 11th - 17th June 2011
Eyes In The Sky: Up Close As The German Navy Tracks Down Somali Pirates
German naval forces are using multi-million-dollar reconnaissance planes to track pirates, part of an international effort to protect shipping in the Gulf of Aden. Will Germany’s government continue to support the operation?
The vessel and its crew were hijacked by Somali pirates on March 30, 2010. Since then, the pirates have been using the fishermen as human shields and the Amal (not the vessel’s real name) as a mothership for their raids. What they don't know is that their actions are being monitored from the air by the flying eye of the German Navy.The time is 0530 hours at the French Air Force base in Djibouti, and the temperature is already 31 degrees Celsius (88 Fahrenheit). Commander Thomas Krey and his 12-man crew from the Marine Air Wing 3 Graf Zeppelin in Lower Saxony are meeting onboard the P-3C maritime patrol aircraft for a last briefing before their mission.
"We've been tracking the Amal for quite some time now. We’ll observe them from about 4,000 feet. If they shoot at us, we'll just fly higher. Happy Hunting!” wishes the tactical officer on board the 40-million-euro (58-million-dollar) high-tech aircraft.
On the way to takeoff, the plane rolls past French Mirage fighter planes, American Hercules transport planes, and French Puma helicopters. It reaches the runway at 0607 hours. The sun is beginning to rise over the Gulf of Aden, an area where one of the world’s most vulnerable shipping lanes crosses some of the waters most frequented by pirates.
Today’s mission is to locate and shadow the Amal. In charge of the operation is Alberto Manuel Silvestre Correia, the Portuguese commander of the European anti-piracy mission Atalanta.
Something suspicious on the radar
Having stocked up on weapons, ammunition, food, drinking water and several thousand liters of diesel and gasoline in Somalia, the pirates took to sea with the captured ship three days earlier and headed northeast. Now they are estimated to be 1,450 kilometers (900 miles) from the French airbase where the German aircraft are stationed.
At 10:05 a.m, a crewmember discovers a suspicious item on his radar screen. Immediately, the high-performance camera under the nose of the aircraft zooms in from a distance of 60 kilometers (37 miles). Monitors onboard the aircraft display a razor-sharp image of a traditional Arab boat, a dhow.
A man is moving around on deck, next to two speedboats covered by a tarpaulin. “Bingo! We have the Amal.” There are no disagreements, and the tactical officer passes the information on to the rest of the crew.
The wheels of the international anti-piracy mission are finally turning. Alongside Germany, 21 EU member states as well as four non-EU countries have donated either troops or funds to the effort. The radio warns other ships in the area of the pirates' location and gives the coordinates of the hijacked ship to the Turkish frigate ‘Giresun,’ which is fighting pirates on behalf of NATO some 90 miles away.
The Turkish ship immediately sets course for the hijacked ship. An hour later, a helicopter rises from aboard the Giresun and asks the pirates via radio to throw their weapons overboard. But the pirates do not respond. Because they have hostages onboard, storming the dhow is out of the question. The Turkish warship is left with no other choice than to shadow the pirates to prevent further incursions.
"Even though they have refused to throw their weapons overboard, these pirates no longer pose a direct threat, as they are now under observation,” says Commander Krey from a height of 7,000 meters (23,000 feet). His reconnaissance plane flies out every other day; this won't be the last he sees of the Amal pirates.
"The problem can't be solved exclusively from the air and sea,” explains Commander William Tobias Abry. “But as long as there are no state security structures in place in Somalia, we cannot neglect the fight against piracy at sea.”
The captain and his frigate are currently accompanying a vessel belonging to the UN World Food Programme (WFP) that is shipping grain to war-torn Somalia. The protection of the WFP ships in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia is one of the main tasks of Operation Atalanta, which has been running since December 2008.
Germany’s armed forces have been involved since the start of the operation. A total of 219 servicemen and women from the German Marine Air Wing, as well as 50 men and women from the German Army, are currently stationed onboard the frigate ‘Niedersachsen.’ They are supported by a 34-strong logistics team stationed in Djibouti.
It is likely that the German government will continue to support this operation when it comes up for vote again in December. However, the high costs of continued involvement and the frequency of pirate raids have made the subject controversial among Germans.
According to the International Maritime Bureau, 211 ships have already been attacked by pirates this year. Roughly two thirds of them have been off the coast of Somalia; 26 ships and 522 crew are currently in the hands of pirates.
"Atalanta monitors a huge area, 10 times the size of Germany. Of course we cannot be everywhere at once,” says Commander Abry. “But since the start of our operation, not a single world hunger relief ship has been attacked, and the overall number of attacks has dropped dramatically in the controlled areas. With a humanitarian mission like this, you can't do a simple cost-benefit analysis.”
Liberating the ‘Taipan’
The men onboard the reconnaissance aircraft are convinced of the usefulness of their mission. The crew recorded one of their biggest successes on Easter Monday last year. At 1330, the plane received an emergency call while patrolling off of the Somali coast. “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Two pirate ships are moving at high speed towards our ship,” said the message.
The call was coming from the captain of the Hamburger freighter ship ‘Taipan.’ As soon as the P-3C received the call for help, it changed its course and flew at top speed towards the distressed ship. It alerted the Dutch frigate ‘Tromp,’ which was patrolling approximately 50 nautical miles away.
With its high-resolution cameras, the German pilots observed that the crew was able to escape into their ship's security room before 10 pirates hijacked the Taipan. “We told the Dutch that the pirates were probably armed with Kalashnikovs, but that they had no hostages in their power," recalls the then-tactical duty officer. Armed with information from the German reconnaissance aircraft, the Dutch then flew a helicopter of elite soldiers to rescue the Taipan.
The pirates surrendered, and all 13 hostages were freed unharmed. The Somali pirates will now face the courts in Hamburg, and the film from the P-3C's cameras will be used as evidence. “It makes us proud that we foiled the pirates' plans, and that we saved Easter. But it also makes me angry that the pirates will now be represented by lawyers funded by German taxpayers,” added the officer.
Sometimes, though, the German crew feels helpless in its unarmed reconnaissance aircraft. "We don't actively attack the pirates, but we play an active role in the fight against piracy. With our air reconnaissance missions, we are able to provide critical data for the capture and prosecution of pirates,” says Krey.
His tactical officer adds, “I am glad that we are not armed. Violence can provoke violence, and for us, the protection of hostages is paramount.”