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Suppressing piracy off the African coast

Anti-piracy operations are proving successful but still face many difficulties… By: Helmoed Römer Heitman

SOMALI PIRACY, beginning on a small scale against foreign fishing vessels in coastal waters and escalating to attacks more than halfway to India, drew public attention to this scourge, most particularly because the Somali pirates developed the modus operandi of holding a ship and its crew for ransom.

The focus on the Somali pirates, however, drew attention away from West Africa and the continuing problems with piracy in Asia.

Now Somali piracy is much reduced and some are arguing that there is no need for continued patrols of Somali waters. But it is reduced primarily because of naval patrols off Somalia, and the presence of armed protection parties aboard some cargo ships, not because it has lost its underlying potential as a business venture. Draw down the patrols, and piracy will increase.


West African piracy was long ignored by most, while crippling many local fishing companies already hit by the impact of illegal fishing by large foreign vessels. It has now drawn attention because the pirates have become more effective and are attacking ships further out to sea.

The actual solution to the problem of piracy is to address security and economic development ashore, where the pirates live, plan operations and spend their money. Until that can be done – and it will not be easy in poor countries – the problem will persist, and countermeasures will be required.

The international naval operations against Somali pirates have, together with intelligent ship routing and the use of armed protection parties, proved very successful, even if it did take a number of years to develop the right concept of operations.

What is often overlooked by civilian commentators, is the role that was played by aircraft: Shore-based maritime surveillance and patrol aircraft and shipboard helicopters in the main, but with some use of Predator UAVs flown from the Seychelles.

The importance of the air component cannot be overstated: The best ship is limited by its radar horizon, which is where its radar emissions pass over the earth’s curvature and go out to space.

For a situation involving an OPV or small frigate with its radar at best 20 metres above sea level, and a typical pirate skiff, that will be around 20 km, or a circle of some 300 km2, moving forward at the speed of the ship – not a lot of sea covered by radar there!


Larger warships, with their radar antennae higher above sea level will see a little further, but not enough to make any real difference given the sheer size of the oceans, even in relatively restricted waters. The Mozambique Channel, for instance, has a surface area of some one million km2 depending on where one draws the boundaries.

A helicopter orbiting the ship at say 3 500 feet, by contrast, would have a radar horizon against such a pirate skiff of some 130 km, depending on the radar and the nature of the pirate craft. And it can quite easily fly 100 km or so away from the ship and move quickly, covering a vastly larger area than can the ship itself. A surveillance aircraft flying at, say, 25 000 feet could have a radar horizon of some 370 km – given a really good radar, some reflectivity on the part of the pirate craft, and a calm sea. A lot of variables affecting those numbers, but they do give the idea. And that aircraft will have much greater endurance than a helicopter and be faster, better able to move from one patrol area to another in response to intelligence or a call for assistance.

So the optimal solution would seem to lie with maritime patrol (MPA) or surveillance (MSA) aircraft when it comes to detecting suspected pirate craft, and modern optronic turrets will also enable them to have a close look at a suspect craft with a good chance of confirming whether or not it merits closer inspection. But right there lies the limitation of the maritime aircraft – it cannot stop, board and inspect the suspect craft, it has to call a ship to the scene. It is only a ship that can carry out the intercept, board and search part of the equation, without which the entire exercise would be largely pointless........................ For the FULL ARTICLE please subscribe to our digital edition.

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