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U.S. drones seek to curb piracy off Somalia

October 25, 2009|Jason Straziuso

NAIROBI, KENYA — For the first time, sophisticated U.S. military surveillance drones capable of carrying missiles have begun patrolling waters off Somalia in hopes of stemming piracy.

Three ships have been seized in a week off Africa's lawless eastern coast and Vice Adm. Robert Moeller, the deputy commander for the U.S. Africa Command, said pirates continue to pose a significant challenge.

With the monsoon season now ended, there have been a rash of attacks as pirates return to the open seas. More than 130 crew members from seven ships are currently being held, including about 70 from the latest attacks.

In an effort to stem the surge, the U.S. has deployed unmanned military surveillance planes called MQ-9 Reapers to patrol the Indian Ocean in search of pirates, Moeller said in an interview at command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. The patrols began this week, military officials said.

The 36-foot-long Reapers, stationed on the Seychelles islands, are the size of jet fighters, can fly about 16 hours and are each capable of carrying a dozen guided bombs and missiles. They are outfitted with infrared, laser and radar targeting.

Military officials said Friday that the drone aircraft would not immediately be fitted with weaponry, but they did not rule out doing so in the future.

Analysts said they expected the Reapers would also be used to hunt Al Qaeda and other suspected Islamist militants in Somalia. Moeller said the aircraft would "primarily" be used against pirates, but he acknowledged that they could also be used for other missions.

Even the drones and the presence of an international naval armada are unlikely to deter pirates, Moeller said. Pirates, he said, are "prepared to take their chances against the warships that are patrolling the area, simply because the potential for big financial gain is significant."

Cyrus Mody, an expert on piracy at the London branch of the International Maritime Bureau, said he expected the unmanned aircraft would help ward off attacks by acting as an early-warning system for tankers and other commercial vessels traversing waters off the Somali coast.

"What we hope will happen is that they will get much earlier warning of suspicious vessels or suspected [pirate] mother ships that can then be targeted by the naval vessels. Or alerts and broadcasts can be sent out indicating the positions of these ships [and] indicating they should keep as clear a distance as possible," Mody said.

U.S. Navy vessels have used 3-foot-long drones off the East Africa coast before. But the Reapers -- which have a 66-foot wingspan -- represent a significant investment to gather intelligence in the region.

Last spring, U.S. Navy sharpshooters killed three of the four pirates who were holding Richard Phillips, captain of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama cargo ship.

The Reaper deployment comes as piracy is on the rise in the area. While 35 vessels were targeted in 2007 and 111 in 2008, there have been 178 attacks so far in 2009, according to International Maritime Bureau figures.

The hijackings have persisted despite an international armada deployed by the United States, the European Union, NATO, Japan, South Korea and China to patrol the region.

In a sign that nations are being forced to step up security, Seychelles announced this week that it would send troops to its outer islands. A Seychelles minister, Joel Morgan, said the coast guard was working closely with international naval forces and that both the U.S. and Europe had stationed maritime patrol aircraft on the island nation.

The Somali-based pirates operate freely in a country with no effective government and can earn millions of dollars by hijacking a ship that might contain oil, coal or other goods -- a windfall for young, unemployed men.

Moeller, the U.S. commander, said good governance, rule of law and economic development were needed in Somalia so that pirates "have an alternative lifestyle to pursue. And unfortunately, that's not the case today."

"The long-term solution to the piracy issue is basically getting the conditions right in Somalia," he said.

Peter Chalk, an expert on piracy at the Washington-based RAND Corp., said he believed the new aircraft would be "largely irrelevant" in bringing an end to the lawlessness because problems with Somalia's government need to be addressed first. Otherwise, piracy will persist, he said.

"The risks of being caught are very low (and even lower in terms of being successfully prosecuted) while the potential rewards are enormous -- at least in a Somali context," Chalk wrote in an e-mail.

Pirates raked in up to $80 million in ransoms in 2008, Roger Middleton, a piracy expert at the London-based think-tank Chatham House, says. Tracing the cash has been difficult in part because of Somalia's chaotic civil war and partly because many Somalis use an informal clan-based money transfer system instead of normal banking channels.

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