The European Union launched the EU Naval Force's 'operation Atalanta' in December 2008 as part of its comprehensive approach to Somalia. Dave Oliver reports from Djibouti on its progress to date.
The mission of the ‘operation Atalanta’ forces is to deter, prevent and repress acts of piracy and armed robbery off the Somali coast, an area of some 2,000,000 square nautical miles.
EU Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) also protects World Food Programme (WFP) vessels delivering aid to displaced people in Somalia, as well as shipping for the African Union Mission on Somalia (AMISOM).
The EU NAVFOR composition changes constantly due to the frequent rotation of units and also varies according to the monsoon seasons in the Indian Ocean.
However, it typically comprises four to six surface combat vessels, and two or three maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft (MPRA) that have come from as far afield as New Zealand, as well as Europe.
In the last quarter of 2015, the maritime air contingent of ‘operation Atalanta’ based in Djibouti comprised a single Spanish Air Force CN-235, a German Navy P-3C Orion and a French Navy Falcon 50M.
The Spanish detachment at the French Base Arienné 188 at Djibouti International Airport is the only one that has remained deployed uninterrupted since the beginning of ‘operation Atalanta’ in 2009; 802 Squadron from BA Gando, in the Canary Islands, has been participating in the operation since 2010 with its Airtech CN-235 D.4 VIGMA maritime patrol aircraft (MPA). Six Spanish Air Force CN-235 transport aircraft were converted to D.4 standard to perform maritime search and rescue (SAR) missions in 2009.
The conversion to D.4 standard included the installation of an EADS/CASA fully integrated tactical system (FITS), a maritime radar, plus FLIR Systems’ sensor and ship automatic identification system (AIS). The radar give 360- degree coverage and can track the distance, bearing, and geographic position of up to 200 marine surface and airborne targets.
Communications include the TX-ARQ integrated system for data transmission via Inmarsat, and high-frequency radio. A digital camera with a 70-200mm zoom lens, digital video recorder capable of recording up to 10 hours and a datalink/satellite communication system that can transmit and receive pictures, data and text, is also carried.
A search and rescue kit, made up of two rafts and three survival equipment containers, can be dropped to people in distress from the rear ramp of the CN-235. A flare is launched from the aircraft to determine wind direction before the kit is dropped into the sea.
Lieutenant colonel Jose Miralles was the commanding officer of the Spanish Air Force Orion detachment operating from Djibouti at the time of African Aerospace’s visit. Forty-five personnel staffed the detachment drawn from different Spanish Air Force units. This included four pilots, three fully-integrated tactical system (FITS) operators, one tactical coordinator, two observers/camera operators, five air maintenance mechanics, and two electronics engineers. The aircrew were on a two-month deployment, while command staff were on four.
The Orion detachment was responsible for coordinating all the missions carried out by ‘operation Atalanta’ MPRAs. Personnel man a 24/7 mission support centre and are tasked by EUNAVFOR HQ at Norwood in the UK, and coordinate with the combined maritime forces (CMF) HQ in Bahrain to ensure there is no conflict with other air traffic over patrol routes in an around Somalia, which has no active air traffic control.
The Spanish aircraft flies an average of 100 flight hours on 12 missions per month, with two or three flights a week. Depending on weather, Atalanta patrols are usually flown at around 2,000 feet above sea level, at 140-150 knots for best surveillance. Missions typically last 8-10 hours and cover up to 1,800nm. The normal crew is two pilots, a tactical coordinator, two sensor operators and two observers.
The primary task of the ‘operation Atalanta’ MPRA missions is to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) in support of Atalanta vessels. This involves not only monitoring the Somali coast but also pirate bases.
The secondary task is sea surveillance to monitor normal shipping activity. Last year there was almost no pirate activity due to precautionary measures taken by ship operators and the strong naval presence in the region. As a result, the deployed MPRAs are increasingly being used for ground surveillance, looking out for drug and people smuggling activities.
Also, if a ship is seen to be in trouble, the standard procedure is to orbit to avoid detection by the pirates, report activity and circle the area to report the position and heading of the vessels. CN-235s are usually deployed for two-month periods, but every other year P-3 Orions take over the task.
In October 2015, a CN-235 carried out the first airdrop to a surface combat vessel deployed to ‘operation Atalanta’. The patrol aircraft flew out to the Spanish Santa Maria-class frigate at sea off the coast of Somalia to deliver a vital piece of equipment for its on-board Sikorsky SH-60B Seahawk helicopter. Flying 100 feet above sea level, the equipment was dropped from the rear ramp of the aircraft into the water close to the warship, where it was retrieved.
Receiving equipment and supplies by air or by rendezvousing with supply ships at sea enables ‘operation Atalanta’ warships to keep vital capabilities fully operational and, importantly, allows the ships to stay at sea to conduct their counter-piracy patrols and to protect vulnerable shipping transiting the area.
The Orion detachment has been part of ‘operation Atalanta’ since the start of the mission in December 2008. In October, a 802 Squadron CN-235 flew its 1,000th mission, during which the detachment had taken more than 130,000 photos, and identified over a thousand suspected vessels.
However, the celebrations were muted when news was received that one of the squadron’s AS332B Super Pumas had crashed into the Atlantic off Morocco en route to Gando, with the loss of its three crew.
A Grupo 22 P-3M Orion from Moron Air Force Base replaced the CN-235 detachment in 2016.
A German P-3C Orion MPRA joined ‘operation Atalanta’ in September 2015. Flight operations had been suspended at the beginning of July due to the monsoon season, which severely hinders any pirate activity.
The Naval Air Wing 3 (Marinefliegergeschwader 3) ‘Graf Zeppelin’ Orion, which used the call sign ‘Jester’, flew from its home base of Nordholz to the French Base Arienné 188, with a stopover in Sicily, preceded by members of a 50-strong support contingent, which re-established the necessary ground infrastructure.
Led by commander Bodo Ahlers, the German contingent of P-3C Orion patrolled the coast of Somalia, providing a detailed picture and up-to- date information of the coastal region. It averaged 20 flights a month, 160 flight hours, visually confirming some 1,900 ships.
The German Navy has a mid-life upgrade (MLU) package approved for its fleet of eight former Netherlands Lockheed P-3C Orion MPAs. In 2015 it announced that a comprehensive €500,000 ($546,000) upgrade programme to keep them in service until 2025 will be carried out by a consortium of Airbus Defence and Space and Lockheed Martin.
The contract includes the production of eight MLU-kits – outer wing, centre fuselage and horizontal stabiliser. Airbus Defence and Space will be responsible for integration, installation and check out of the kits for the P-3C aircraft at Manching, Germany.
In November 2015, the Spanish and German detachments were joined by a French Navy MPRA, a Falcon 50M from Escadrille 24F, based at BAN Lann-Bihoué. This is the second Falcon 50M air detachment based in Djibouti.
The French detachment commanding officer said: “The Falcon 50 is perfect for this type of operation, in that it is quick to react to a situation and has a highly-trained crew to analyse the information that it collects to support the EU’s counter-piracy mission.”
In November 2014, the Council of the EU extended the Mandate of ‘operation Atalanta’ until December 2016.