The European Union is short of warships for its counter-piracy mission off Somalia and is unlikely the fill the gap until March given economic constraints, the top EU military officer said.
Swedish General Hakan Syren, chairman of the EU Military Committee, said the shortage would be a “problem”, without going into further details.
An EU military official later played down the challenge, saying the shortfall would coincide with a period when pirate attacks normally declined and the bloc would be able to sustain the mission, Reuters reports.
Pirates operating from the Somali coast have raked in millions of dollars in ransoms from hijacking ships and a total of 243 hostages and 10 vessels are currently being held, according to figures from EU Navfor, the EU’s anti-piracy task force.
A report earlier this year estimated maritime piracy costs the global economy between $7 billion and $12 billion through higher shipping costs and ransom payments.
Syren said the EU operation, codenamed Atalanta, had a normal minimum force requirement of four to six warships, depending on the time of the year, and this would not be met in the period from December until March.
“The … commander has a minimum level of both maritime patrol aircraft and ships; and during quite a limited time … the number of ships is below the red line,” he told a news conference after a meeting of defence chiefs of the 27 EU states.
“It’s a problem. I am telling you the facts and it is really a problem … and we have faced this before,” he said.
Syren blamed the economic crisis, as well as fatigue from NATO’s Libya operation, in which European NATO members maintained a seven-month sea mission to enforce a U.N. arms embargo up until the end of October.
“I can imagine there are many different reasons for this, but one is of course economy – the budget cuts,” Syren said.
“The last year of course … many countries with these kinds of assets … felt insecure about the situation in the Mediterranean Sea connected to the Arabian Spring and the Libyan crisis. But primarily it’s a question of resources.”
On the plus side, Syren said, an EU training mission intended to help improve security within Somalia was making progress, and was now training a third batch of almost 700 Somali soldiers.
According to Navfor, 165 attempted attacks have taken place this year, with 24 actually resulting in the hijacking of a vessel.
British Prime Minister David Cameron announced last month that British merchant ships sailing off the coast of Somalia would be able to carry armed guards to ward off pirate attacks, bringing it into line with many other countries.