The Spanish Air Force continues to support the European Union’s Operation Atalanta anti-piracy operation off the Horn of Africa, using CN235 and P-3 aircraft, with the CN235s accumulating 100 hours per month during these deployments.
First Lieutenant Alejandro Nemo of the Spanish Air Force’s 48 Wing (804 and 402 Squadrons) said his unit uses CN235 maritime patrol aircraft for this task, converted to D.4 standard with the Fully Integrated Tactical System (FITS). These aircraft feature a maritime radar, forward-looking infrared, electro-optical sensor and ship Automatic Identification System (AIS), among others. The radar can track the distance, bearing, and geographic position of up to 200 targets, including marine surface and airborne targets. Nemo said it is very helpful as the radar gives 360 degrees coverage.
The electro-optical turret carries a FLIR, colour camera and laser illuminator. Other equipment includes a digital camera with a 70-200 mm 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.
The AIS system is used to monitor its mandatory use. Some vessel owners choose to switch the system off to avoid having to pick up refugees in the Mediterranean – international laws stipulate that they are required to assist refugee boats but some switch their systems off in order to avoid taking responsibility. If caught, vessels can be fined hundreds of thousands to millions of euros.
A search and rescue kit can be dropped to people in distress from the rear ramp of the CN235. The kits are made up of two rafts and three survival equipment containers tied together with a rope. Before being dropped, a flare is launched to determine wind direction and then the kit is dropped, although there are very few times this has actually been used in practice – a few times helicopters have been dispatched to assist stricken vessels.
Nemo said that Atalanta patrols are usually flown at around 2 000 feet above sea level, and at 140-150 knots, for best surveillance, but this does result in fairly high fuel burn. The minimum crew is two pilots, two sensor operators and two observers. Missions typically last 8-10 hours and cover 1 800 nautical miles. Operation Atalanta CN235s have flown some 1 525 flight hours during 179 sorties, with usually 100 hours being flown a month during 12-15 missions.
In addition to the standard Atalanta crew deployment of four pilots, three FITS operators, one tactical coordinator, two observers and two flight engineers, six ground mechanics are deployed to support the single CN235 D.4 deployed. Nemo said the environment is harsh on the aircraft, with salty, dirty, hot air requiring the aircraft to be washed after every flight.
The primary goal of Atalanta 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. As the pirates are now targeting ships away from the heavily patrolled transit corridor in the Gulf of Aden, the CN235s are searching outside this area as well. Nemo noted that 20 000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden a year, including 17 oil tankers a day, which carry 30% of Europe’s fuel.
Nemo noted that piracy has reduced from its high between 2008 and 2012 due to best practices by ship operators and the strong naval presence in the region. At the moment there is almost no pirate activity, he said, but noted that intelligence reports pirate activity moving elsewhere. As a result, the CN235s are increasingly being used for ground surveillance such as looking out for drug and people smuggling activities. 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.
Although Atalanta continues, and the mission has been extended to the end of next year, 48 Wing is not currently deployed there. Instead, 801 Squadron is flying out of Djibouti at the moment. CN235s are usually deployed for two month periods, but every other year P-3 Orions take up the task.
Apart from Operation Atalanta, 48 Wing also took part in Operation Noble Centinela to stop illegal migrants in the Canary Islands. The aircraft flew 396 flight hours over 125 sorties. Another 389 flight hours were flown during 56 missions under Unified Protector around Libya. Operation Active Endeavour, ongoing in the Mediterranean, has seen the CN235s fly 350 flight hours over 55 sorties. Around five 9-10 hour long sorties are carried out a month.