The effort to stop piracy in African waters depends on the classic “find, fix and finish” formula, except that “finish” will be arrest, not destruction.
Finding pirates before they can launch attacks requires a fully integrated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance cycle: Intelligence to build an initial picture of the situation; surveillance to develop and update that picture; and focused reconnaissance to add detail and follow up leads to further refine that picture.
The key elements required to perform this function will include shore-based radars, maritime surveillance and patrol aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicle systems (UAVS); patrol vessels of several types, with embarked helicopters or UAVS; shore-based fixed and mobile sensors, including radar and optronic sensors, and electronic intelligence gathering systems to monitor radar emissions and communications signals.
UAVS such as the Denel Dynamics Seeker 400 with its 16-hour endurance are well-suited to being forward deployed to provide surveillance of coastal areas and suspected pirate bases as far as 250 km from its base. Such systems could also:
Be launched from a shore base and controlled from a patrol vessel 250 km out at sea to give it a 250 km search and identification capability, allowing it to launch its embarked helicopter only when positive action is required.
Be positioned on the basis of intelligence or other data from other sensors to pick up pirate craft as they set out from a suspect village and, exploiting its endurance, altitude and day/ night sensors, track them, unnoticed, to where they might attempt an attack.
Be used to direct fast interceptor boats to suspect craft hiding among fishing vessels at night, or Special Forces teams to where pirates have gone to ground on shore, in each case using its night cameras to provide the current picture to the surface forces and its laser illuminator to identify the target for them.
Medium-altitude/long-endurance (MALE) UAVS are able to use radar and optronic sensors to conduct broad-area maritime surveillance, freeing up the crewed aircraft to investigate specific suspect vessels, while rotary-wing UAVS can be deployed off ships.
Fixing suspected pirates will be more difficult than “fixing” enemy forces in war, as the option of firing at them until they cannot move will not often be available, state arsenal Denel says in a statement that aimed to popularise knowledge of its maritime and anti-piracy capabilities. But pirate craft can be “fixed” in a sense by an aircraft remaining on station, tracking them, monitoring and recording their actions – for instance throwing weapons overboard, until a patrol vessel can arrive and deploy a boarding party by boat or helicopter. A key element here are day/night sensors with recording of the image and of position/date/ time data for evidentiary purposes. This task could be performed by any surveillance or patrol aircraft, but would be more efficiently performed by a UAV, freeing up the crewed aircraft for other tasks.
In some cases ‘fixing’ might require actual engagement to prevent an attack or escape. That is a situation better suited to a manned aircraft or helicopter with a stabilised lightweight, low-recoil cannon/machine gun armament or suitable light guided missiles. The advantage of the former is that it allows warning shots to be fired first, and discrete aimed fire to disable a pirate craft if the warning is not heeded. A light missile could be fired by an aircraft, helicopter or UAV to hit the engine room or bridge of a larger vessel to stop it. A missile could, in fact, be essential in situations where a pirate vessel has a heavy machine gun or shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile, forcing the aircraft to stay at a safe distance. Both of those weapons are known to be in the hands of some pirate groups, Denel says.
A shipboard helicopter could also be armed with a long-range anti-materiel rifle with which to place carefully aimed fire into a pirate craft, as is done by the US Coast Guard to stop fast boats carrying cocaine. That rifle could be given a stabilised mounting for greater accuracy.
The “finish” function will mostly involve boarding a pirate craft or one that has been captured by pirates, overwhelming the pirates and then arresting them. It may also, however, in future require raids against pirate groups in their hideouts ashore. It is important to bear in mind that some of the pirate groups are very well armed indeed.
Stabilised day/night observation systems and weapons sights, both with recording capability for evidentiary purposes, will be critical during this phase. Stabilised cannon and long-range anti-materiel rifles, on damped or stabilised mountings, will be the key weapons elements of patrol vessels, enabling them to deliver warning shots or precision fire to stop a pirate craft, and to provide covering fire for boarding parties when that is needed.
Finally, there is still the need to draw together all of the information that the various sensors will provide, and to ensure that the various systems – regardless of source – can actually be integrated to work with each other efficiently. That is a function that will also involve sensitive intelligence data and systems and therefore needs to be handled at a sovereign level.