The European Union naval tasking off the Horn of Africa, which started life as protection for World Food Programme (WFP) vessels delivering food aid to stricken communities in Somalia and other countries in the region, has developed into a full-fledged maritime mission.
A critical component of the mission, codenamed Operation Atalanta, is aerial assets. These include maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft; maritime helicopters, termed organic because they are ship-based, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The most utilised air asset, according to a EU Naval Force statement, is fixed wing patrol aircraft. They operate autonomously, have both endurance and range and provide high quality images for intelligence analysis.
A Spanish Air Force Lockheed P-3M Orion is currently detached to Op Atalanta duty. It has an updated sensor suite and when not in the Indian Ocean is based at Morón Air Base, near Seville in Southern Spain.
Shipborne helicopters add value in terms of extending ship sensor coverage, with early decision making the bonus as well as boosting image gathering for the operation as a whole.
The Spanish Navy also has an Agusta Bell AB-212 on Atalanta duty.
UAVs, the statement has it, are “a key asset”. This is due to a high level of autonomy, low fuel burn and excellent endurance. “They are discrete and can operate close to targets without being detected”. A Boeing ScanEagle is the current UAV serving the EU maritime mission.
“All air assets in the area of operations complement each other; with any missing, operational capability and flexibility of the EU NavFor – Somalia Task Force is reduced, that is why it is important they remain with Operation Atalanta on a permanent basis,” according to Commodore Diogo Arroteia (Commander Task Force 465).
Atalanta components are regularly rotated with the majority of EU member nations contributing. This is regarded as a reason for its success, not only in its original WFP protection tasking but also with its expanded mandate.
Compared to South Africa, where SA Navy (SAN) assets are tasked with anti-piracy patrols in the Mozambique Channel and patrolling the country’s immediate offshore area, Atalanta has a far larger asset base to draw from. Making matters worse is the sorry financial situation the entire South African defence force finds itself in. African Defence Review (ADR) director Darren Olivier points out “it’s difficult to maintain a patrol presence when finances do not permit.” The oft-quoted words of veteran defence analyst Helmoed Heitman also remain applicable in that “you cannot control what you don’t patrol”.
This last year saw the SAN deploy to the Mozambique Channel twice, with offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), in the form of refurbished strikecraft, doing patrol work off northern KwaZulu-Natal.