Electronic Weapons: Nigeria Puts Long Eyes On The Pirates

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January 22, 2014: Nigeria has taken note of an American surveillance technique used in Iraq and Afghanistan and erected eight towers along the coast equipped with cameras that can spot ships out to 48 kilometers at sea. This enables the navy to better deal with the growing number of pirates operating out there. The towers have been placed at the areas of highest offshore activity. Thus there are four to cover the waters off the major port of Lagos. The oil export terminals at Bonny and Brass each have one. There is another at Yenagoa, one in Ibaka and one in eastern Akwa Ibom state.

 Since last year The “Pirate Coast” (where pirates are most active) has moved to West Africa in the Gulf of Guinea and is no longer off Somalia in northeast Africa. Most of the pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are Nigerians and they attacked 31 ships and briefly hijacked nine of them in 2013. Unlike the Somalis the Nigerian pirates have no safe place to keep captured ships while a large ransom is negotiated. Instead they rob ships and quickly leave. In some cases they arrange to hijack much of the cargo, usually at sea, by transferring to another ship at night and then scampering away before the navy or police show up. Sometimes a few of the ships’ officers are kidnapped for ransom.

This use of towers or tethered balloons equipped with cameras, or radar, has been around for decades. The U.S. used both heavily in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2003, because of demands in Iraq the original static towers got more mobile and taller. Eventually the tallest Eagle Eye tower used was 34.5 meters (107 feet) tall, allowing the cameras to spot vehicles up to 25 kilometers away. Great for keeping an eye on thinly populated areas in a desert, which western Iraq and many parts of Afghanistan have plenty of. The earlier ten meter (30 foot) tower can see out to eleven kilometers, the 20 meter (60 foot) tower out to 16 kilometers and 27 meter (84 foot) tower out to 20 kilometers. The ten meter tower was adequate for most situations, which usually involved guarding a base. The taller towers could also serve as a communications relay for widely dispersed troops. The towers can be easily taken apart or erected by troops. When temporary bases are set up an Eagle Eye tower provides the equivalent of a permanent UAV presence which, just by being there, tends to discourage attacks or any misbehavior in the vicinity of the base. The Nigerian towers are taller because they are keeping an eye on coastal waters where ocean going ships need deeper water, which is farther offshore. These big ships need more space because they take longer to turn or stop.

Towers have become more popular, and the tethered balloons (aerostats) that can see out to 200 kilometers havre become more useful over the last two decade because the sensors (vidcams, heat sensors, radars) have become more powerful, smaller, lighter and cheaper. The sensors can now see more detail and have zoom so they can more readily detect bad behavior out there.

The tower and aerostat vidcams are more than just surveillance systems. Operators must have radio links to air, land and naval forces ready to act on what is detected. This kind of surveillance makes it more difficult for the pirates to sneak around offshore, either to collect information or make an attack. The software used in these surveillance systems contains many intelligence tools, and links to databases. Thus operators can reveal seemingly innocent behavior as part of something more sinister, and preventable.

The U.S. Army cobbled together an intelligence system that increasingly "fused" data from UAVs, as well as tower and aerostat vidcams (and other sensors) to give 24/7 coverage of large areas. Since the cameras have night vision, or even thermal imaging (heat detecting) capabilities, and often radar, it's very difficult for anyone to come near, and not be spotted and scrutinized. Commercial versions of these systems, as the Nigerians are using, have similar capabilities. Currently the Japanese made Nigerian system sends all its video and other sensor data to one naval headquarters where operators have access to databases of commercial shipping.

 


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