July 31, 2009: The international anti-piracy task force operating off the coast of Somalia, also has its own air force. About ten manned and UAV aircraft are available, all currently based in Djibouti. Three of these aircraft are being transferred to Kenya, where they will better cover the east coast of Somalia. This will enable the task force to monitor pirate mother ships (usually stolen fishing ships) that are going more than a thousand kilometers from the coast, to seek out larger, and more valuable (in terms of ransoms) ships coming out of the Persian Gulf, and making their way south to go around the southern tip of Africa.
So far this year, there have been over 250 attacks, most of them in the Gulf of Aden. Despite the 34 warships on duty, 78 merchant ships were boarded, and 31 of them taken. There have been more casualties this year, with six merchant seamen killed, 19 wounded and 561 taken hostage. Although the pirates have received over $100 million in ransoms, the pirate activities have cost shipping companies nearly $15 billion so far, in the form of increased insurance, fuel (moving at higher speeds, or taking detours) and crew (danger pay) costs.
Recently, Japan sent two P-3C maritime reconnaissance aircraft to Djibouti. Last year, Spain sent a P-3. The U.S. and France also have naval reconnaissance aircraft there, although the U.S. planes (P-3s and UAVs) are also there for counter-terrorism missions.
The site of most attacks has been the Gulf of Aden, which is one the busiest shipping lanes in the world (with nearly ten percent of all traffic). Each month, 1500-1600 ships pass the northern coast of Somalia. Last year about one ship out of every 400-500 was captured by pirates. With the pirates getting more and more ransom money for each ship, the number of pirate groups operating in the Gulf of Aden is growing. An increasing number of mother ships, usually captured fishing trawlers (able to stay out for weeks at a time, and carry speed boats for attacks) are traveling farther from the coast in the search of victims. The P-3s can search large areas of the high seas in search of these mother ships, which warships are now hunting down.
Most merchant ships are wary of pirate operations, and put on extra lookouts, and often transit the 1,500 kilometer long Gulf of Aden at high speed (even though this costs them thousands of dollars in additional fuel). The pirates seek the slower moving, apparently unwary, ships, and go after them before they can speed up enough to get away. For the pirates, business is booming, and ransoms are going up. Pirates are now demanding $2-3 million per ship, and are liable to get it for the much larger tankers and bulk carriers they are now seizing. The P-3s seek out the mother ships, and alert warships to the location where the pirates are operating.
But there are some problems. The American built P-3C maritime reconnaissance aircraft is getting old. The average age of the U.S. P-3Cs is 28 years. The P-3 entered service in 1962. The current version has a cruise speed of 610 kilometers per hour, endurance of up to 13 hours and a crew of eleven. The 116 foot long, propeller driven aircraft has a wingspan of nearly 100 feet. The P-3C can carry about ten tons of weapons (torpedoes, mines, or missiles like Harpoon and Maverick).
The 63 ton P-3 is based on the 1950s era Lockheed Electra airliner. The last P-3 was built in 1990. A more likely replacement for these elderly search planes, are UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), like Global Hawk or smaller aircraft like Predator. These UAVs typically stay in the air for 24 hours, or more, at a time. What maritime reconnaissance aircraft need, more than anything else, is endurance or, as the professionals like to put it, "persistence."
Spain sent 90 personnel (air and ground crew) to Djibouti, while the Japanese sent 150. There is already a French Falcon business jet fitted out with maritime surveillance radar and other sensors.