Australia has decided to send a P-3 naval reconnaissance aircraft (and a frigate) to join the anti-piracy task force off the Somali coast. Two Japanese P-3Cs recently arrived in Djibouti where they will join several other aircraft that already patrol the waters off the coast of Somalia. Last year, Spain sent a P-3, to search for the pirates that have become an increasing problem there.
The site of most pirate 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 the pirates, 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. P-3Cs is over 25 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 have sent 150. Australia will also post a ground support team there. The French were the first to send a patrol aircraft, an ATL2, to Djibouti. This is a twin engine, 46 ton aircraft that entered service in 1989. It can carry nine tons of weapons, a crew of eight and has a maximum endurance of 18 hours.
The maritime patrol aircraft are proving to be more useful than the twenty or so warships on station. The aircraft can cover a lot more ocean, and spot pirate mother ships and speedboats stalking larger ships. The maritime patrols have already resulted in many (no one will admit how many) pirate attacks being aborted. Few of the nations with warships in the area, will allow their sailors to arrest pirates. In most cases, the pirates will surrender when confronted by a warship, safe in the knowledge that the most that will happen to them is that they will lost their weapons. However, some nations are turning captured pirates over to courts in Kenya, and a few other countries. But, so far, piracy has turned out to be a low risk enterprise for the pirates.