Off East African coast, US drones patrol in hope of stemming piracy

The 36-foot-long Reapers are each the size of a jetfighter, can fly about 16 hours, and can carry a dozen guided bombs and missiles. They are built with laser and radar targeting. The 36-foot-long Reapers are each the size of a jetfighter, can fly about 16 hours, and can carry a dozen guided bombs and missiles. They are built with laser and radar targeting. (US Air Force via Associated Press/ File)
By Jason Straziuso
Associated Press / October 24, 2009

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NAIROBI - For the first time, sophisticated US military surveillance drones capable of carrying missiles have begun patrolling waters off Somalia in hope of stemming rising piracy.

Three ships have been seized in a week off Africa’s eastern coast and Vice Admiral Robert Moeller, the deputy commander for the US Africa Command, said pirates continue to pose a significant challenge.

With the monsoon season now ended, there have been a rash of attacks as pirates return to the open seas. More than 130 crew members from seven ships are currently being held, including about 70 from the latest attacks.

In an effort to stem the surge, unmanned US military surveillance planes called MQ-9 Reapers stationed on the island nation of Seychelles are being deployed to patrol the Indian Ocean in search of pirates, Moeller said. The patrols began this week, military officials said.

The 36-foot-long Reapers are the size of a jet fighter, can fly about 16 hours and are capable of carrying a dozen guided bombs and missiles. They are outfitted with infrared, laser, and radar targeting.

Military officials said yesterday that the drones would not immediately be fitted with weaponry, but they did not rule out doing so in the future. Analysts said they expected the Reapers would also be used to hunt Al Qaeda and other Islamist militants in Somalia. While Moeller said the aircraft would “primarily’’ be used against pirates, he acknowledged they could also be used for other missions.

Even the drones and the presence of an international naval armada are unlikely to deter pirates, Moeller said. Pirates are “prepared to take their chances against the warships that are patrolling the area, simply because the potential for big financial gain is significant,’’ he said.

Cyrus Mody, a piracy specialist at the London branch of the International Maritime Bureau, said he expects the drones will help ward off attacks by acting as an early-warning system for tankers and other commercial vessels traversing waters off the Somali coast.

“What we hope will happen is that they will get much earlier warning of suspicious vessels or suspected [pirate] mother ships that can then be targeted by the naval vessels. Or alerts and broadcasts can be sent out indicating the positions of these ships [and] indicating they should keep as clear a distance as possible,’’ Mody said.

US Navy vessels have used 3-foot-long drones off the East Africa coast before. But the Reapers - which have a 66-foot wingspan - represent a significant investment by the US military to gather intelligence in the region. Last spring, US Navy sharpshooters killed three of the four pirates who were holding Richard Phillips, captain of the US-flagged cargo ship the Maersk Alabama, hostage in a lifeboat.

The drone deployment comes as piracy is on the rise in the area. While the bandits targeted 35 vessels in 2007 and 111 in 2008, they have launched some 178 attacks so far in 2009, according to International Maritime Bureau figures.

The high-seas hijackings have persisted despite an international armada of warships deployed by the United States, the European Union, NATO, Japan, South Korea, and China to patrol the region.