The United States is planning to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles in the Seychelles islands in the coming weeks to combat piracy. The use of land-based drones is a new approach to deter ship hijackings in the region.
The spokesman for the U.S. military's Africa Command, Vince Crawley, says several Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles will be in the Seychelles by late October or November. He says they will be used to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions throughout the Indian Ocean region.
"We have people going in individually for very short trips right now. We plan to start sending some of the teams that will assist in the September-October time frame. And then it would take a month to begin the flights," said Crawley. "It is widely recognized that western Indian Ocean piracy is extremely disruptive to international trade and this is simply a U.S. contribution to the international effort against piracy."
Reapers are designed for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance, capable of staying in the air for 30 hours and flying at speeds of more than 440 kilometers an hour. They can also carry weapons and ordinance, but African Command says the drones being deployed in the Seychelles will not be armed.
The U.S. Navy has long used ship-based unmanned aerial vehicles in counter-piracy missions. But the UAVs in the Seychelles will be housed at the international airport in the capital Mahe. Dozens of American military and civilian personnel will also be based at the airport to oversee the Navy-led mission for the next several months.
Crawley says the government in the Seychelles requested assistance from the United States earlier this year after Somali pirates began extending their operations more than 1000 kilometers away from Somali shores. Since March, two Seychelles-flagged vessels have been hijacked and several others attacked in waters near the Seychelles and the Comoros Islands.
In addition to the Reaper UAVs, the U.S. military is also considering basing Navy P-3 Orion patrol aircraft in the Seychelles for a limited time. Like the Reaper, the Orion can survey a large region and help deter attacks.
Maritime officials say the vastness of the Indian Ocean and the lack of naval patrols in the area are tempting some pirates to expand their operations further east. The Indian Ocean is considered a safer hunting ground than the Gulf of Aden, a narrow shipping lane to the north that is heavily patrolled by warships from more than a dozen countries.
For nearly a year, the international armada has been successful in keeping many ships from being hijacked. But it has done little to deter pirates from targeting ships.
In the first half of 2009, nearly 150 vessels were attacked by pirates in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia, compared to less than 30 in the same period a year ago. More than 30 vessels have been taken, with ransom demands now averaging about $2 million for the release of the ship and its crew.
Rough weather conditions have helped keep the number of pirate attacks in the region low for the past few months. But as the weather improves, sailors, ship owners, and maritime officials say they are bracing for another surge of pirate activity.