NAIROBI, Kenya – For the first time, sophisticated U.S. military surveillance drones capable of carrying missiles have begun patrolling waters off Somalia in hopes of stemming rising piracy.
Three ships have been seized in a week off Africa’s lawless eastern coast and Vice Adm. Robert Moeller, the deputy commander for the U.S. Africa Command, said pirates continue to pose a significant challenge.
With the monsoon season now ended, there has 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 U.S. 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 told the Associated Press in an interview at command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. 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 Friday 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-Qaida 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.
Cyrus Mody, an expert on piracy 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.
U.S. 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 U.S. military to gather intelligence in the region.
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.