U.S. plans land-based UAV patrols to combat piracy

The U.S. will place MQ-9 Reapers in the Seychelles islands to help combat piracy in the Indian Ocean. In this photo, an airman inspects an MQ-9 Reaper in Afghanistan.


By MARK ABRAMSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 29, 2009

U.S. officials plan to use MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles to patrol the Indian Ocean as a way to combat piracy in the region.

About 75 U.S. military personnel and civilians will be headed to the Seychelles islands in the coming weeks to set up the Reaper operations, which could start in October or November. U.S. Africa Command is calling the Navy-led mission Ocean Look.

The U.S. will base the Reapers — to be used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — at Seychelles’ Mahé regional airport, Vince Crawley, AFRICOM spokesman, said.

The Navy has been using ship-based UAVs in the region for some time, but using land-based drones for counterpiracy work is new, he said.

Piracy is a major problem for the Seychelles because it is dependent on shipping, he added.

The mission should last several months, with a Reaper airborne at all times, Crawley said. Details on exactly how long the UAVs would be in the Seychelles are still being worked out, he said.

The UAVs would not be armed.

“We will get it up and running and see for a few months if it is the right assets and location (for counterpiracy). It is a very strategic location,” Crawley said.

According to San Diego-based General Atomics, which manufactures the Reaper, the UAV can stay in the air for 30 hours and fly at speeds up to 275 mph.

The decision to base the Reapers in the Seychelles — about 1,000 miles off the east coast of Africa — comes at a time of year when the weather in the area clears up and pirates based out of Somalia and the region take to the seas.

“Traditionally what we are seeing this time of year, the monsoon season will end,” Lt. Nathan Christiansen, spokesman for the Navy’s 5th Fleet, said. “Last August, right about this time, we saw 12 attacks in one day.”

In addition to Reapers, the Navy has experimented with operating P-3 Orion patrol aircraft at the same Seychelles airport. A P-3 crew with Squadron VP-10 operating out of Djibouti stopped off at the Seychelles overnight from Aug. 12 to Aug. 13 to test the idea.

“I believe the main focus would be maritime security and counterpiracy operations,” said Navy Capt. John Moore, commodore of Combined Task Force 67 in Sigonella, Italy.

The P-3s would not be permanently based there, Moore said.

Orions with a combat radius of 2,380 nautical miles can cover and survey a large area, the captain said.

“They add a lot of situational awareness. I would say that our assessment (of operating from the Seychelles) proved successful. We could do this,” Moore said.