The Pentagon's Newest Weapon Against Pirates

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(l. to r.): U.S. Navy / Getty; JOEL SAGET / AFP / Getty

The U.S. government plans to use unmanned aerial drones to combat piracy

The U.S. military plans to deploy its newest warplane against one of the world's oldest threats, sending unmanned Reaper drones to the Seychelles islands to deal with pirates menacing seagoing commerce in the Indian Ocean. Fighting pirates off the coast of Africa was one of the founding missions of the U.S. Marines two centuries ago; today, in a sign of the changing face of warfare, the mission of protecting maritime trade routes falls to ground-bound desk jockeys remotely operating high-tech flying machines.

"The Seychelles have been increasingly concerned about piracy in their waters," says Vince Crawley, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command, explaining October's "Ocean Look" deployment. Although the military won't say how many of the drones are being sent, Crawley says there will be enough to have one flying every day from the archipelago of more than 100 islands that lie nearly 1,000 miles off Africa's east coast. About 75 U.S. personnel are bound for the Seychelles' Mahe regional airport to support the mission, which is expected to last several months.

The prime source of piracy in the area is the failed state of Somalia. There have been more than 135 pirate attacks originating from the Somali coast so far this year — more than the total number for 2008 — and 28 vessels have been successfully commandeered. While the annual monsoon season has recently reduced the number of attacks, observers fear that the peril will rise again with the calming of the weather. The Seychelles legislature recently approved a pact with the U.S. allowing closer military cooperation. "Our isolated geographic position and our limited economic and military resources will never allow us to patrol our vast territorial waters," a Seychelles lawmaker said during the July debate on the measure. Piracy has become "one of the most well-organized and profitable crimes in this part of the world," she continued, adding that "foreign military help in patrol and surveillance of our waters is today a necessity."

The drone flights will complement patrols by naval vessels from NATO member states and other allied countries, as well as by a pair of patrol planes being dispatched by the E.U. to the Seychelles. Also, the coast guard of the Seychelles will deploy two vessels on alternate weeklong cruises to deter pirates. And about 60 French marines are aboard 10 French tuna-fishing boats off the Seychelles, planning to stay there through the end of the fishing season in October.

It's not firepower but endurance that is needed to prevail over pirates. Ships can survey only a tiny swath of the sea, and previous ship-launched drones and land-based manned aircraft lack the Reaper's capacity to remain aloft for up to 14 hours. The drone's 66-ft. (20 m) wingspan can launch the 5-ton aircraft on missions covering more than 3,000 miles (about 4,800 km). "This makes it an ideal platform for observing the vast ocean and maritime corridors in the Indian Ocean region and assisting in counterpiracy efforts," Crawley says.

Outfitted with a variety of cameras and other sensors to detect suspected pirates, the drone is controlled from the ground via satellite links. While the MQ-9 Reaper can carry a variety of bombs and missiles, those flying out of the Seychelles won't be armed. "We're just following the conventions of international law," Crawley says. "If you have a suspected vessel, you board it and investigate it" instead of blowing it up.

The Reaper, with its unblinking eye, could help capture pirates who too often have been able to slip away. Last month, for example, a band of Somali marauders freed a 20,000-ton German cargo ship after seizing it and its crew in April between the Seychelles and Kenya. The pirates managed to escape with a $2.7 million ransom even though a German frigate, lurking nearby, arrived on the scene within 12 minutes of the pirates' departure from the cargo vessel. "The pirates took over all the belongings of the 24 crew members, including toothbrushes," Torsten Ites, captain of the frigate Brandenburg, told Agence France-Presse. "We had to provide medical assistance to the crew members, including dental services, as they had stayed for some time without brushing their teeth." Among other things, then, each Reaper deployed in the Seychelles may be the equivalent of $12 million worth of dental insurance for sailors plying the sea routes off the Horn of Africa.