U.S. will not arm drones flying reconnaissance missions over Gulf of Aden -- yet

Published 16 November 2009

The governments of the United States and the Seychelles agreed to use Mahé regional airport as a base for U.S. UAVs flying over the Gulf of Aden in an effort to gather intelligence on Somali pirates; the U.S. says it is not currently considering arming the UAVs

The United States has “no plans” to arm the UAVs that are carrying out reconnaissance missions from a base in the Seychelles, a spokesman of the U.S. Africa Command (Africom) has said. The aerial surveillance vehicles, known as MQ-9 Reaper drones, “will be operating primarily over water,” spokesman Vince Crawley told The EastAfrican in an e-mail from Africom headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.

He was reacting to a story carried in The EastAfrican last week, titled “Armed Drones to Pursue Pirates off the Horn.” Crawley did not rule out other missions for the long-range drones, including flights over Somalia to track Islamist militants fighting to overthrow a government backed by the United States, the United Nations and the African Union.

Crawley said deployment of the drones reflects “a commitment to counter-piracy, maritime security, border security, deterrence of international terrorism, and other security-related issues impacting the residents of Seychelles and neighboring countries.” Kevin Kelley writes that the United States and Seychelles agreed to initiate the drone program “in response to increased acts of piracy in the western Indian Ocean,” Crawley added.

Somali pirates are returning to the high seas in force now that seasonal storms have ended.

Last week, they fired rocket-propelled grenades at a Hong Kong-flagged oil tanker about 1,600 kilometers off the Somali coast — the most distant attack so far. Nearly 200 hostages have been seized by pirates.
A British couple were kidnapped last month after setting sail in their yacht from the Seychelles.

The Seychelles consist of 115 islands with a total population of 85,000 scattered over 1.4 million square kilometers.

Presiding over an economy dependent on tuna fishing and tourism, Seychelles leaders are worried that the country’s small military cannot by itself counter the growing piracy threat.

The governments of the United States and Seychelles agreed after several months of discussions to base what Crawley describes as “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” assets at Mahé regional airport. About 75 U.S. government personnel are in the Seychelles to help carry out the mission, Crawley said.

With a cruising speed of about 200 knots and a range of more than 3,500 nautical kilometers, the Reaper drones represent “an ideal platform for observing the vast ocean and maritime corridors in the Indian Ocean region and assisting in counter-piracy efforts,” Crawley continued.