The hulking P-3C Orion aircraft prepares to take off from a military base in the Horn of African nation of Djibouti, on the latest mission hunting pirates off Somalia`s coast.
Equiped with surveillance cameras, the German military aircraft will head along Somalia`s long desert coastline searching for “suspicious activity” and the tell-tale signs of pirates.
The nine-hour flight is a key part of the European Union anti-piracy fleet, known as Operation Atalanta, that is fighting piracy on one of the world`s most important and busiest shipping channels, through the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea and Suez Canal.
The success of Atalanta in combatting Somali piracy has led to it becoming the model for a proposed EU mission to fight people smugglers in the Mediterranean.
“What we`re look for is all kind of equipment that could be used for piracy attacks,” said flight-lieutenant Jens P, sitting at radar screens inside the aircraft cabin.
“Those are very fast moving boats, weapons, ladders — anything that is not usually used for fishing activities,” he said.
Atalanta has four warships and two aircraft, rotating between 10 nations, and has patrolled off the Horn of Africa since 2008, tasked with protecting merchant ships including the cargo vessel carrying aid for the war-torn region.
Pirate hijackings peaked four years ago but have since fallen to almost zero.
Over 30,000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden each year between Arabia and Africa, Bab al-Mandeb straits into the Red Sea and Suez Canal.As waves of desperate people attempt the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean to Europe, Atalanta has become the model on which some in the EU would like to base an international military response.
The controversial plan envisages naval patrols with a mandate to destroy boats used by Libyan people smugglers, something that Atalanta aircraft have occasionally done in Somalia. The plan has been criticised by Libya and some UN officials.
“The calculus in the Mediterranean is far more complicated,” UN special envoy on migration Peter Sutherland told the Security Council last week.
He warned that “innocent refugees, including many children” might be caught “in the line of fire”.
In the Horn of Africa, members of the EU force are proud of their mission`s success, but warn that any scaling back could see the pirates return.
“The successes are more tactical than strategic in nature — the economy of piracy has not been eradicated,” said EU ambassador to Djibouti, Joseph Silva, who called for extension of the force when its mandate ends next year.
“If Atalanta were to stop completely, I think we would see soon enough resurgence of piracy,” he said.
At the height of the crisis in 2011, Somali pirates were responsible for the hijacking of 28 vessels and 237 incidents, with attacks launched as far as 3,655 kilometres (2,277 miles) from the Somali coast in the Indian Ocean.
Seized vessels included supertankers transporting close to two million barrels of crude oil, and a Ukranian cargo ship loaded with weapons and tanks.
A raft of measures taken by the shipping sector has also contributed to the decline of piracy: the presence of armed guards on board, the use of barbed wire, an increase in navigation speeds, navigating as far away from the coast as possible.
During piracy`s worst year`s NATO and a US-led task force also guarded the seas and these international patrols have been key to bringing Somali piracy almost to a halt.
Last year attacks slumped to only two, while no major attack has been reported in 2015, although some 30 sailors are still held hostage.
“Piracy has gone down dramatically since 2012. That has a lot to do with Atalanta efforts and the military assets deployed,” said Lieutenant Thomas Szczepanski, in charge of flight operations for the German section of the mission.
As well as the European force, international naval patrols from China, Japan, India the United States and Russia have also protected shipping and fought off pirate vessels.But the monitoring continues. After the German aircrew returns to base in Djibouti, a Spanish aircraft takes over for the next mission.
European force chief, Swedish Admiral Jonas Haggren, remains cautious about saying Somali piracy is over.
“We cannot say that piracy has disappeared — it is contained, but the piracy networks are still intact,” said Haggren.
Somalia`s weak government — propped up by a 22,000-strong African Union army — does not control the key areas where pirates operate, largely along the northern coast in the autonomous Puntland region.
“We make friendly approaches, we have smaller boats in the area talking to local fishermen, gaining information — and we also at the same time deter and disrupt piracy,” Haggren said in an interview aboard the force`s headquarters vessel, the Dutch warship Johande Witt.