Operation Atalanta is currently the main operation of the Marineflieger (German naval air arm), with three of its four aircraft types regularly committed to it. Orion, Sea King and Sea Lynx crews regularly deploy to the Horn of Africa to combat piracy activities. While the helicopters fly off ships, the P-3C Orions operate from a French military base in Djibouti. Their mission is to detect pirates as early as possible before they start attacking a ship.
An Orion pilot -who preferred to remain anonymous for operational security reasons- told the authors: “The most efficient way to perform our job we found out is to work with French AWACS. They pinpoint targets of interest and tell us where they are located. We go inbound there with our own radar and we use camera and optical means down to a handheld camera, if necessary. The altitudes we fly depend on the weather and visibility. During ‘our’ [European] wintertime, you have great visibility so we fly high altitude, but in summertime, especially during their monsoon season, we have visibility down to zero and we are not even able to find them optically.”
A P-3 sortie often lasts between eight and ten hours with an early start because of the temperature and humidity in Djibouti. From the first briefing to the end of the debriefing this often makes for a 15-hour working day. One pilot logged 270 hours while being deployed to Djibouti for two months, which is an average of 9 hours every two days. At least one P-3 is continuously deployed, with crews alternating every two or three months. During 2013 the squadron had a 6-month break to maintain the aircraft and train new crews, the latter of which hadn’t happened in four or five years.
In accordance with the UN mandate, missions are flown along the IRTC (Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor) between Somalia and Yemen, as well as over Somalian territorial waters and the Indian Ocean. German parliament also approved missions over the coastline up to 2000 meters into the mainland of Somalia.
Lynxes tend to deploy in pairs onboard Bremen-class frigates, taking along some 17 technicians and six crew members (two complete flight crews). Two pilots are assisted by a single HOM (Helikopter-Ortungsmeister) in the back, who operates the machine gun and the camera during reconnaissance flights. The majority of Lynx flights comprise patrol and reconnaissance missions, but another important mission is the protection of World Food Program ships on their way to eastern Africa. These are being protected from the air as the ships enter the harbor of Mogadishu.
An example mission dating back to January 2013 illustrates the level of cooperation between different nations and air/sea assets. Pirates had attacked a cargo vessel with a whaler (mother ship) and a skiff (speedboat). Security personnel managed to fend off the attacks and reported the incident. A Spanish P-3 was airborne, but it was low on fuel and had to return to Djibouti. The decision was taken to launch a German Orion intended to fly the next day. Some three hours later, the aircraft arrived at the spot in complete darkness. Despite bad weather and poor visibility it managed to trace the two pirate boats and pass on their location to the Atalanta task force. An American and a French frigate pursued them and managed to capture the pirates at dawn. Weapons and evidence were secured and the skiff was sunk.
The results of the whole operation are clear. Over the past three years, the number of successful hijackings has decreased from 47 in 2010 to 25 in 2011, five in 2012 and zero in 2013. The year 2014 started off bad with a successful hijack in January though. Operation Atalanta was supposed to end in 2012, but it has now been extended to the end of 2016.
A full report appeared in several magazines, including in AirForces Monthly: