BAE takes fight to pirates with new sensors on ships
BAE Systems is offering technology and systems integration expertise to ship owners whose vessels are threatened by pirates in locations such as off the Somali coast. Despite BAE’s aerospace heritage, the company is downplaying the role of aerial surveillance and control. The solution lies in better and longer range sensors aboard the ships to detect approaching threats, it says.
A feasibility study has been conducted and among its early conclusions is the view that surface wave radar can provide over-the-horizon detection of the small skiffs used by pirates at up to around 15 miles. The high frequency (HF) radar was developed some years ago using British defense research-and-development funds by GEC-Marconi, since absorbed by BAE Systems. It has since been applied to coastal surveillance tasks, but not yet from vessels. The HF dipole aerials would be placed along the side of the ship, and the coverage would be 360 degrees. The radars on most commercial vessels today are forward-looking only, with a range of barely four miles.
The HF radar would be supplemented by shorter range 360-degree video cameras linked to a display system that can automatically detect movement and alert the crew. This Panoramic Area Surveillance (PAS) system can see to the horizon, and can be enhanced by adding infrared sensors. The behavioral patterns of surface targets detected by both the radar and video sensors can be analyzed by software algorithms to determine whether they are a threat. A third type of sensor might also be added: since some pirates are now using small radars, an electronic surveillance system named PRISM could help to detect them.
“This early warning system gives the crew the vital time needed to take evasive action or alert patrolling naval vessels to the danger,” said Nick Stoppard, BAE director of future systems. The surface wave radar data might be transmitted directly to naval vessels, he added.
Although a BAE white paper on defense against piracy mentions a role for sensors on unmanned aerial vehicles, officials involved in the feasibility study discounted their effectiveness. “The current airborne radar technology has problems with detecting small boats,” claimed Bryan Hope, BAE business development manager.
The feasibility study has explored with ship owners the crew skill sets and training that might be required to operate the proposed sensors. Part of the problem is the small number of sailors that crew even the largest commercial vessels. The lack of manpower clearly affects the crew’s ability to repel pirates trying to board. Some vessels have used water cannons or sonic waves to deter a boarding, with only limited success. BAE is proposing a laser dazzle system that might be automatically operated.
Stoppard admitted that cost is an issue with the BAE proposals, and that they would have to be tailored to the different types of ship owner. But he denied that they could be viable only for vessels carrying the highest value cargoes–such as oil tankers. However, it is with energy group BP that BAE is working to stage a practical demonstration on an oil tanker this year.
The International Chamber of Shipping, which represents ship owners, has said it is still safe to sail through the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden if the right precautions are taken. The group says ships should adopt the passive defense measures that have already been agreed to within the industry and report their whereabouts to the relevant navies.
Pirates operating off the coast of Somalia and Yemen collected an estimated $30- to $50 million in ransoms in 2008, when 111 attacks were reported. This is despite the creation of Combined Task Force 151, which currently comprises naval forces from Denmark, Turkey, the UK and the U.S. Singapore deployed a landing ship, tank (LST) with two Super Puma helicopters on board to support the new force for three months last year.
A secure corridor established in the Gulf of Aden to discourage attacks on vessels heading to or from the Red Sea and the Suez Canal has deterred attacks there. But according to BAE, resources are not adequate to provide 24-hour protection for the huge number of vessels sailing in the wider area where pirates are active. “The current approach is unsustainable,” concluded Stoppard. o
Blocking the Piracy Threat around Singapore
Piracy incidents in the Malacca Strait declined from a high of 21 in 2004 to only a half-dozen in each of the past two years. The figures come from ReCAAP—the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia. This is one of several initiatives by governments in the region that are credited with reducing the risk to shipping here.
Fourteen nations formed ReCAAP in 2006 to set up an Information Sharing Centre (ISC). The ISC reports incidents and shares best practice. “Early detection of approaching boats is the best deterrent,” it notes.
In Singapore, the government inaugurated an Information Fusion Centre last April in Changi Naval Base close to the airshow site. It produces and disseminates a synthesized overview of the sea situation in the region. Singapore also improved coordination of its own forces by creating a Maritime Security Task Force, which reports directly to the chief of defence force. It coordinates the assets of the navy, coast guard, police, port authority, customs and immigration.
Earlier, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore agreed to coordinate their sea and air patrols in the Strait. Thailand has since joined the group. –C.P.
Operation ‘Ocean Look’ Begins over Indian Ocean
General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from a secret U.S. Navy unit are now being used for anti-piracy patrols over the Indian Ocean from a base on the Seychelles islands. Operation “Ocean Look” got under way in early January, according to U.S. Africa Command, which is directing the first acknowledged deployment of the Navy-owned Reapers. The service purchased four air vehicles in 2007 and 2008 for sensor integration trials at China Lake Naval Air Station, according to a U.S. Navy spokeswoman.
The U.S. Navy has indicated that during the early phases of this deployment the UAVs will not carry weapons, even though the U.S. Air Force, Central Intelligence Agency and Britain’s Royal Air Force routinely arm their Reapers. The UAVs operate from Mahé regional airport on the Seychelles and are occasionally supported by U.S. Navy Lockheed P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. The Seychelles government requested the UAV mission after Somali pirates started to attack civilian shipping in the island’s economic zone.
About 75 U.S. military personnel and civilians, believed to be contractors from the Reaper’s manufacturer, General Atomics, have been deployed to the Seychelles to set up the forward operating base. –Tim Ripley