Atalanta: Eu’s anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden

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Its Origins and Goals

It was in 2008, as the piracy in the Gulf of Aden ran rampant, that the European Union council acting according to several resolutions of the UN security council[1]as well as international maritime law, issued its joint action 851. This called for the creation of a military maritime task force with mission to: protect the vessels of the world food programme; deter, prevent and repress piracy and armed robbery at sea; monitor fishing operations off the coast of Somalia and support other either UN or international operations.

Its structure and assets

Despite being anEU’s military operation, the war-vessels and soldiers deployed belong to the different member states and, ultimately, only answer to their national government.  As such, the composition of the task force varies according to the willingness of member states to provide ships, war gear, personnel and said elements availability. All this notwithstanding, the operational necessities require an average force of 1-3 warships (either military ships or auxiliary ones) to patrol and enforce order in the regions[2], 1-2 maritime patrol aircrafts which perform long-range reconnaissance to spot pirate boats and guide the warships to them. Moreover, these aforementioned vessels are, more often than not, equipped with embarked helicopters to conduct fast, short-to-medium range actions. As a whole, 600 soldiers are at all times mobilized for this operation. Coordinating all these forces, is the force headquarter (FHQ) based on the flagship of the operation and under the orders of the force commander. The latter’s purview is to plan, orchestrate and execute the various tactical operations. Above him/her is the OP commander who, from his/her headquarter in Rota, Cadiz (Spain), coordinates the tactical operations of the task force with the agenda of the military and political authorities of the European Union. At the very top of the command chain sits the Political and Securities Committee under the rule of the Council of the European Union and the High representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy[3].

The participants and cost of the operation

Although decided by the council of the European Union and, as such, mainly aimed at EU member states, over the years several other countries have partaken in the operation in various ways. The first to join was Norway, sending a warship in 2009. Since then, Montenegro, Serbia, Ukraine and New-Zealand have participated sending military staff for the Headquarters (save for New-Zealand which sent a MPA-Military Personnel Appropriation- and Ukraine added a warship to its contribution). The costs of Atalanta is divided between the running cost of personnel and assets which are supported by their parent state while other “exceptional” costs ( such as communication cost, medical evacuation, etc.) are covered by common budget under the supervision of the Athena committee of Member states. The latter’s budget amounted for 2018 to 5.1 million Euros. The much higher cost of running the ships is borne by their national governments

The importance of trade in the region and the danger piracy represents to it

The area of the Gulf of Aden is one of the most crowded maritime spaces in the world. Rightfully so, for through there, much of the maritime trade between Asia and Europe sails using the shortcut that is the canal of Suez. To put the importance of this traffic into perspective, we shall compare it with the amount of goods exchanged in the port of Rotterdam (Europe’s greatest trade harbour and the tenth in the world) and the flow of ships in the canal of Panama. In 2018, 17,800 ships have sailed through the canal of Suez carrying a total sum of 983,4 million tons of goods which equals to twice the amounts of commodities exchanged in Rotterdam the same year (489 million tons). As for the canal of Panama, it falls short of 4000 ships and only carries through the equivalent of 259,09 million metric tons. In terms of the quality of said goods, together with the SUMED[4]pipeline it is the third transit route for crude oil and its derivatives. In 2017, it amounted to 9% of the world oil production.

The effectiveness of the operation

From the available data and focusing only on the maritime piracy aspect of the operation, Atalanta has been immensely successful. While in 2011, when the piracy crisis in the region was at its height, 32 ships and more than 700 people had been taken hostage, their number had fallen to zero in 2016. At the same time, the warships present in the theatre of operations also performed numerous rescues at sea missions. They coordinated their efforts with other authorities and task forces in the region, most notably CMF (combined maritime forces), which is another anti-piracy operation covering the Detroit of Ormuz, the Bab El Mandeb and the canal of Suez. 33 countries take part in the latter including many European ones also involved with Atalanta.

The future of the operation 

So far there are no talk of calling off the operation, for the solution to the whole problem of piracy in the region is the rebuilding of Somalia which is still a long way ahead. As for the commitment of the European countries, the threat to their economy should be large enough to keep them at least concerned and interested in the situation of the region.


[1]Resolution 1814, 1816, 1838

[2]They cover an area of 4,700,000 square nautical miles which are roughly equivalent to 8, 700,000 square kilometres. In comparison, the United states of America size is equal to 9, 826, 675 square kilometres

[3]Office held until by F. Mogherini and to be handed over, on November the 1st, to J.Borrell

[4]Pipeline which runs from Ain Sukhna near Suez to Alexandria

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