Foreseeing an upsurge in pirate attacks in the coming months as the monsoons give way to weather congenial to seafaring activities, the forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) patrolling the piracy-infested Gulf of Aden are bracing themselves up for the challenge under NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield launched last month.

Two Standing NATO Maritime Groups will be deployed in the area in rotation for the next two years.

“The next two months are going to be crucial as we anticipate a spurt in piracy incidents as the weather improves after the monsoons, and we have deployed our maritime forces under Operation Ocean Shield to provide security to over 50,000 vessels that pass through the area,” Commodore Hans Christian Hellseth, NATO’s Maritime Component Command’s (MCC) Deputy Chief of Staff (Operations), told a group of Indian journalists at the command’s headquarters at Northwood in Middlesex on Tuesday.

Significantly, sporadic incidents apart, pirate activity has been low in the Gulf of Aden in the past two months.

The NATO forces will operate in tandem with the European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) and the U.S.-led counter piracy Task Forces 150 and 151. Besides, India, which is one of the 17 contact nations for the NATO in counter-piracy operations, China, Japan, and Russia have deployed their naval ships in the region to ensure safe passage of their merchant vessels. The Indian Navy’s missile frigate Godavari is now deployed here on counter-piracy duties.

The European Union extended the deployment of 12 naval ships under Operation Atlanta till December 2010 in anticipation of an escalation in pirate attacks. “We have now decided to extend the operation [launched in August last] till December next year, as we expect the pirates to intensify their activities in the next few months,” Commander Mike Jager, in charge of EUNAVFOR’s Joint Operation Centre (JOC) at Northwood, said. The JOC, operating round-the-clock, has real-time operational inputs on military and civil vessels in the region.

To coordinate patrolling by individual Navies and combined forces and increase their situational awareness, an initiative, Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE), was kick-started under the aegis of the United States’ Combined Maritime Force (CMF), said Commander Lawrence RC Trim, Staff Officer Maritime Operations at MCC, Northwood. All navies operating in the region meet at Bahrain every month to have command-level tactical discussions to bring in more transparency and efficacy of operations.

Meanwhile, the EUNAVFOR has developed a tool called Mercury using the web application by which all navies in the region can have real-time communication with one another. The Indian Navy is also using it.

Furthering their policy of ‘hot pursuit’ of pirates, the EU and NATO forces are on a capacity-building drive to enhance the marine policing powers of littoral countries in the Horn of Africa. “We are helping Kenya, Yemen and Djibouti strengthen their navies and Coast Guards. Talks are under way with the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, but it is a tricky issue given the unstable situation in Mogadishu,” Commander Jager said.

To resolve the vexing issue of trial of arrested pirates, the EU has entered into an agreement with Kenya; sixty-eight pirates apprehended ever since have been handed over to the Kenyan authorities for trial. “However, the best way to ward off the pirate menace is to adhere to the best practices evolved by the EU in consultation with the International Maritime Organisation.

If merchant ships passing through this chokepoint adopted the safeguards mentioned in the 13-page document prepared by us, pirates could be by and large deterred from boarding ships,” said Simon Church, who liaises between industry and the operational forces under the EU.

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