Eyes on High: Passengers rescued from a Maltese raft transfer from their Italian rescue boat. Italy is now using UAVs and patrol vessels to patrol the Mediterranean. (US Navy)
ROME — After flying its unarmed Predator and Reaper UAVs over Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the Italian Air Force has now deployed its Reapers over civilian airspace in the Mediterranean to help rescue migrants attempting the perilous sea crossing from Africa.
The UAVs are part of Operation Mare Nostrum, a dragnet organized by the Air Force and Italian Navy that also involves helicopters and four Navy vessels, including the landing platform dock ship San Marco, which can scoop up migrant vessels in its floodable dock.
The operation was launched after huge losses of life in the Mediterranean as migrants pack onto rickety boats and attempt to reach Sicily or the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is 70 miles from the African coast — closer to Africa than the Italian mainland. Smugglers often send the migrants to sea in unstable, overcrowded vessels that run out of fuel.
On Oct. 3, a ship caught fire and capsized half a mile from the coast of Lampedusa. Of some 500 migrants aboard, mainly Eritreans escaping their country’s dictatorship, 364 died. A second vessel, this one packed with Syrians escaping their civil war, sank 60 miles from Lampedusa on Oct. 11. Dozens of bodies were recovered.
More than 8,000 migrants crossed to Italy and Malta in the first half of this year, up from 4,500 in the same period of 2012, a surge attributed to rising instability in Africa and the Middle East. Recent weeks have seen another spike as migrants try to cross before winter weather makes sailing even tougher.
The deployment of Italy’s Reapers from their base at Amendola in southern Italy, and possibly from Sigonella air base in Sicily in the days to come, follows years of efforts to craft a legislative framework to allow UAV flights in airspace. Italy’s UAVs already have designated air corridors that allow them to fly around the south coast of Italy.
Reports have surfaced that Air Force UAVs are already used in law enforcement operations, including the shadowing of mafia suspects in Sicily, although the Italian Air Force has declined to comment.
International waters around Italy are covered by a so-called Flight Information Region — an airspace zone —monitored by Italy.
“To fly UAVs there, we would work with Italian civilian aviation authorities,” said an Air Force spokesman. “Coordination with Eurocontrol, EASA [European Air Safety Agency] or ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization] is needed only in case of significant changes to the continental air traffic flows, which is not the case.”
If the UAVs need to fly into the Flight Information Regions monitored by neighboring countries such as Tunisia, Libya or Egypt, he said, permission would be needed from those countries to create a segregated airspace zone in which UAVs could fly.
The UAVs will be flown using both line of sight and satellite navigation, and fly missions up to 20 hours using their electro-optical, radar and IR sensors.
“This type of mission could accelerate the debate on acquiring a maritime radar for the UAVs,” said one Italian defense source.
The Air Force will also deploy two helicopters from Lampedusa and Atlantique patrol aircraft from Sigonella as part of Mare Nostrum. Ahead of the formal launch of the operation, Italian Navy vessels were already involved in the rescue of the Syrian migrants on Oct. 11 and continued to pick up hundreds of migrants at sea in the following days.
The operation’s naval contingent will be led by the San Marco, which hosts four amphibious vessels, three dinghies and medical facilities. The LPD will be joined by a frigate and two smaller vessels, either corvettes or patrol vessels. Two Navy AW101 helicopters with night vision will be based on Lampedusa. The naval vessels will coordinate with coast guard vessels patrolling the area.
The operation’s costs will be covered initially by the Navy, which is struggling with budget cuts. A naval source said the Navy has already been spending €1.5 million (US $2.05 million) a month to keep one vessel on migrant and fisheries patrol.
“Now you can multiply that by five,” he said.
The mission is relying on decades-old vessels that are due to go out of service as part of a budget-driven cull of 30 ships in the next decade.
“These are ships that need to be pensioned off,” said Adm. Giuseppe De Giorgi, the head of the Italian Navy in an Italian TV interview.
While De Giorgi said the mission illustrated how the Italian Navy was struggling to keep up its commitments as funds dwindle, he said the civilian nature of Mare Nostrum also reflected his ambition to buy dual-use type ships in the future.
De Giorgi has previously said he would like to build a fleet of one-size-fits all ships able to act as floating hospitals in disaster zones or fight high-intensity wars, possibly using funding from outside the ministry of defense’s budget.