ROME — Europe has announced an impressive array of ships, submarines and drones it plans to send up against people traffickers in Libya, but its fleet may yet be restricted to a mere surveillance role as it awaits the political green light to act.

The task force, to be run from a European Union-designated base in Rome, was put together by the EU after about 750 migrants sailing from Libya to Italy drowned when their vessel capsized in April.

They were among the 62,000 who have made the trip this year, fleeing wars, oppression and poverty in Africa and the Middle East, but often at risk after being loaded by traffickers onto unsafe vessels.

On June 22, the European Union said its new operation to tackle the smugglers would go into action within days, relying on the Italian carrier Cavour as command and control vessel, backed by five other surface vessels.

The UK Ministry of Defence said the Royal Navy survey ship HMS Enterprise would be among the vessels, while a source with knowledge of the operation said a German frigate and a German supply ship also would take part.

One of two submarines promised by the EU would likely be Italian, a second source said. Three surveillance aircraft and drones would complete the line-up. The UAVs could also be Italian, given that Italy already flies its unarmed Reapers out of Sigonella air base in Sicily, and has experience of flying them during the 2011 NATO bombing campaign against Libya.

The Italian naval base at Augusta on Sicily is likely to serve as the logistics base for the operation.

The first source said the assets line-up had been hammered out at a meeting of military representatives to the EU in the days before the June 22 announcement, but details on who would contribute what were still hazy.

Although an EU planning document last month discussed operations in Libya to destroy traffickers' fuel dumps and their boats, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said on June 22 that the fleet would first tackle no more than "information gathering and patrolling on the high seas to support the detection and monitoring of smuggling networks."

The ships will not stray into Libyan waters until the UN Security Council approves the mission, which in turn appears to depend on approval from Libya — a challenge given the country is now ruled by two warring governments.

After Mogherini's announcement, the Air Force commander of the officially recognized Libyan government in Tobruk said any European vessels entering Libyan waters would be bombed.

On June 25, a Tobruk spokesman said it would propose its own solutions to the EU for controlling smuggling, adding, "Libyan sovereignty and territorial waters and airspace are a red line."

If that leaves the European fleet doing nothing more than intelligence gathering, it will not change much, since there are already warships in the area helping to save migrants, one analyst said.

"This is a continuation of the status quo, since you cannot send a warship into an area without it collecting intelligence," said Peter Roberts, a senior research fellow in sea power and maritime studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

The UK government said intelligence officials from its Government Communications Headquarters in the UK would also turn their attention to studying the gangs while police would join an "intelligence fusion cell" in Sicily.

UK MoD sources also said the Enterprise, a 3,700-metric-tonne vessel with a crew of 60 to 70, would be an effective intelligence collector. A Merlin helicopter will also be put at the disposal of the operation.

But Roberts said the Enterprise had likely been sent in because it was the only Royal Navy ship available. An assault ship, the HMS Bulwark, has been rescuing migrants for the last few weeks in the Mediterranean, but is now returning to the UK for maintenance.

Moreover, one Italian analyst expressed doubt that ships were needed at all for monitoring communications.

"We can hear what we need to hear from Italy," said Gabriele Iacovino, an analyst at the International Study Center in Rome.

To get the intelligence operation underway, the EU has activated a command center in the suburbs of Rome to run itthe operation. The headquarters at Centocelle military base was validated as an EU command center last year and is similar in set-up to Northwood, the UK base running the EU's campaign against piracy off the coast of Africa.

The 100 staff from 14 nations now at the base are commanded by Italian Navy Adm. Enrico Credendino, and the entire task force will include 1,000 people, the source said.

Eventually, the operation may yet lead to traffickers being put out of business.

"The aim of this military operation is to undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and dispose of vessels as well as enabling assets used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers," an EU spokesman said.

But Roberts said he was dubious.

"Naval officers are not detectives," he said. "If the aim is dismantling criminal networks, then it's a strange approach."

Martin Banks contributed from Brussels.


Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.

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