On patrol to find embargo breakers

Three people walk towards a German naval aircraft on the runway at dawn

The 12-strong crew of P-3C Orion prepare for the monitoring mission above the Mediterranean., © Christian Buck / FFO

10.08.2020 - Article

Taking part in operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI in a P-3C Orion belonging to the German Navy

By Christian Buck

A United Nations arms embargo is currently in place in Libya. No weapons in, no weapons out. In theory. If everyone adhered to this rule, the conflict would have been over long since. But they don’t. Now the conflict is threatening to escalate further.

In January 2020, the Federal Government invited the supporters of the parties to the conflict to the Berlin Libya Conference, where heads of state and government and foreign ministers adopted a binding document. The most important point was that everyone must comply with the embargo.

To monitor this, the European Union agreed in March to launch the EUNAVFOR MED IRINI military operation. To date the Bundeswehr has been involved with a maritime patrol aircraft, P-3C Orion, and since mid-August with the frigate “Hamburg”.

What does this mean in concrete terms?

A man in uniform stands in front of an aircraft
Christian Buck is Director for the Near and Middle East and North Africa at the Federal Foreign Office and Lieutenant Colonel in the reserve.© Christian Buck / FFO

The 12-strong crew of P-3C Orion prepare for the monitoring mission above the Mediterranean. It is still dark as they drive to the location of fleet squadron 3 in Nordholz for the weather and operation briefing. The four-engine machine is loaded and refuelled. The mission: to monitor a particular sea area off the coast of Bengazi. That is a good way from Nordholz. It’s going to be a long day.

Today, I’m flying with them as a guest, an “additional crew member”, to be precise. For this operation, I’ve swapped my desk, in my role as Director for the Near and Middle East and North Africa at the Federal Foreign Office, for a jumpseat (a bit like a folding chair) on board the more than 30-year-old maritime patrol aircraft, and my suit for a uniform. Back to active service! I’m accompanied by a Commander from the Operations Command in Potsdam. We want to see whether the political goal of the operation can be achieved, and if so, how.

What can you do from the air to tackle someone who, usually well camouflaged, deliberately packs heavy weapons on a civilian merchant ship and transports them to Libya as if they were combine harvesters or sacks of flour? A lot, as I’m going to learn today. As are a couple of ship captains who thought they could remain unidentified. Not by the P-3C Orion, which was originally built to hunt submarines.

We reach the sea area allocated to us, and the operation can begin. After we descend from our cruising altitude, our call sign “German Navy 4530” is replaced by a tactical code name with echoes of Top Gun. In the next few hours, we will be a sea patrol in the air which searches for – and finds – suspicious vessels. Led by an Italian admiral via the radio station on board a Greek vessel. We are Europe.

The patrol aircraft sensors miss nothing. Each radar contact is monitored. Is it a ship or just a fridge that has gone overboard? If it is a ship, has it switched on the transponder that transmits identification and navigation data, as it is required to do? If not, why not? Does the captain have something to hide?

A pilot operates buttons in an aircraft cockpit
Taking part in operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI in a P-3C Orion belonging to the German Navy© Christian Buck / FFO

The stations (the aircraft is stuffed with them, something akin to flying desks with buttons and screens) are now coming to life. The extremely competent operators radio the ship, politely and firmly explain that they have a mandate from the EU and the UN Security Council and ask about its destination and load. Does the registration number on the hull tally with the register of ships? The on-board camera misses nothing. If anything seems suspicious, it is subsequently investigated further, the file goes to the Security Council sanctions committee in New York and, if necessary, to court.

Of course, you can’t stop a ship from the air and search it. That isn’t so easy on water, either, if the flag State refuses to cooperate. But EU operation IRINI can increase the penalty for breaking the embargo. It can impose sanctions on ship owners, it can ask other governments embarrassing questions, it can document infringements and make them public. This EU operation certainly ensures that arms smuggling to Libya does not go unnoticed. The same applies to smuggling over land or by air – images from the EU Satellite Centre see to that.

The P-3C lands again in the evening, with 12+2 rather tired but satisfied crew members. In their luggage they have a large amount of data that has to be collated, compared and processed. We might need it later as evidence to prosecute firms or individuals who have broken the arms embargo. If we succeed in that, or even better, if the number of suspicious vessels is reduced, then we have achieved our goal. The Navy has played a part in this today.

For more information on operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI, click here:

Federal Ministry of Defence website.

Operation IRINI


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