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Buster Howes (Eunavfor): “We did a good job this year. Knowing which threat is acceptable »

General Buster Howes (© Bruxelles2/NGV)

(BRUSSELS2 / Interview) On the sidelines of the Council of EU Defense Ministers, Buster Howes, the general (from the British Marine commandos) commanding the European anti-piracy operation (EUNavfor Atalanta), confided to a small handful of journalists (including B2), the balance sheet he drew at the end of the year. Buster remains “pragmatic” believing that the job of the forces deployed there is to constantly adapt to the new tactics of the pirates. Eradicating piracy is not possible – he believes – but limiting the field of action is. The whole question, then, is to know what is the acceptable threat while waiting for a fundamental solution: the strengthening of maritime capacities. A containment strategy of sorts.

What is your assessment of this year?

We did a good job this year. We have dismantled 63 pirate groups this year, 20 more than last year. But there are more. At the tactical level, we succeeded, but at the strategic level, we failed to reduce the threat. It's true. Piracy has become a big industry. And it is becoming more and more professional. They reinvest part of the ransom sums. There are more people doing piracy this year.

Pirates are constantly adapting. U.S. too !

Aren't you scary enough?

That's not the question. Our business is not killing people or throwing them into the water, like Thomas Morre, who had a (um) too strict vision on respect for the laws… The threat is asymmetrical. On a (Somali) coast that is 5000 miles long, we have 5 or 6 boats at all times (*), of course we cannot be everywhere at the same time. How to prevent any attack. We carried out action along the coasts to thwart the attacks. The pirates therefore realize that going to the coast is difficult. They therefore remain at sea, pirating one boat, and using it to pirate another, thus avoiding entering a boat or as a starting point for skiffs. Piracy has moved closer to India. Which complicates the task because it extends our area of ​​action. And there are half a million fishing boats off the coast of India. It's hard to distinguish the bad guys from the rest. They are constantly adapting.

Pirates are adapting. And you ?

We react. We also adapt. We are using more air assets for intelligence, in coordination with NATO and the CMF. We have significantly improved the way we approach the problem. But the best way to act for boats is to apply good practices (BMF). We are looking to see with insurance companies how to put in place incentives for boats that apply BMF. It is important. The maximum time for pirates to board is 10 minutes. We must delay as long as possible the moment when the pirates gain a foothold and our means of arriving. We try to have a response within 60 minutes (within an hour). But all inclusive (Eunavfor, NATO, Cmf, coast guard), we have 25 boats. We can never be everywhere.

The maximum time for pirates to board is 10 minutes. We must delay as much as possible the moment when the pirates set foot and our means of arriving.

What is the best technique to cover the Gulf of Aden: convoys or sectors.

There is always a discussion: the convoy or the pick-up. The majority of countries involved prefer the convoy. But between the West and the East there is a long way, a long period of time. There is therefore a risk of piracy nonetheless. The debate continues. We must determine what is the best way to provide security. Look at the Second World War, we experimented with the convoy method. This did not prevent the attacks. There is the same mathematical model today. India, China, Japan prefer this method of convoys for a few accompanied boats (21 ships escorted by the Indians, 70 dedicated to the Bab el Manded Strait, 90 by the Japanese force).

You have just signed the agreement with Sierra Leone, why?

This is why having more resources. 80% of the boats used by the WFP are under the flag of Sierra Leone. 20% of my fleet is reserved for escorting WFP ships. If we manage to place VPDs on board, we can thus save some precious forces.

(read : Sierra Leone Agreement for EU Embarked Teams)

There is more and more talk of rebuilding maritime capabilities in the region, can you?

The Atalanta operation does not have a role of "capacity building" or training, per se. We take on board some sailors, Yemenis for example (or Djiboutians who serve both as translators and guides for Somali or Yemeni fishermen).

Are the hackers linked to Al Qaeda, in your opinion?

No. For me, they are delinquents, not terrorists.

“Wanting to eradicate piracy is an error of understanding.
The problem is knowing the acceptable level of threat we are willing to accept.”

What more could we do?

We could undoubtedly do more in terms of deterrence. But do not dream. We will not make Somalia a Switzerland. You have to stay pragmatic...

…So it will be eternal?

We are in the classic of an asymmetric attack. We have never eradicated terrorism. In the same way, wanting to eradicate piracy is an error of understanding. The problem is knowing the acceptable level of threat we are willing to accept. What seems important to me is to strengthen the maritime capabilities of the State. How long will it take. This is a “blind test”. It's up to the maritime world and politicians to act. But we have to act quickly. The United Kingdom has already limited the number of frigates it makes available. There is a risk that States will run out of steam, with the likelihood of seeing the number of frigates involved decrease.

(*) Eunavfor currently brings together 11 boats and around 1700 men/women. We must count the boats which provide support for WFP and AMISOM ships. And those who are resupplying/relaxing in ports.

General Buster Howes (© Brussels2 /NGV)

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Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).