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Mare nostrum, Italian pride

At the operational center of the Italian Navy in the suburbs of Rome (© NGV / B2)
At the operational center of the Italian Navy in the suburbs of Rome (© NGV / B2)

(BRUSSELS2) “Mare Nostrum“. It’s a bit of the rediscovered pride of the Italian navy. Going to the rescue of migrants who try to cross the Mediterranean and end up perishing at sea.

A triggering drama

The operation was ramped up at speed, after the dramatic sinking of October 3 near Lampesuda which left 366 dead. The shock is immense. The Italian government (led then by Enrico Letta) clearly feels that it is necessary to increase the presence at sea, better coordinate it and, above all, give it political impetus and visibility at the national and European levels. The operation Mare Nostrum was born. It was put in place, quickly, on October 18, 2013. Objective, as Vice-Admiral Foffi, the head of the Italian navy, explains: “ increase the maritime presence at sea, to secure the waters, and save migrants and refugees” (*).

Ships, helicopters and planes

Five Navy ships, on average, are dedicated to this task (alongside the Coast Guard and the Guardia di Finanza which have a more mobile but smaller fleet). Large amphibious ship of the type St. George to high seas patrol vessels of the “Commanders” or “Constellations” type, including frigates of the type Mistral, without forgetting the essential maritime patrol plane, the on-board helicopters (SH90 or AB212) and even a “Predator” drone which provide essential aerial surveillance, there is the entire range of intervention of a modern navy ( see detail in box).

Objective: save lives… and not be too close!

Over time, Italian sailors refined their rescue method. “Some migrant ships are so overloaded and in such conditions that they are no longer seaworthy, or even towed. This is why we are very careful when searching with small vessels. It's dangerous to get too close. Merchant ships approached to rescue them. And the ship sank. »

A more refined rescue technique

There is therefore no question of going to the rescue of boats in distress with large ships. With the " induced swell » explains Rear Admiral Saponero, Chief of Naval Staff and head of the operational command center (CincNav), this could capsize the small, overloaded boats. “ The large landing ship therefore remains at the rear. It serves as a “hub” to which landing craft and approach vessels and other RHIBs come to “dump” the recovered men and women. Without these precautions, shipwreck is assured.

In the Italian SAR zone… and sometimes in the Libyan zone

The Italians normally operate in their maritime rescue and rescue (SAR) zone. But if necessary, and if there is an emergency, they can come to the aid of a boat in distress in Libyan waters. It's the " duty of every sailor ", an obligation " who stands above all others” emphasizes Rear Admiral Saponero.

The Libyan SAR system = almost Zero

In " Libya is chaos. It's a bit like Somalia says another senior naval officer. “Authorities are often unable to carry out search and rescue (SAR) operations in their zone” And to regret: “ NATO undoubtedly stopped its maritime operation carried out under Unified Protector too early, without ensuring that the relay could be taken over by local authorities. ».

A dizzying increase

Since the start of the operation (in eight months), nearly 74.000 have been rescued. Of this figure, almost 44.000 by the Italian navy. The majority are men (37.724); there are also 5505 women and 6014 minors (some of whom are unaccompanied, either because they lost their parents or because they drowned). The others having been rescued by other Italian forces (Guardia Costiera and Guardia Di Finanza). The increase is dizzying... From 13.267 migrants in 2012, we have already reached 35.707 in October 2013 – at the time of the “Lampedusa drama” – and 42.295 in total for the year 2013. An increase “ largely due to the crisis in Syria, and the situation in sub-Saharan countries » according to Admiral Foffi. And almost 60.000 over the first six months of 2014, most of which are concentrated in the last months (since the end of winter)!

270 people on average per day, many more on certain days

The arithmetic average of 270 people per day does not reflect the reality at sea, where on some days several thousand migrants are picked up on board Italian ships. With notable peaks, at the end of March at the beginning of April, as well as at the end of May at the beginning of June, when nearly 10.000 people were saved. The record ? : « We recovered 1566 migrants crammed on a single ship » remarks an officer. Controversy is brewing in Italy, where the operation is being blamed for being a “refugee vacuum cleaner”. A criticism that some at the European level take up, half-heartedly, to… justify their inaction.

A The reconquest of certain European values

To these criticisms, the military respond that these statistics simply reflect better monitoring. « Before we would die in silence summarizes, a little bitterly, an officer. Before setting up the operation, “it was estimated that only one in ten ships reached European waters safely according to the UNHCR and NGOs » confirms Vice-Admiral Foffi. The others were sinking… without us knowing it. And no one was moved. Today « it is hoped that the proposal of ships arriving safely has been reversed, and that only 1 in 10 are shipwrecked »

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde, at CincNav in Rome)

The Italian rescue device

  • The naval group generally consists of a Class landing ship St. George, with a crew of 180 sailors, an on-board hospital, large helicopters to accommodate migrants or refugees and a large deck to organize the recovery of rescued boats, even in difficult sea conditions;
  • and 2 standard frigates Mistral (with a crew of 183 sailors and an SH90 or AB212 helicopter); two offshore patrol vessels, “commanders” or “constellations” type, with a deck that can accommodate a helicopter, a coastal unit for logistical support.
  • 2 EH-101 helicopters equipped for long-distance maritime surveillance, with an infrared search capability, are also on board the ships, and if necessary based in Lampedusa.
  • An Atlantic maritime patrol aircraft, based in Sigonella – Catania and a P180 aircraft are also in the game.
  • A “predator” maritime drone, used for contact identification;
  • A Carabinieri helicopter is used for maritime patrols, equipped with an infrared search device (FLIR);
  • Italian coastal radars, and AIS (automatic identification system) identification stations), electro-optical camera systems and infrared sensors;
  • the air and naval assets of the Guardia Costiera and the Guardia Di Finanza.

NB: An advanced logistics site on the island of Lampedusa provides logistical assistance to ships at sea, to coordinate the movement of personnel to or from boats and facilitate the use of the civil airport for the transit or parking of aircraft maritime patrol.

(*) We must not deny it either. For the Italian Navy, this operation is a “great” opportunity to show its know-how and protect its rear in the face of budgetary attacks both within the Ministry of Defense and at the interministerial level. According to our information, both the navy and the Italian air force were flirting with, or even below, the minimum NATO limits in terms of presence at sea. To keep crews and ships in condition, certain ships were left for refit. Today, no one doubts the usefulness of the navy. The Navy is also trying to win the battle of coordination in the face of other forces present – ​​coast guard, Guardia di Finanza, etc. A necessity !

To be continued (on the blog):

and on the Club: visit to the headquarters of the Italian Navy – CincNav


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).