Operation Copper: Time to Pull the Plug?

The news that Operation Copper, the naval patrols in the Mozambique Channel, now only consist of South African and Mozambique naval assets may raise a few eyebrows, but given Tanzania’s apparent exit from the programme 18 months ago, it’s clear the region is relatively safe from the threat of piracy.

Indeed, the last reported maritime crime in the area was actually a robbery on board a berthed ship in Beira Port, Mozambique on October 15th 2013. The last pirate attack anywhere near the Mozambique Channel occurred around 400nm NW of the Comoros Islands, on November 9th, 2013. In that incident, a merchant ship was shot at by pirates in a single skiff. The vessel had an armed security team transiting with them and the pirates quickly moved away.

Clearly, keeping naval vessels on patrol in areas where they have been no pirate attacks is a financial gamble for governments and, while the reasons for Tanzania’s withdrawal from the mission aren’t clear, there have been mutterings in South Africa that Operation Copper is an unnecessary expense.

In an article published on defenceweb.co.za earlier this month, Guy Martin asks whether South Africa even needs Operation Copper, suggesting that it seems like overkill to have frigates patrolling the area when maritime surveillance aircraft could perform a similar role in case of emergency. It’s hard to argue the point, given the statistics. According to Martin, next year Mozambique will receive six patrol vessels and there will no doubt be discussions then regarding the long term viability of Operation Copper itself. 

In the meantime, the immediate area remains clear of pirate incidents, which are concentrated in the Gulf of Aden, Southern Red Sea and Northern Arabian Sea. Whether that will remain the case without a naval presence in the Mozambique Channel is open to debate. Certainly given the lack of activity in the region, it’s a question that will be increasingly asked put to the governments of South Africa and Mozambique.