Frontex pays another €84 million for aerial surveillance

The border agency spends one-sixth of its budget on flights at the EU’s external borders. With the service, the Frontex director makes himself independent of the governments of the member states. A contract for helicopter operations does not materialise for the time being. In the meantime, however, Libya has ordered helicopters from Airbus.

Frontex has awarded two new contracts for aerial maritime surveillance. These are two of the original four tenders for medium-range and long-range flights. According to the European procurement portal, the contracts worth €53.6 million and €30.9 million were awarded to five charter companies from the Netherlands, the UK and Austria. All beneficiaries had previously provided flight services for Frontex. Several companies also fly for coastguards in other European countries, such as the Netherlands and the UK.

Frontex currently spends one-sixth of its budget this year on its „Aerial Surveillance Service“ (FASS). The EU border agency began setting it up in 2013. Initially, it was a pilot project with the British company Diamond Executive Aviation (DEA), which was followed by service contracts with a total of nine companies from 2017. It was based on the renewed Frontex Regulation of 2016, according to which the agency can procure, lease or rent its own equipment. This makes Frontex independent of the Member States, from which the agency usually has to request personnel and equipment for “ Joint Operations“.

Own situation centre for Frontex flights

The FASS flights can be requested by any EU member state with an external border, with the decision resting with Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri. Italy was the first to make use of this in 2017, followed by the first deployment at a land border in Croatia in 2018. In some cases, operations were also carried out as part of Frontex missions in the Mediterranean or the Black Sea.

All intelligence data is transmitted via a secure satellite link to Frontex headquarters in Warsaw, from where it is passed on to the border forces of the respective country of operation. Frontex also feeds the information into its EUROSUR surveillance system, to which all EU member states are connected. There, it is analysed by 42 employees of the „Frontex Situation Centre“. At least six of them work in the „Multi-Purpose Aerial Surveillance Service“ (MAS), which was set up specifically for the FASS.

If necessary, neighbouring countries where Frontex detects irregular border crossings can also be notified. Countries such as Libya, Tunisia or Turkey are also informed about the results of Frontex air reconnaissance, but they may only indirectly be part of the EUROSUR network.

Plus points for locating phones

The FASS aircraft carry different equipment for surveillance. Basically, this includes electro-optical sensors that can provide images even at night or in poor visibility. Further information is generated by a sea radar, which can detect small boats even at greater distances.

In addition, the planes are equipped with systems for receiving AIS transponder data to track the position of larger ships. According to the call for tenders for the FASS flights, providers could gain points if the aircraft also had technology for locating mobile and satellite phones on board.

Frontex has so far spent 147 million euros on the aircraft in the FASS service alone. In the meantime, the agency also uses drones, which stay in the air much longer and can therefore cover larger areas. A first contract went to the European arms company Airbus, which will receive 50 million euros for flights with an Israeli „Heron 1“. The drone is stationed in Malta and is flown by Airbus personnel. It is to be followed soon by another drone from Israel, the „Hermes 900“, which could then be stationed in Malta, Italy or Greece.

Helicopters for the Libyan Coast Guard

The contracts now awarded have a duration of six to twelve months. Frontex does not specify where the missions will take place. As far as long-distance flights are concerned, the aircraft should be able to move at least 740 kilometres from the place where they are stationed. This would allow Frontex to observe the waters off Libya and Tunisia from the air, as it has done so far.

Actually, Frontex also wanted to award €14 million for short-range flights to monitor land borders or coastlines. However, a contract to this effect did not materialise, and Frontex did not disclose the reasons for this. The same applies to the use of helicopters, which are not yet part of the FASS flight service. Frontex initially wanted to spend €3 million for this purpose.

The Libyan government could also use helicopters for maritime surveillance in the near future. To this end, the previous government ordered ten helicopters from Airbus last year. In the area of migration control, the country’s two coast guards are also to benefit from the new rotary aircraft.

Image: Frontex Aerial Surveillance (Frontex).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.