Frontex has air superiority

With its aerial surveillance, from space and soon possibly from the stratosphere, the EU border agency is becoming a quasi-secret service

Twice in the past six years, the EU has drastically expanded Frontex’s powers. In 2016, the agency was allowed to purchase its own equipment, and first began leasing its own aircraft. As a „Frontex Aerial Surveillance Service“ (FASS), they observe the central Mediterranean, the so-called Balkan route and the Aegean. Frontex is thus saying goodbye to the principle of always borrowing personnel and equipment for its missions from the member states.This gives the agency considerably more creative power with less control over its activities at the same time.

The FASS flights can be requested by any EU member state with an external border. The decision whether to deploy lies with Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri. Italy first made use of this in 2017, followed by the first deployment at a land border in Croatia in 2018. In the meantime, FASS aircraft are also flying in Montenegro, Greece and other countries.

The FASS aircraft carry electro-optical sensors that can provide images even at night or in poor visibility. Further information is generated by a sea radar that detects small boats at a greater distance. The planes are also equipped with transponder receiving systems to track the position of larger vessels. In the tenders, providers can score plus points if their aircraft have technology for locating mobile and satellite phones on board.

Frontex has so far spent €147 million on the aircraft in the FASS service alone. A tendered contract for the use of helicopters did not materialise at first; Frontex wanted to spend €3 million on it.The agency has also been stationing an Israeli long-range drone in Malta since May 2021 for €50 million, which covers even larger areas. For operations close to the ground, Frontex is looking for companies that offer smaller quadrocopters.

Since last year, Frontex has also been using a so-called aerostat on the Greek-Turkish border river Evros and over the Greek island of Limnos. This is a zeppelin „tethered“ to a line several hundred metres long, which can remain in the air for up to 40 days.

Frontex has been monitoring the EU’s external borders since 2014 with the help of the EU’s Copernicus satellite programme. In a research project, Frontex now wants to close the gap between drones, aircraft and satellites: In a call for tenders, systems are being sought for use in the 20-kilometre-high stratosphere, including so-called high-altitude platforms or lighter-than-air solutions. Such systems are currently being developed to series-production readiness by the European defence company Airbus or its French competitor Thales. Their endurance is to be months or even years.

All reconnaissance data is transmitted to Frontex headquarters in Warsaw and from there passed on to the respective host state. Frontex also feeds the recordings into its EUROSUR surveillance system, to which all EU member states as well as Switzerland are connected. There, they are analysed by 42 employees of the Frontex Situation Centre (FSC). At least six of them work in the „Multipurpose Airspace Surveillance Service“ (MAS), which was set up specifically for the FASS service. Countries like Libya, Tunisia or Turkey are also informed about boats in distress sighted by Frontex. However, their border troops are not allowed to belong directly to the EUROSUR network.

Image: Frontex (Screenshot YouTube).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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