Following airplanes and drones: Frontex wants helicopters for border surveillance

The EU border agency wants to repeat a failed tender to procure rotary-wing aircraft. These could be used in areas where there is a lack of runways. The scenarios fit a Greek border river where many dead bodies wash up.

The European border agency Frontex is sticking to plans to add helicopters to its fleet of aircraft. A failed tender is to be made up this year, and procurement could then take place next year. This is what the new Frontex director Aija Kalnaja writes in her answer to a parliamentary question by MEP Özlem Demirel. Accordingly, the rotorcraft are to fly in operational areas where there is a lack of suitable landing sites for aircraft and drones.

Frontex had already targeted a three-million-euro framework contract for helicopter services across Europe two years ago. The helicopters were part of a tender for long- and medium-range flights with manned aircraft, on which Frontex planned to spend another €100 million. They were to be used in land and sea operations, Frontex wrote, „even if they are more oriented on the land domain.“

Annulment due to only one bidder

Frontex’s regulation, renewed in 2016, allows the agency to purchase its own equipment. All air services are instead leased from companies, with the scope of the contracts including procurement, operation and maintenance of the aircraft.

At least two contractors must bid on each competition. However, Frontex received only two bids for the „Rotary wing surveillance missions“ tender. However, one of the bidders was rejected because it did not meet the selection criteria, according to the Frontex director. In this regard, it is said that this bidder was not able to comply with the criteria for data protection and data security.

With only one bid, however, a tender must be cancelled by a „Non-Award decision.“ However, the procurement is to be repeated this year. Frontex plans to issue a new tender in the fourth quarter at the latest, and a framework contract could then be signed by summer 2023. The originally envisaged budget of €3 million could be „slightly increased.“

Operations in mountainous terrain or along riverbanks

Regarding the scenarios of aerial surveillance with rotorcraft, Frontex writes that they should be used when „neither manned nor remotely piloted aircraft“ can be flown. This includes „orographic“ mountainous areas or river courses. The helicopters could also score points with their „hovering capabilities.“

The features described fit border rivers such as the Evros, which runs between Greece and Turkey. There, Frontex is already using a so-called tethered airship in the „Poseidon“ land mission. In the region, according to media reports, thousands of people have already been pushed back into Turkish territory by Greek border forces in violation of international law, with hundreds estimated to have died. This year alone, 30 bodies of refugees are said to have washed up.

It is unclear which companies have applied for the Frontex contract. Among the leading European manufacturers of helicopters is the Airbus Group, which also flies large drones for Frontex. Together with the border agency’s aircraft, they provide aerial reconnaissance for the Libyan coast guard, which until now has had no aircraft of its own.

Airbus helicopters for border surveillance in Libya

That could soon change, as the government in Libya has already paid a visit to the helicopter manufacturer Airbus in Paris. Two years ago, the then Minister of the Interior, Fathi Bashagha, traveled to France in person and had rotary-wing aircraft demonstrated to him.

In Paris, Bashagha was received by the French interior, foreign and defense ministers, and the delegation also met „with a number of officials from the French police aviation sector.“ According to the statement, „a program was agreed with the authorities to build up the capabilities of the Libyan police.“ In total, Bashagha has ordered ten helicopters from Airbus. Operational areas include coastal surveillance, sea rescue and the pursuit of „human trafficking.“

Whether and when the helicopters will be delivered, and which type, however, is unclear, as is who will actually receive them. In the meantime, the former interior minister has been appointed prime minister of the breakaway council of deputies in Tobruk, eastern Libya. Now Bashagha is sending his militia into the civil war against the government in Tripoli.

Image: Presentation for the former Libyan Minister of Interior at Airbus in France (Fathi Bashagha).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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