The European Union will today launch a British-led anti-piracy armada off the Horn of Africa in Europe's first joint naval operation, guardian.co.uk reported.
Operation Atalanta, whose mission includes protecting ships taking food aid to Somalia, will be approved by EU foreign ministers in a move hailed by Britain and France as a significant step in Europe's nascent security and defence policy.
It will be coordinated at Northwood, Britain's joint operation headquarters, north-west of London, initially under the command of Rear Admiral Phil Jones. At least seven ships, including the frigate HMS Northumberland, will take part in the mission.
John Hutton, the defence secretary, said last week after a meeting at Northwood with Herve Morin, his French counterpart, that piracy's challenge to world trade and commerce was growing substantially and tackling it would be difficult.
"We just can't allow the trade and commerce of the world to be jeopardised by pirates and we have to stand up and defend ourselves. If we do not, we will regret that day. It is a very, very serious threat. We have to deal with this problem and have a credible operation with a real and serious threat to the pirates."
Hutton rejected suggestions that the British public would be sceptical about the EU mission, saying he did not "doubt for a second" that the majority would see the benefits of tackling the "direct and clear threats to our economic interests".
Twenty per cent of world trade passed through the Gulf of Aden, the area being targeted by the mission, he said.
Hutton's meeting with Morin marked the 10th anniversary of the British-French Saint-Malo declaration on EU defence policy. The EU has launched more than 20 civilian and military missions in three continents, but Atalanta is its first maritime mission.