Free Markets, Free People

Pirates: Facts, Fiction and Opinion

If you look at the big picture, you realize that the pirates off the Somali coast are more of a nuisance than a problem.   Estimates are that 25,000 to 30,000 ships per year transit the Gulf of Aden (headed for the Suez Canal) or the east coast of Somalia.  The bulk, of course, go through Suez.  The successful hijackings over a multi-year period have been very low in comparison.  In 2007, for instance, there were 12 successful hijackings.

The area of ocean in which these events take place cover approximately a million square miles. Here’s a great map (pdf) which shows the areas and the incidents through 2007.  Obviously the pirates can pick and choose where to strike while the navies of the world can only react and hope they are close enough to prevent the hijacking.  That was demonstrated quite clearly in the latest hijacking of the US ship in which Capt. Phillips was taken hostage.  It took hours for the USS Bainbridge to arrive on scene and the rescue was only effected because the skiffs the pirates had used had been destroyed and they were forced to use a lifeboat.

20 countries are now concentrating naval assets within the area, most concentrated in the Gulf of Aden.  A coalition of nations commanded by a US admiral constitute Task Force 151 which is strictly an anti-piracy task force.  TF 151 operates in the Gulf.  China and Russia have also committed naval assets to the task but do so outside TF 151.  They coordinate with the TF but only escort their country’s flagged ships.

With the amount of traffic which transits the area, it is obvious that no navy has the assets to escort all of the ships.

But there is a tool through which the TF can coordinate its efforts and ensure those ships which are most likely to be attacked have a safe passage.  One of those tools is a website.  There vessels transiting the area can register their vessel and alert the TF of their time of arrival in the area in which hijacking is most likely.  There are also tips for the masters of vessels transiting the area, maritime intelligence reports and alerts.

Obviously with that number of ships transiting the area, some are more susceptable to attack than others.  What type of ship are the pirates looking for?  According to Admiral  Terry McKnight, (pdf) the TF 151 commander, they’re looking for ships traveling under 15 knots and with a low freeboard with aids boarding. As Adm. McKnight says, those sorts of ships seem to scream “pirate, me, pirate me”.  If the TF knows ships which fit this template are going to be transiting the region, they can arrange to group them with other ships, track their movement and arrange for that movement at a time when the pirates are less likely to be out hunting.

The pirates have also adapted their tactics, especially off the eastern shore in the Indian Ocean.  As shipping has moved further and further off shore to avoid the skiffs employed to board them, the pirates began using “mother ships”. Those are larger ships which carry a number of skiffs and 10 to 20 pirates.  This enabled the pirates to go further and further off shore to attack shipping.

As you’ll note on the map linked above, there are three major areas on the eastern shore (to include Mogadishu) where the pirates seem to be concentrated, one on the tip of the Horn of Africa and one on the north shore of Somalia on the Gulf of Aden.  Admiral McKnight said that “99.99 percent” of the pirates they’ve run across have been exclusively Somali.

The question, however, is would a land-based military mission which attacked these centers of piracy successfully end the attempted hijackings?

In my opinion, probably not.  To date the risk to reward has been so low that there is a seemingly endless supply of would-be pirates.  And, as long as shipping companies are willing to pay the ransom when one of their ships is hijacked, it will, in relative terms, remain a fairly low-risk way of making huge sums of money. Shipping companies know the numbers and recognize that the real chance of hijacking is very low, relatively speaking, and seem to prefer to pay off the hijackers if their ship ends up hijacked.   And, of course, they’re all insured, so that is also part of the equation.

While we may clean out the nests of pirates for a short time if we mount a military operation, I find it hard to believe that others won’t step in, adapt to the new reality (perhaps by moving their base of operations frequently) and again head out into the Gulf or Indian Ocean in search of easy prey.

Punitive military operations may be satisfying in some way but in reality I would think their effect would be a very short term one.  Just like war against insurgents, war against the pirates will see a constant adaptation by the pirates to any tactics the military might use.  But this isn’t a military problem – it is a failed state problem.  The problems ashore – a failed government, abject poverty, and few choices for gainful and legal employment – are what must be solved if we hope to see piracy in that area defeated.  Until they are solved, there will be plenty of eager replacements for whatever casualties we might inflict on the current pirates, and the attacks on shipping will continue.

Meanwhile, what can be done to make attacks on the high seas less likely?  Well the obvious way is to arm the merchantmen.  But for various and sundry reasons, most shipping companies don’t want to do that.  They range from liability concerns, to concerns about essentially untrained crewman with weapons to concerns about gun laws in the various countries the ships go.  We know there aren’t enough naval ships to escort each merchant ship, so options are limited.  Some merchantmen have armed their ships with high-pressure water cannons which have succesfully thwarted a few pirate attacks.

What I expect to see offered soon, perhaps by Blackwater, now known as Xe, is rent-a-gun teams.  For those that want them, a team is air-lifted to the ship as it enters the pirate zone and taken back off by air as they successfully exit the zone.  I’m sure there are some legal and liability concerns there as well, but it may be one of those times when showing up at the rail and pointing a few automatic weapons at a very vulnerable skiff below you would be enough to disuade the would be pirates from attempting to board.

Food for thought.


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17 Responses to Pirates: Facts, Fiction and Opinion

  • Yes, it would,Bruce, but frankly, given the Obama administration’s fixation with limiting access to guns, and further, their ‘before the dust settles’ action of over-rding Bush’s executive order on arming airline pilots against Hijackings, it’s strikes me as a stretch they’d ever arm ships crews.

    And to Obama and his people, perhaps the most damning thing of all; it makes sense.


    • I never said a single thing about the Obama administration “arming ships”.

      • Well the obvious way is to arm the merchantmen.

        Doesn’t that require governmental approval?

        • When I was working on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska, the skipper had several guns on board.  We never ventured into international waters though.

          Is there some kind of maritime law that prevents ships from carrying arms?
          I honestly don’t know much about maritime law.

          My commercial fishing days turned me off from the sea.  I hate boats now.
          Which is weird because I love books and movies about navies, past and present.


          • I gather it’s not specifically maritime law that prevents it – it sounds like, insurance liability in many cases, and the problem of docking the ship in ports that do have strict gun control legislation. 
            Those two things primarily.

            Nor am I sure as a captain if I necessarily want an armed crew some of whom just rotated in and the only thing I know about them is what their sailing credentials claim.
            Someone might get the keys to the galley freezer and steal my strawberries, and where would I be then?  Left playing with my ball bearings while they take my ship from me!

  • Eric, please move past your Obama Obsession. The vast majority of vessels at sea ARE NOT UNITED STATES FLAGGED. No one cares what Obama does or doesn’t like, in this context. McQ posits a good solution…let me posit another possibility. Hire a “bum boat” and put one of the shipping company’s chandler’s on it…park the bum boat 12 miles off shore. When the vessel pulls into Mombasa it offloads its weapons onto the bum boat, and comes into port legally. When it leaves for Puntland, it rearms, in International Waters. There are ways of meeting national laws, that do not require your vessel be unarmed, all the time.

    Bottom-line: if the numbers crunching suggests it’s worthwhile to do so, merchant vessels might be armed. And it’s irrelevant what Barak Obama thinks of that, as the vessels aren’t US vessels.

    • McQ posits a good solution

      I agree, it would be, absent the anti-gun obsession of those currently in power. All I’m suggesting is given their attutudes it won’t come to pass.

      • Should have also pointed out:

        The vast majority of vessels at sea ARE NOT UNITED STATES FLAGGED

        That’s true. Yet, American flagged ships are the ones we influence, directly. Again, Bruce’s suggestion is a good one. But Amreicans, given our current government’s gun phobia, won’t take it. I wonder, though, how many others would.

  • I think that arming the crews of vessels is analogous to arming bank tellers or convenience store operators to prevent robberies. The employees don’t really want it; nobody wants to die in a gunfight to protect the profits of a big corporation. The companies don’t want it because of liability issues and the expense of actually training people to do the job.  Paying the ransom has been the most profitable strategy for the shippers so far.
    What does a armed guard team from Xe cost?  If there were truly 12 piracies for ~24, 000 trips in 2007,  a protection team would have to cost less than $500 to be cost effective versus a million dollar ransom. I can’t imagine that it would be that cheap. I am, of course, not counting any cost in human life that might be incurred.

    • I think a Xe team might be worthwhile for ships that fit the “most likely to be hijacked” template. And my guess a four man team would cost much less than the time loss and the ransom that would have to be paid if they were hijacked. And, of course, because they fit that profile, their chance of being hijacked is much higher than that of the total. For those ships that travel at speeds over 15 knots and have a high-freeboard, they probably wouldn’t be necessary.

      Another way to warn the pirates off would be to fly a Xe flag under their national flag alerting the pirates that an armed team is aboard. Of course, for a small fee, Xe could lease rights to its flag to be flown on any ship transiting the area and it would be up to the pirates to determine whether or not it is a bluff. 😉

  • The “there aren’t many hijackings” argument is short-sighted. If it continues to be easy and low-risk, we’ll see more and more hijackings. Standard Econ 101; people will gravitate towards the easiest money-making opportunities.

    The old “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” has its reasons for existing, which it seems every generation must re-discover for itself. The exact same principle is in play with these hijackings, even if they are done for money and not terror. If you don’t stop them, you’ll get more, and more, and more, and if we’re really stupid, the pirates will be able to upgrade their equipment with the proceeds from the earlier hijackings. Something we could easily stop now will metastasize into something we can only stop with loss of life on both sides.

  • 4 taken today.    Not auspicious.

  • “The problems ashore – a failed government, abject poverty, and few choices for gainful and legal employment – are what must be solved if we hope to see piracy in that area defeated.” 

    Hear, hear!  And the same could be said for illegal immigration.

  • I suppose they could blockade, but that will require the fleets to stay on station (with rotations), meaning we’d need more ships running around like old frigates to the rear of the blockade line to scoop up what gets through.

    And how long will we keep that up, the Somali’s have nothing to lose, and it’s not like they’re going to “‘go out of business” any time soon.

    Use UAVs maybe – at some point the pirates have to approach the merchant ships – establish some rules about how close you’ll allow normal traffic to pass in proximity, let the Somali’s know, and tell them when they violate the buffer, they are entering free fire zones.  Boost our aerospace industry, throw up some more sats to track the buggers.

  • A realistic and smart post, here. Much better than most of the inanity on the conservasphere about bombing people back to the stone age.