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.