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.
Some form of strange aquatic life, not native to the coast of Somalia, helped Captain Richard Phillips escape his pirate captives. He’s now safe aboard the USS Bainbridge.
The pirates? Not so good:
The American captain of a cargo ship held hostage by pirates jumped overboard from the lifeboat where he was being held, and U.S. Navy SEALs shot and killed three of his four captors, according to a senior U.S. official with knowledge of the situation.
You knew it was coming – you just wondered when.
My guess is remaining pirates will now immediately go to remedial flag identification class and learn the difference between the US flag and the flag of Panama.
Pirates, operating off the coast of Somalia, have grabbed an American flagged ship. Although they’re rare, it’s just not a good idea to grab American flagged ships because it is likely to bring a response that for which the pirates aren’t looking. I.e., a crew that fights back, and every available American military vessel in the area.
As it turns out the pirates grabbed the Masersk Alabama off the eastern coast of Somalia yesterday. That’s below the Horn of Africa since the Gulf of Aden, their previous hunting grounds, has been pretty effectively policed by TF-151 – a coalition of 12 navies.
It is assumed, since the attack on the Alabama occurred 350 miles off the coast of Somalia, that the pirates came from a “mother ship”, a larger ship from which they launch their attacks in the small, swift skiffs they use.
The pirates grabbed the Alabama early in the morning but by afternoon, the crew had retaken the ship. All except the captain who the pirates somehow kept in their custody. Apparently they negotiated with the crew for a pirate the crew had captured and agreed to an exchange. But the pirates didn’t keep their side of the bargain and kept the captain while the crew gave up the pirate.
The pirates and captain are now, apparently sitting in a lifeboat near the ship, negotiating with the crew. On site are the destroyer USS Bainbridge and some air assets.
My guess is this will go on a couple more days with the military content to let it continue as long as they don’t threaten to kill the captain or try to move out of the area. In the meantime they’ll gather as much intel as they can and formulate a plan to retake the captive.
Lesson to pirates? When they see that flag with a blue field full of stars and red and white stripes below it – let it pass. Not worth the effort. They don’t play patsy like the others do.
Oh – and too those trying to make this a presidential level “crisis”, it’s not unless he injects himself into it (and I don’t think he will). If the Pentagon needs guidance or permission for something, they’ll ask. Otherwise they should keep the administration informed and be left to do their job (here’s an interesting rundown of the last US ships taken in international waters and the reaction of three different presidents).
However, one has to wonder if the seizure of a US flagged ship might not increase calls for this:
Retired U.S. Ambassador Robert Oakley, who was special envoy to Somalia in the 1990s, said U.S. special operations forces have drawn up detailed plans to attack piracy groups where they live on land, but are awaiting orders from the Obama national security team.
“Our special operations people have been itching to clean them up. So far, no one has let them,” Oakley told the Daily News.
The veteran diplomat, who also was ambassador to Pakistan, said teams of Army Delta Force or Navy SEALs “could take care of the pirates in 72 hours” if given the order to strike.
“They have plans on the table but are waiting for the green light,” Oakley said.
A Special Operations Command spokesman at McDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., declined comment.
A U.S. intelligence official, though dismissive of the pirates having any terrorism links, said “there is a more intense focus” now on these criminal gangs.
We’ll see. What concerns me about this is the administration may see this as a relatively cheap opportunity to demonstrate its willingness to use military force to protect American interests. Piracy, while a pain in the rear, is not such a threat that it requires that level of a response (of the 33,000 ships that transit the Gulf of Aden, less that 1% are hijacked).