New Approach for Anti-Pirating
Jul 15, 2011

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The statistics speak for themselves. In 2010, there were 49 successful hijackings by Somali pirates, up from 45 in 2009. Pirates have increased their operational range, spreading several hundred miles further east and south, and are now endangering the exclusive ­economic zones of India, Madagascar, and Mozambique. Through the first five months of 2011, there were over 130 reported acts of violence against vessels by Somali pirates – 21 ships hijacked and a combined total of 362 hostages. As of May 2011, according to the International Maritime Bureau, there have been 26 ships and 522 crew held hostage by Somali pirates to date.
An analysis of future trends in Somali piracy offers little in the way of hope that the situation will improve. A recent study conducted by Geopolicity, an economics consultancy, shines a bright light on the reason; it found that pirates earn between USD $33,000 and $79,000 per year, and that the next best alternative in Somalia would earn them roughly $500 per year. Based on current trends and the financial incentives for pirates, the study estimated that the number of pirates in Somalia could double by 2016, increasing at a rate of between 200 and 400 new pirates per year. Annually, Geopolicity estimates that piracy costs the global economy between $5 and $8 billion, and sees that figure rising to between $13 and $15 billion by 2015.
Violence also Increasing
Beyond the number of ships and people, and the increasingly vast sums involved in this illegal activity, perhaps the most worrying trend has been the dramatic increase in violence that is being exhibited on both sides. In February 2011, four American sailors were killed by their Somali captors after an attempted raid on their vessel, the S/V Quest, and reports of hostages being roughed-up and beaten by their captors are increasingly common.
Many analysts attribute this rise in pirating violence to the fact that, as their numbers grow, their ranks are being filled with fighters and militants instead of the fishermen that formed the original core of Somali pirates. The rising violence, though, could possibly also be explained by the fact that navies are becoming increasingly assertive when dealing with pirates. The gloves have come off in the past two years, with various navies now taking the fight directly to the pirates. Both India and Russia have engaged mother ships with their vessels’ guns and have sunk several pirate dhows, and the U.S. has not hesitated to use force when American lives are in peril. In January 2011, South Korean naval commandos operating from the ROKS Choi Young launched a brazen raid on M/V Samho Jewlry, a South Korean-operated chemical tanker, in which eight pirates were killed. Less than a week later, Malaysian naval special forces, supported by an attack helicopter, freed an oil tanker after shooting three of the pirates onboard. Both pirates and international naval forces are clearly increasing the level of violence on the Indian Ocean, and it is difficult to know how far this cycle will spiral.
The situation has thus changed from the fairly straight forward hijacking/ hostage-taking/ransom-payment model that typified Somali piracy from 2007-2010. More countries are sending more ships to cover a larger area, and are in effect chasing pirates all over the Indian Ocean, with little to show for it. Clearly, current strategies at sea are not working. As if to underscore this point, in May 2011 the U.S. Navy (USN), seeking new strategies and ideas to combat pirates, launched a Massive Multiplayer Online War Game Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGLI). In a nutshell, the USN is looking to online gamers and amateur naval strategists to help craft a new response to Somali piracy, which, to outside observers, appears to signify that the world’s most powerful navy can’t come up with an adequate plan to deal with sandal-clad brigands armed with AK-47s and RPGs, their effectiveness notwithstanding.
New Approach Needed
Perhaps it is time to consider a new approach – one that leverages naval assets and collaborates to achieve better effect. It is time to re-consider a naval blockade of the Somali coast. This idea was proposed in 2008 by the head of INTERTANKO, a group representing the owners and operators of three-quarters of the world’s tanker fleet, and again by the African Union in 2010 (though the AU’s call for a naval blockade was in order to stop the infiltration of foreign fighters into the country).
NATO has rejected the idea, citing the length of Somalia’s coastline (Africa’s longest at over 3,000 kilometres). In reality however, international naval vessels could achieve the desired effect of reducing the number of pirate dhows and motherships heading out to sea by focusing their efforts on Somalia’s most active pirate ports.
If navies enforced a blockade between Haradheere in the south to Bosaasso in the north – an area that encompasses other known pirate lairs such as Eyl and Hobyo, among others – that 3,000 kilometre-plus long coastline is reduced by roughly two-thirds, to just over 1,000km. With 20-odd ships operating as part of NATO, EU, and Combined Task Force 150/151 task groups, this would leave roughly 50km of coastline each to patrol and monitor, not counting countries such as India, Japan, and China that operate outside these formal coalitions.
Clearly, numerous complicating factors and threats exist in the littorals that do not exist out in the open ocean. Given the level of instability and militant activity onshore in Somalia, the threat posed by small boats could be significant, with the USS Cole bombing not far from sailors’ minds.
Rules of engagement would have to be modified, as would a determination on how to intercept pirate ships while allowing fishermen and other innocent seafarers passage to and from shore. Further, there would have to be a determination as to how to deal with pirated vessels that attempt to land hostages ashore. While these and other issues are no doubt daunting, they nonetheless should not discourage naval planners from at least seriously considering such an option.
The advantage of such a plan is that, instead of chasing pirates across a vast ocean space that international navies can never hope to police adequately, it focuses naval assets into a more compact geographic region, reducing response times and concentrating hulls to achieve greater effect. Such a strategy could also focus air assets that are increasingly being used to combat piracy. Instead of employing UAVs to scan wide swathes of blue water, these eyes-in-the-sky could instead monitor activity in and around pirate ports, so that vessels at sea could have better intel on the movements and plans of the pirates.
Moving assets closer to coastlines could also open the door for other naval platforms, such as offshore patrol vessels and corvettes that are designed for littoral combat. These vessels could either steam to the region on their own, or potentially be transported there by heavy-lift ships if they were coming from farther away. Such a plan would free up larger ships, such as guided missile destroyers, that were designed for high-end warfare but are currently being employed in the fight against pirates.
Given the stakes, this approach should be given real consideration. If the status quo remains, trends indicate that piracy will become more deadly, more costly, and affect an ever-greater portion of the Indian Ocean. Naval vessels would undoubtedly still operate farther out at sea as part of a layered approach, but it is logical that, in order to achieve some measure of success against highly capable Somali pirates, a new approach to this situation must be undertaken. It is time to seriously consider a naval blockade of Somalia.

Christian Bedford is the Asia-Pacific Program Manager at Maritime Forces Pacific Headquarters in Victoria, B.C.
A longer version of this article can be found in Vol. 7, No. 2 (summer 2011) of the Canadian Naval Review.
© FrontLine Defence 2011