The U.S. Coast Guard is using the recent capture of seven pirates in the Gulf of Aden as a test case of how to pursue swashbucklers worldwide and submit them to international courts.
According to key Coast Guard officials, maritime security experts and military commanders are examining ways to safeguard ships transiting the East African waters and provide some semblance of order to the largely lawless region between Yemen and Somalia.
"We're focused on providing what we call a 'consequence delivery system,' " said Capt. Chuck Michel, head of the Coast Guard's office of Maritime and International Law. "In the absence of the territorial sovereign standing up, what we're trying to set up is some kind of legal mechanism to make it more painful for the pirates to actually go out and do their activities."
More piracy coverage coming up later on Defense Tech.
Michel said the capture by the Navy of seven pirates who tried to take over the Marshall Islands-flagged MV Polaris Feb. 11 is a "test run" of the mechanism that the U.S. military would use in the future to deter more piracy.
"The whole follow-on ... to actually getting them behind bars is an excruciating process," Michel added during a Feb. 17 interview with military bloggers.
Sailors and Coasties involved in the captures must adhere to international norms for gathering evidence, treatment of detainees and transporting them to courts in countries willing to prosecute them. The legal tangles are daunting, but it's now the policy of the Obama administration to curtail piracy with law enforcement measures, Michel said.
"You may actually have Coast Guard and Navy personnel [capturing] Somali pirates, who may have attacked a Panamanian vessel with a Filipino crew being tried in a Kenyan court," Michel explained.
Piracy in the Gulf of Aden has become an increasingly visible problem, with recent high-profile captures of a Ukrainian arms ship and a Japanese transport ship resulting in millions in ransom money paid to seafaring bandits taking shelter in Somalia. But Michel pointed out that of the nearly 25,000 ships that steamed through the Horn of Africa last year, only 115 were attacked -- with 46 captured.
So far this year, about 10 ships have been attacked, with only three captured. While that's a small number relative to the amount of shipping transiting the Gulf of Aden, it's an intolerable precedent if left unchecked.
"You have to take a look at the number of seafarers that were held captive there," Michel added. "This is not a good thing when you've currently got over 100 seafarers being held at gun point. That's a big deal ... and not something the international community should tolerate."
There are things that ships can do to help prevent attacks, said Capt. Mike Giglio, the Coast Guard's chief of law enforcement, who has dispatched teams of Coasties to accompany Navy "visit, board and search" units hunting the marauding buccaneers.
First off, travel fast, officials say; no ships have been boarded traveling more the 16 knots at night through the area.
Private security contractors are an option for "low and slow" ships that can't steam faster than 16 knots, as are water cannons, hard-to-access safe rooms to protect the crew, and sticking to routes patrolled by international navies.
Both Michel and Giglio strongly opposed arming "untrained" crews to stave off an attack, warning that could cause more harm than good.
While there are some options to shippers trying to fend off carbine-toting freebooters, it's going to take multiple arms of the law, military and a healthy dose of common sense to curb the problem.
"We're setting up essentially a surrogate legal system ... to actually provide some kind of legal consequences to these pirates," Michel said. "Absent that, these pirates have every incentive to go out and continue doing what they're doing."
Be sure to tune in this morning at 1030 EST for our interview with security consultant Jake Allen in a live podcast.