The Ungoverned Space Moves to Sea


At a naval strategy conference I attended back in 2007, Stephen Carmel, VP of Maersk Shipping, said that while piracy was a problem for regional coastwise trade, it didnt really register for international shipping. There was an unfortunate tendency, he said, to conflate petty thieves in bumboats, something we have been dealing with forever, with the the threat of hijacking on the high seas. I make a distinction between a 300,000 ton [supertanker] loaded with crude and a barge carrying a couple cups of Crisco. Stowaways, Carmel said, concerned him more than pirates. Efforts to get an update from Carmel have so far proven unfruitful; Maersk is a bit inundated with calls these days.

To be fair to Carmel, Maersk operates a fleet of some 1,000 ships across the entire world. To get a sense of why he tended to downplay piracy, and also why that particular part of the Indian Ocean that abuts Somalia has become such a happy hunting ground for pirates, go to the U.S. Coast Guards AMVER web site and click Density Plots on the left hand column. The plot shows the shipping bottleneck that forms in the Gulf of Aden as ships go to and from the Suez Canal. It also shows the extent of global shipping; it is truly global, with ships literally covering the worlds ocean surface. Now take a look at the Live Piracy Map, updated by the International Maritime Bureau. It illustrates just how localized the piracy problem is, most activity is concentrated in the Gulf of Aden.

The real challenge is the vast ungoverned, Hobbesian space called Somalia that provides pirate gangs a conveniently located home port, says Martin Murphy, a maritime strategist with CSBA. The unique characteristic of Somali piracy, he says, is the sanctuary that allows pirates to hold hostages for ransom, without threat of capture, until shipping companies reach the pirates monetary demands. Once ashore in Somalia, the hostage takers are truly in the drivers seat, which is one of the reasons the Navy was so determined to prevent Captain Phillips captors from reaching shore.

Lately, the pirates have moved operations further out to sea, adopting their own version of the U.S. Navys seabasing strategy intended to provide large offshore operating platforms for ships and amphibs. Pirates attack much further from the Somali coast, well into shipping lanes, staging from a mother-ship, usually a large fishing vessel, and then running down slow moving freighters with small, fast Zodiac or Boston whaler type boats. Its a very effective business model, akin to a whaling fleet roaming the oceans hunting prey, occasionally putting in at foreign ports to resupply, but able to remain at sea for long periods.

Since ransoms run into the millions of dollars, there is a huge incentive for more parties to enter the marketplace. Piracy is becoming an established piece of the underground economy. Once such huge market incentives are in place, the problem becomes nearly impossible to eradicate. Sweeping up pirates wont work either as there is an inexhaustible supply of willing freebooters in a country like Somalia where there are so few economic options. Even if you catch pirates in the act, what do you do with a bunch of teenagers who just tried to hijack a ship? Shooting hostage takers is one thing, shooting cargo hijackers is another. The enforcement at sea problems become ever more complex, Murphy says, and for the worlds navies, its a particularly daunting security challenge.

There is a real risk that these sorts of pirate whaling fleets may begin to spread across the globe, moving up the adaptation chain, using better ships and technology to stay linked to each other and to track shipping, constantly refining tactics. Murphy says the recent spread of piracy along major shipping lines likely stems from Somali mother ships motoring ever further from homeport hunting vulnerable freighters.

The initiative is with the pirates, Murphy says. Theyre evolving their tactics and their ability to shift their operating area much more quickly than we can respond. The worlds navies simply dont have enough ships to patrol the more than 2 million square miles of Indian Ocean, let alone the entire global commons. Then there is the identification challenge. How do you tell a local fishing boat from a pirate boat? How do you tell a dhow from a pirate mother ship? Murphy asks. While some vessel configurations may look suspicious, you have to prove it, which can require boarding the ship in question and looking under the tarpaulin, or catching them in the act. Helicopters and aerial drones flying off Navy ships greatly expand the area that can be patrolled. But the eye-in-the-sky hardly solves the positive identification challenge as the pirates swim in a sea crowded with fishing vessels.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Please read the rest of Greg's story at DoD Buzz along with SecState's new policy on countering piracy. Also, keep in mind that yesterday the chairman of the House Armed Services committee Ike Skelton called for "counter piracy operations on Somali territory"...

I encourage you to pursue these pirates beyond the waters we are currently patrolling and into the safe havens where they are operating. Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution requires no less. Furthermore, established authorities such as United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1846 and 1851 have expanded the ability of international forces to conduct counter-piracy operations within Somali territory. This does not have to be a large operation. In most cases we already know the cities in which they are operating and often even the names of those organizing the attacks. Pirate attacks and rhetoric have only become more brazen in recent months and cannot be allowed to continue.

Until a long term solution to the lack of governance in Somalia is found, the only way we can sufficiently protect our interests in the region is by seeking out the criminals who are responsible for these attacks and hijackings and bring them to justice.

Get ready for more on this as Congress comes back from spring break.

-- Greg Grant

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