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Pyracy on Parade -- Part 2

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part two of Joe Buff's story on the rise of modern piracy and the international response to swashbuckling banditry. Read part one HERE.

Is modern piracy a containable nuisance, a regrettable but acceptable cost of doing business for shipping companies?  And should it also be allowed to continue as an unfortunate but bearable burden on various navies' nations' taxpayers? Would a land invasion to clear out the strongholds by force be very effective, or would it turn into a bitter bloodbath that backfires? Barring such a landward force-based solution, could the ongoing fight again Somali piracy turn into a new type of quagmire, at sea? Or need it best be viewed as any other crime-solving problem, as something that will more or less always be there, fluctuating in intensity with local economic conditions and with the varying extent of funding made available for law enforcement? The latter is not an attractive outcome. Nor does erecting a floating security wall, in the form of a close-in blockade along Somalia's entire 2,000 miles of coastline, seem practicable or desirable to the authorities policing the piracy problem. 

In a video just released by the pirates who hold them hostage, the British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler, seized with their yacht in October, expressed fear that unless the UK pays ransom very soon, they might be killed or sold to terrorists. Is this just an imagined concern of the Chandlers, or the latest bargaining tactic by their captors, or do the pirates really mean it? The specter of pirates selling hostages and/or captured ships to terrorists, if that becomes their only resort to raise cash from their efforts, is disturbing indeed. While the Somali pirates are inspired by the profit motive, not extremist ideology, they might have no compunctions about doing business with terrorists for capitalist reasons. That business might even come to include live operational training of Al Qaeda suicide pirates by Somali instructor pirates, preparatory to capturing an innocent merchant ship as platform for a horrendously costly WMD attack against some strategic strait (Malacca or Gibraltar?) or canal (Suez or Panama?) or populous harbor or oil terminal (Singapore or Galveston?).

It's proving difficult for foreign countries and coalitions to deter Somali piracy. The overall phenomenon results from disparate extended family groups sending out expendable small units to first infiltrate, disguised as fishing boats, and then threaten a very wide area. Put this way, modern piracy sounds almost like a waterborne guerilla insurgency, a type of enemy that on land is notoriously difficult to dissuade by "third generation warfare" means.  This is especially an issue when, at least so far, international law and foreign government policies alike have given the pirates sanctuary within their own territorial limits. The pirates do have a significant technical advantage as well, in that each mother ship's or skiff's arbitrary and evasive marauding path consumes food and fuel at a linear rate, whereas maritime security units need to protect a vast area that goes up with the square of the range of any individual pirate sortie. If pirates increase their practical operating range from 300 miles to 1000 miles, for instance, which is by a factor of 3-1/3, the area they bring under threat, which foreign navies and coast guards need to patrol, increases by a factor of more than 10. Another problem in deterrence lies in the rather poor target classification capabilities of the pirates themselves. When they close in and open fire with automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades, not realizing that a warship is a warship, Sailors can get hurt or killed.

How might this unstable equation tip further if pirates, who are basically just waterborne kidnappers, start to kill their hostages, and scuttle or burn their captive cargo ships, if larger and larger ransom demands aren't more and more quickly complied with? Bear in mind that the $3.5 million Spain paid for the Alakrana and crew set a new record high. The pirates also seem to hold the initiative regarding how much risk they're willing to take to complete a hijacking. The pressing home of more-aggressive individual attacks, against better-defended ships, would presumably lead to more pirate losses (wounded, killed, captured) but could also, potentially, yield a higher rate of successful takeovers of intended prizes. Inflating ransoms inflates the costs for everyone involved in suppressing the problem. Inflating success rates as well can compound that to a hyperinflation of aggregate costs. At some point, any such hyperinflationary trend will cross an intolerable pain threshold not yet experienced, destabilizing the situation even further.  

We also need to ask whether the disputed waters off Somalia might become a tinderbox for tensions between the different navies of nations whose interests, along these same sea lanes, come to clash. China for instance has growing and intertwined foreign aid programs, business investments, and natural resource dependencies on the continent - and continental shelf - of Africa. China is also significantly expanding her military, including her navy, at an impressive pace. China can justify global reach for her naval forces, including her nuclear fast-attack submarines, by pointing to the valid need to defend her shipping from pirates, as well as to protect her commerce, her citizens, and her energy security, at what is to her the far end of the Indian Ocean.

China's aspirations will hopefully be positive for world peace and trade. But some now-unimaginable future misalignment of antagonistic national regimes, both sides operating in the same waterspace with loaded weapons against Horn of Africa piracy but set at angry cross-purposes otherwise, might create a tinderbox situation that tragically ignites and then escalates. In this worst-case scenario, the Gulf of Aden could become the waterborne equivalent for World War III to what the Balkans were for World War I: as initiator site for global catastrophe.

It will be interesting to see what the Pentagon's impending Quadrennial Defense Review Report has to say about modern piracy, both in and of itself and in the inseparable wider context of national security. With budget constraints at the forefront of lawmakers' minds, will piracy take a necessary back seat via a de facto "reactive attempted containment policy" for now? If King Neptune is gazing into his crystal ball, I wonder what he sees that we might not be able or willing to visualize.

-- Joe Buff

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