Johny Depp and the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise may make the men who seize ships and kill those who get in their way seem, well, swashbuckling. But through most of modern history, people and governments have regarded pirates as the scum of the earth and a grave threat to civilized rule and global trade.
Now we see pirates taking enormous ships -- the Saudi Arabian-owned supertanker Sirius Star -- and seeming to face virtually no threats or retaliation from the greatest power afloat, the US Navy. They took it in international waters, about 450 miles from the Somali coast, and then moved it off the coast of Somalia, where they have begun negotiations for a $25 million ransom. The ship carries 2 million barrels of oil valued at about $110 million.
I asked John Young, the Pentagon's head of acquisition and the Navy's former top acquisition official, whether the US had the weapons to take action against the pirates. "There's no question that, if the Navy had LCS [Littoral Combat Ships], they would be there," he told me at a breakfast with reporters last Thursday. The Navy plans to build 55 LCS, but costs on the first few ships roared out of control, rising to at least $460 million from a planned $220 million.
We don't have any Littoral Combat Ships to clean up this mess and demonstrate the folly of violating the laws of the seas, although I understand from a reliable source that a US ship is standing roughly 1,000 yards from the captured tanker. So does the relative lack of military activity mean that the US Navy has no other assets to use against pirates and other forces, such as terrorists and insurgents, who are certain to operate in the littoral? Or does it mean that the Navy is overstretched? Or is the Navy wary of littoral operations, which can be complex and difficult to plan and very threatening to ships not designed for them (those impressive carrier battle groups don't seem to be much use against pirates in little boats)? Or do we just lack rigorous concepts of operations that would help the Navy react quickly with the assets it already possesses?
This all grows in importance with today's news that shipping officials want a military blockade along the Somali coast to stop pirate vessels heading out to sea.
Before the rise of American power, it was the Royal Navy that secured the global sea lanes and moved to squelch the slave trade with its patrols in East and West Africa. With the rise of American power before World War II, the US Navy extended its reach up China's Yangzte River and others and patrolled the Pacific with the British. And, of course, one of America's first expressions of international power was given voice by the US Navy and the Marines in the early 19th century when they quelled the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean. Given the current state of affairs it does not seem likely that an American will write any songs mentioning the shores of Somali.