Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The cancer of piracy

There have been 14 piracy attempts off the east coast of Africa and the Gulf of Aden in the past 10 days. It is obvious it has gotten out of hand. The trend is getting worse and will spread to other areas unless the civilized world can get a handle on it soon. Once confined to the Gulf of Aden and the near coastal waters off of Somalia, the seizure of Saudi owned super tanker Sirius Star 450 miles offshore demonstrates almost no area of the Indian Ocean is safe. Complicating this is the common practice of paying ransom to the pirates. This only exacerbates the problem by guaranteeing them profitability. And the typical European weenie attitude isn’t helping either. According to the Times of London, the British Foreign Office recently advised the Royal Navy that they shouldn’t detain pirates because “it may breach their human rights” and “also risk that captured pirates could claim asylum in Britain.” Other countries simply have no taste for prosecuting and incarcerating these threats to maritime safety. The Italians, never known for their backbone, released Abu Abbas, ringleader of the Achille Lauro hijacking, after his plane was forced down in Italy by US fighter planes. It will take a lot more than setting up a NATO, or worse yet, an EU naval force to take care of the problem. Each European country wants to set its own rules of engagement or authorize the use of force on an individual incident basis. At a moment when a pirate boat is within yards of a freighter with grappling hooks, you don’t have time to call a ministers’ conference in Germany or France to deal with it. Here are a few suggestions: 1. Develop the resolve for what needs to be done. Use of deadly force must be authorized in advance. On the scene commanders are the ones who must call the shots, not Prime Ministers. Countries who don’t want to play by these rules should be excluded. 2. Develop a plan, including a legal framework, for what will be done with captured pirates. Right now, in theory, under the International Law of the Sea, the capturing country may try the prisoners in their own country or turn them over to another for trial, unless they permit torture or otherwise violate human rights (death penalty). That of course excludes the US. This will be the main sticking point. Europeans simply don’t want to be stuck with the liability of Muslim pirates in their jurisdictions, and the consequences of their release. 3. Use the intelligence assets we have. The same techniques we use to find, identify and track Al Qaida terrorists in Iraq can be used here. Pirates communicate. There is no way they just stumbled on the Sirius Star or the Ukrainian vessel Faina, carrying 33 T-72 tanks. They were given sailing their orders by someone, and they didn’t come by snail mail. Identify the pirates' mother ships. Board them when they hit international waters. Or simply make them disappear. Or both. 4. Consider the use of convoys. There are over 18,000 ships using the Suez Canal, that transit the piracy prone Gulf of Aden each year. That’s 50 a day. There are not enough warships to escort each one. During both World Wars, the best defense against submarines was the convoy system. There, 8 to 12 escorts would provide protection for 45 to 60 transports. Initially the merchant skippers disdained them, preferring to take their chances going solo. They didn’t like having to wait for a convoy to form up, or having to reduce speed to match the slowest vessel. But it turned out be the most effective protection, especially early in WWII. 5. Insurance companies must get involved. They, at minimum, should require ship’s crews to have training in repelling boarders. Some techniques already being used effectively are fairly simple, such as high pressure water hoses. Posting watches using night vision and FLIR devices and 24/7 radar watches while in the danger zone would help. But as we found during WWII, naval gun crews proved far more effective than merchant mariners in providing defense. Whether civilian contractors such as Blackwater or NATO marines, dedicated forces would do a better job than lightly trained ship’s crew. The cancer of piracy will spread if nothing is done. It is spreading already. It will spread into the Red Sea and the Med. At some point civilized nations will have to act. The sooner the better.

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