Monday, April 13, 2009

Pirate Wars

After yesterday's dramatic rescue of American captive Captain Richard Phillips it seems like every news outlet but ESPN is running a story on pirates (Navy SEALs apparently make good copy), and every blog or commenter is discussing how to stop piracy.
Sure, building more Littoral Combat Ships is a good idea, since our brown-water naval capability is low, but what is needed at this point are the same things needed to combat terrorism or any other asymmetric threat: cooperation and intelligence.
Anywhere valuable ships have to maneuver slowly through restricted waterways has been prime pirate territory for hundreds if not thousands of years, including parts of the Caribbean, the Straits of Malacca, the South China Sea, and, yes, the Gulf of Aden off Somalia. When a good friend of mine took a semester at sea cruise around the world she had to take a turn standing guard at the rail with a fire hose to fend off pirate attacks when they were near the Straits of Malacca. Fire hoses are still the recommended tool, as shooting back at the pirates would almost certainly lead to the crew being killed if captured, and at least heavy damage to the ship (rocket propelled grenades can easily go through the sides of most ships).
Navies in the sixteenth-nineteenth centuries routinely spent significant time escorting convoys of commercial ships through dangerous waters. That remains one option here, but would be fairly ship-intensive given the current makeup of our navy. A far better option is inviting countries whose ships pass through the Gulf of Aden to send one or more naval vessels and coordinate a multilateral patrol of the region. Cooperation will be essential, and the European Union and NATO ships in the region are not doing a good job of playing nicely, but it can be done. Countries seeking to expand their blue water naval capabilities, especially China and India, will jump at the chance to share logistical support and learn from the navies with more experience. Additionally the Chinese, Indian, and other navies have slightly looser rules of engagement and can be slightly more aggressive (you may recall the Indian navy had some success against a pirate mother ship). China would also love to be given permission for a permanent base in Somalia.
Piracy cannot be completely stopped, and pirates in a country as poor as Somalia are unlikely to be deterred from risky operations, but with a low-tech, intensive, coordinated effort sharing the burden we can make it far more manageable than the current situation.

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