A Sensible Approach to Piracy on the High Seas

Piracy has long been the stuff of song and story. Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan is funny and has a happy ending. We have tended to glorify and to turn pirates of the past into folk heroes. Unfortunately, the pirates of Somalia are neither heroic nor funny. By and large, the ones who attack merchant vessels are very poor young kids who have little in the way of alternative survival mechanisms. If they have a "pirate king," he is not much like the pirate king invented by Gilbert and Sullivan. Neither, most likely, were the real pirate kings of that era.

It has been reported that piracy in and around the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia more than doubled during the first half of 2009. Two hundred and sixty-six such attacks have occurred thus far in 2009, 154 of them off the coast of Somalia. Six ships and 104 crew members are currently being held. These numbers require a bit of interpretation, because piracy fluctuates with the seasons. The heavy monsoon rains off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden normally begin in May or June and last through August. Generally, the pirates take a long holiday from May through August because the small boats they use are unpleasant and dangerous during the monsoons. When the heavy rains, winds, and high seas end, resumption of piracy is expected.

Reasonably effective action taken by the United States Navy early last April when pirates descended upon a U.S.-flag vessel, the Maersk Alabama, was effective, although more could and probably should have been done more quickly. Still, things turned out OK. Then, on April 14, another U.S.-flag vessel, the Liberty Sun, carrying relief supplies to Mombassa was attacked but managed to escape by evasive maneuvers before the cavalry U.S. Navy arrived. She sustained damage from rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons but proceeded to her destination. It seems likely that the diminution of pirate attacks since April has had more to do with the weather than with any terror spawned in the hearts of the pirates by their misadventures with the Maersk Alabama, the Liberty Sun, and the U.S. Navy.

On September 11, the State Department issued a statement concerning the fourth plenary meeting of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. It was quite congratulatory and took no account of the impact of weather, which has almost certainly had far greater impact than anything the Contact Group might have accomplished. Perhaps the Contact Group, in secret session, performed an anti-rain dance.

On August 26, there was some apparent pirate activity. They fired on a U.S. helicopter making a routine surveillance flight over waters close to Somalia where various hijacked ships and their crews are being held. Heavy rains don't interfere with that sort of thing, except to the extent that they reduce the frequency of surveillance flights. The helicopter did not return fire. To have done so would probably have endangered the hostages, and the helicopter crew was doubtless under orders not to return fire without permission from higher headquarters which, going up the chain of command as far as the president, would have taken a very long time. Whatever may be his outstanding qualities, President Obama does not make good decisions quickly; he generally does not make good decisions even after long deliberation. It was quicker, easier, and safer for the helicopter simply to haul ass. In any event, this was the first such attack on a U.S. entity since the attempted April hijacking of the Maersk Alabama and the Liberty Sun. On or about August 28, a traditional vessel from India was attacked by pirates in the Persian Gulf. The six crew members were released a few days later. Now, before the piracy season resumes in earnest, seems a good time to consider what, if anything, the United States should do.

There are valid reasons why the U.S. need not do much about the problem. Very few U.S.-flag merchant vessels ply the waters off Somalia -- or elsewhere in the world. Most are required by law to be built in the U.S. and that costs lots more than building them elsewhere. Under pending legislation, all would be required to be constructed in the U.S. As of 2006, the U.S.-flag merchant fleet numbered only 465 ships. Seven hundred additional merchant ships were then owned by American interests but carried the flags of other countries and were, therefore, exempt from many of the laws and regulations governing U.S.-flag vessels. Since 2006, the number of U.S.-flag merchant vessels has probably declined. Aside from her navy, the U.S. is simply no longer much of an international seafaring nation.

There are reasonably safe ocean routes to and from the oil-producing countries which do not involve transiting the primary pirate areas, and the few U.S.-flag vessels attacked by pirates have been transporting relief supplies to Africa rather than commercial cargo. Such were the missions of the Maersk Alabama and the Liberty Sun. Noble though it may be to risk U.S.-flag vessels and their crews carrying humanitarian supplies, it has no significant impact on U.S. commerce. Nor does it seem to have done much to enhance the popularity of the U.S.

Nevertheless, successful piracy against any U.S.-flag vessel makes the U.S. appear impotent; regardless of the validity of that perception, it is not a good one to encourage. If for no other reason, therefore, something effective should be done, and there are some things which could be done at negligible cost.

U.S.-flag vessels sailing in harm's way should have well-trained, well-armed, and experienced security forces aboard, only for the portions of the voyages for which they might be needed. Probably four, and in no case more than six, per ship should be adequate, since pirate attacks generally involve no more than six pirates. The security forces should stand watches of four hours on and four hours off, so that there would always be two or three on watch, probably posted at places atop the bridge to port and starboard providing 360-degree visibility. They should obviously have night vision equipment. The off-watch guards could be summoned in short order at the first sign of trouble. Since most sane people in small boats try to stay a respectful distance away from large ships, the wake from which could easily swamp their boats, the potential for pirate trouble from an approaching small boat should be reasonably clear. In the case of a confirmed pirate attack -- such confirmation based on the reaction to warning shots fired into the water or well overhead by the guards -- they should shoot to disable the small pirate boat. It would probably be easier to aim at the pirates themselves, but we seem to be squeamish about that sort of thing. Probably the best way to disable the pirate boat would be to sink it. A few armor-piercing rounds fired directly below the waterline should be adequate. A shot or two at the outboard motor propelling it would also seem appropriate; if the pirate boat had an inboard engine, the engine compartment should be obvious and a few armor-piercing rounds fired into it should suffice.

Standing watches of four hours on and four hours may sound unpleasant, but when my wife and I were sailing in the Caribbean for pleasure that's what we did on long passages. In case of something which made it useful to have another pair of hands, generally the need to reduce sail, the off-watch person was called and responded immediately. One quickly gets accustomed to the routine.

It has been suggested that the existing crews of ships should receive training to act as security forces. That strikes me as silly. The training of effective security personnel takes lots of time and money, and using crew members who, after a modicum of training, would still be rank amateurs makes no sense. Leaving aside that that's not the sort of work they had in mind when signing on as crew, they would still be inexperienced and hence quite likely to hurt themselves or other crew members accidentally.

Rather than official U.S. policy, having well-armed, trained, and experienced security forces on board should be company policy and paid for by the companies involved. As official U.S. policy, it would likely upset those who already hurl accusations of wicked imperialist intentions and worse at the U.S. and encourage more apology tours by President Obama. I can think of no reason to encourage either.

I understand that marine insurance companies frown on having armed personnel on board. They should stop frowning in the circumstances described above. It would be in their own financial interest to do so and they should be encouraged to smile rather than to frown. Some automobile insurance companies give modest discounts for cars with alarm systems. Perhaps marine insurance companies could be encouraged, gently, to provide similar discounts to ships with adequately trained, experienced, and armed security personnel aboard.

Entering most ports with firearms can also be an annoyance. Firearms generally have to be declared at customs upon entry and are sometimes held by local officials until the ship leaves the country. If a ship is making only one call in the country, this is no big deal. If the itinerary calls for multiple stops, it may be necessary to return to the port of entry to retrieve the firearms. That's one of the many reasons why we carried no firearms on board our sailboat while cruising for pleasure in the Caribbean. That difficulty probably does not have much to do with U.S.-flag vessels delivering humanitarian aid. They could and probably do simply unload their cargoes at the first port of call and leave; to the extent that relief supplies need to be delivered elsewhere in the country, by coastal freighters or otherwise, that's not their problem.

Pressure could, perhaps, be applied to those few countries visited by U.S.-flag merchant vessels picking up or discharging commercial cargo before or after transiting active pirate enclaves to lighten up to the extent of permitting the ships' guards to have their firearms back until reaching the next port of call. That would benefit the countries involved, because they are the ones buying or selling the stuff carried by the ships. Piracy and the payment of ransom are good for no one but the pirates and inflate the prices to be paid by everyone else. Nevertheless, I don't think the benefit to the U.S. would be sufficient for the U.S. to attempt to apply significant unilateral pressure.

Here are some things which should not be done. Somalia has been a dung heap for many years, and efforts by the U.S. and others to make things better there from a humanitarian perspective have failed, badly. There seems to be no reason to conclude that an attempt to rationalize the behavior of Somalia would work better now than in former times. In 1992, the U.S. participated in Operation Restore Hope and withdrew in May 1993 with no notably good results. Since then, things have gotten worse. The Somalian government, if it warrants such a name, is dysfunctional. I can think of no reason why an invasion of Somalia to eliminate piracy would be successful. It would simply irritate some people and cause accusations of imperialism to come crashing down on our heads. In addition to more apology tours, it would necessitate the more or less permanent stationing of U.S. military forces there. Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea, and elsewhere are enough.

What about ships registered in other countries? That's mainly their problem, but to the extent that piracy diminishes commerce in what has become a global economy, it affects us all. Other maritime countries should be advised -- not told and not otherwise pressured -- to do the same things recommended here for the U.S. maritime interests.

I have no illusions that the present administration considers piracy a significant issue or that it will try to do anything worthwhile about it. That is not the sort of "change" for which we can realistically hope. The country is far too preoccupied with rising taxes, an imploding presidency, an exploding national deficit, carbon emissions, trying to restore dictators to office, and the likely worsening of health care to bother. The best thing would probably be for the U.S. to turn a blind eye to the efforts of those owners of merchant vessels who desire to take matters into their own hands, and to continue to provide minimal cooperation to whatever international naval organizations are intent upon minimizing piracy. The fixed costs of maintaining a well-trained and well-equipped navy would not be noticeably increased by the marginal costs of such continued cooperation, and it is conceivable although unlikely -- finding and identifying small boats in the big ocean is like looking for very small needles in very large hay barns -- that it might do some good.