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Sea Transportation: Solving The Somali Pirate Mess
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November 19, 2008: The recent pirate attack on a 1,800 foot long, 300,000 ton tanker 700 kilometers off the Somali coast, has raised the stakes in the battle with the Somali pirates. The piracy has been a growing problem off the Somali coast for over a decade. The problem now is that there are hundreds of experienced pirates. And these guys have worked out a system that is very lucrative, and not very risky.

For most of the past decade, the pirates preyed on foreign fishing boats and the small, often sail powered, cargo boats the move close (within a hundred kilometers) of the shore. During that time, the pirates developed contacts with businessmen in the Persian Gulf who could be used to negotiate (for a percentage) the ransoms with insurance companies and shipping firms. The pirates also mastered the skills needed to put a grappling hook on the railing, 30-40 feet above the water, of a large ship. Doing this at night, and then scrambling aboard, is more dangerous if the ship has lookouts, who can alert sailors trained to deploy high pressure fire hoses against the borders.

Few big ships carry any weapons, and most have small crews (12-30 sailors). Attacking at night finds most of the crew asleep. Rarely do these ships have any armed security. Ships can post additional lookouts when in areas believed to have pirates. Once pirates (speedboats full of armed men) are spotted, ships can increase speed (a large ship running at full speed, about 40+ kilometers an hour, can outrun most of the current speed boats the pirates have), and have fire hoses ready to be used to repel boarders. The pirates will fire their AK-47 assault rifles and RPG grenade launchers, but the sailors handling the fire hoses will stand back so the gunmen cannot get a direct shot.

Since the pirates take good care of their captives, the anti-piracy efforts cannot risk a high body count, lest they be accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes or simply bad behavior. The pirates have access to hundreds of sea going fishing boats, which can pretend to fish by day, and sneak up on merchant ships at night. The pirates often operate in teams, with one or more fishing boats acting as lookouts, and alerting another boat that a large, apparently unguarded, ship is headed their way. The pirate captain can do a simple calculation to arrange meeting the oncoming merchant vessel in the middle of the night. These fishing boats can carry inflatable boats with large outboard engines. Each of these can carry four or five pirates, their weapons and the grappling hook projectors needed to get the pirates onto the deck of a large ship. These big ships are very automated, and at night the only people on duty will be on the bridge. This is where the pirates go, to seize control of the ship. The rest of the crew is then rounded up. The pirates force the captain to take the ship to an anchorage near some Somali fishing village. There, more gunmen will board, and stand guard over crew and ship until the ransom is paid. Sometimes, part of the crew will be sent ashore, and kept captive there. The captive sailors are basically human shields for the pirates, to afford some protection from commando attacks.

Now that the pirates have demonstrated their ability to operate far (over 700 kilometers) from shore, it's no longer possible to use naval patrols. There is simply too much area to patrol. What the naval commanders are considering is a convoy system for any ships passing within a thousand kilometers of the Somali coast. But with ocean going ships, the pirates can operate anywhere in the region. Between the Gulf of Aden, and the Straits of Malacca to the east (between Singapore and Indonesia), you have a third of the worlds shipping. All are now at risk. Convoys for all these ships would require more warships (over a hundred) than can be obtained.

That leaves the option of a military operation to capture the seaside towns and villages the pirates operate from. This would include sinking hundreds of fishing boats and speedboats. Hundreds of civilians would be killed or injured. Unless the coastal areas were occupied (or until local Somalis could maintain law and order), the pirates would soon be back in business.

Pacifying Somalia is an unpopular prospect. Given the opprobrium heaped on the U.S. for doing something about Iraq, no one wants to be on the receiving end of that criticism for pacifying Somalia. The world also knows, from over a century of experience, that the Somalis are violent, persistent and unreliable. That's a combination that has made it impossible for the Somalis to even govern themselves. In the past, what is now Somalia has been ruled, by local and foreign rulers, through the use of violent methods that are no longer politically acceptable. But now the world is caught between accepting a "piracy tax" imposed by the Somalis, or going in and pacifying the unruly country and its multitude of bandits, warlords and pirates.

The piracy tax is basically a security surcharge on maritime freight movements. It pays for higher insurance premiums (which in turn pay for the pirate ransoms), danger bonuses for crews and the additional expense of all those warships off the Somali coast. Most consumers would hardly notice this surcharge, as it would increase sea freight charges by less than a percent. Already, many ships are going round the southern tip of Africa, and avoiding Somalia and the Suez canal altogether. Ships would still be taken. Indeed, about a third of the ships seized this year had taken precautions, but the pirates still got them. Warships could attempt an embargo of Somalia, not allowing seagoing ships in or our without a warship escort. Suspicious seagoing ships, and even speedboats, could be sunk in port. That would still produce some videos (real or staged, it doesn't matter) of dead civilians, but probably not so many that the anti-piracy force would be indicted as war criminals.

On the plus side, illegal fishing in Somali waters would diminish, because of the pirate threat. Suez canal traffic in the Gulf of Aden would get used to waiting for a convoy to form at either end of the 1,500 kilometers long route through pirate territory. There would still be enough ship captains stupid or impatient enough to make the "Aden Run" alone, and get caught by the pirates. The UN, and the heads of major world navies, would continue to agitate for a large peacekeeping force to go in. The UN because of the growing casualties among its food aid staff, and the admirals because of the toll of keeping nearly a hundred of warships and patrol aircraft stationed off Somalia in the endless anti-piracy patrol. Eventually, public opinion might lean towards pacification, rather than the endless anti-pirate patrol. Eventually, maybe. But for now the piracy is definitely there, and will grow larger if nothing decisive is done. Which is what has already been happening, and may continue to happen.

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sjdoc    Ransom money as a resource...   11/19/2008 7:37:32 AM
...simply makes the Somali pirates more effective at what they do.  Look forward to these gangs acquiring more capable assets, hiring expertise to improve their ability to find and board faster-moving, larger, and more potentially lucrative targets, and maintain better and better operational security.
To what extent has consideration been given to maintaining better surveillance of the "battlespace" in which these pirates operate?
Given that they either masquerade as fishing boats or exploit the Somali-based fishing fleet as surveillance and coordination assets, it would seem that persistent aerial or subsurface surveillance of these sea lanes would serve as a "force multiplier" to optimize not only deployment of surface escort units but also routing (time, place, speed) of commercial vessels so as "eyes in the night," warning of potential threats and facilitating evasion and/or deterrence measures.
Older remotely-piloted airial surveillance vehicles (rendered obsolete for the purposes of front-line deployment in active theaters of operation) and attack submarines might be optimally suited to such persistent surveillance. 
It may not be necessary to track and kill these pirates if tracking alone serves to starve them out of the maritime sea lanes and oblige them to return to purely coastal small-return predation upon regional and local fishing boats and such - which is where they'd begun.
Somali piracy is a profit-seeking enterprise.  Cut them off from the big profits and you pre-empt their exploitation of those funds as means by which they become an even greater - and potentially intolerable - problem in the future.
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HERALD1357    Deny the Somalis the use of the sea.   11/19/2008 7:52:47 AM
Problem solved.

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PowerPointRanger    A solution   11/19/2008 8:32:11 AM
I realize the reason many ships do not arm themselves is because they have dangerous cargoes (like natural gas) which might explode in a firefight.  There are also some maritime regulations that forbid it.
How about a wolf in sheep's clothes?
This was a tactic used against U-boats.  A merchant ship would be give conealed arms and sent into harm's way.  So for example: an old merchant ship could be leased, loaded up with inert dummy cargo, and add a squad of Marines.  Once those pirates set foot on deck, they're dead meat.
In truth, however, there is no substitute for (ugh!) nation-building.  The pirates thrive because there is no government to stop them.  The Somalis won't stop because they're making a living off it and have no alternative.
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OLENOLE    Another Option   11/19/2008 9:05:48 AM
Another, cheaper, more effective option, is to arm the merchant ships, with small arms, and a cadre of fighters.
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LB    It take political will   11/19/2008 9:37:32 AM
It takes the political will to go ashore at night to kill the pirates and burn their boats.
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Camp       11/19/2008 10:23:10 AM
It's almost laughable. The world navies seem almost powerless to stop RPG & AK-47 toting pirates.
An AC-130 on a night flight along the Somali coast, could put a enough of holes in a few boats to send a message. Followed by a leaflet drop to explain event escalations, should ye ol'pirate activities persist.

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wrath       11/19/2008 11:29:16 AM
Until the political situation in Somalia can be resolved, if ever, the sheep in wolf's clothing tactic would be the best method for dealing with pirates. Pirates can simply avoid areas where navy ships patrol, thus generating a sense of confidence in the they can act in a lawless manner on the high seas with impunity. A few stings by commando operated boats pretending to be vulnerable merchant vessels will chip away at that confidence, making pirates warier about targeting water craft.
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free_man 12    I think we are missing the point...   11/19/2008 12:11:47 PM

In my opinion, this is all about $. Hardly anybody has gotten killed, in all the incidents that have taken place.  In fact, when the ransom is paid promptly there is usually no injuries or deaths involved.

Therefore, the response must be almost purely a financial question, similar in some ways to questions in US liability law (e.g., whether the gov't should make it mandatory for trucks to have crash guards installed on the rear to prevent cars from sliding under in a collision, which almost always results in death or serious injury.  In fact, the law does not make it mandatory because the estimated cost of such installation on all trucks trumps the potential death/serious injury in potential accidents, using financial estimators valuing the loss of life against such installation).

Therefore, I feel that most of these offered methods (subs, UAVs, etc...) are way too costly, especially on a semi-permanent basis, to be implemented in an attempt to, in essence, keep the cost of doing business down.  Not to mention, the potential political/public opinion catastrophe that has been mentioned if an armed mission goes awry (I don't think the US public would accept dead soldiers trying to rescue the crew of a Saudi oil tanker, while many would not accept dead civilians from such a mission either).

While I do not want top pay more for anything than the next guy, if that is the cost of doing business, so be it.  We pay more for many goods and services that involve hazard costs (e.g., coal and other minerals take into account the hazards of mining, etc?).  Why should the military get involved at a cost of billions (using even 1 torpedo against a speedboat may not be cost effective). Let the shipping companies hire their own security at their cost of billions.  The ROE for a military mission will always be stacked against the military anyway?

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dba       11/19/2008 12:43:33 PM
Anybody remember this incident involving a DPRK cargo ship not too long ago?
http:// www . defensetech . org /archives/003823 . html

"The Williams dispatched a helicopter and ordered the pirates to give up their weapons via a bridge-to-bridge radio. The North Korean crew, which had retained control of the steering and engineering spaces, then confronted the pirates and gained back control of the bridge, according to a Navy news release.

Initial reports from the North Korean crew said two pirates were killed and five others captured, the release said"

It doesn't say it directly but you can be pretty sure the DPRK ship crew dug out a few rifles that were hidden in the ship after the pirates got onboard.

But yeah, it'd be naive to think most of civilian cargo ships can be armed and guarded.  

Only way this piracy problem will be resolved is when insurance companies charge too much and than the shipping companies turn around and demand govt's do something.  Or a major cruise ship is somehow boarded by the pirates.

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OkinawaGuy       11/19/2008 2:11:34 PM
There are literally thousands of private military contractors out there with plenty of personnel with weapons who could ride "shotgun" on these ships as they transitted the problem areas.  Surely it is cheaper for the shipping companies to pay money to the PMCs for some private armed escort rather than paying $500k+ for every ship that is ransommed from the pirates?  Escort won't work because there are too many ships -- stationing a small squad of armed men aboard the ships, transferred to another ship for a return trip, would work.
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