August 18, 2009: Despite the high expense, some nations are starting to put armed guards on civilian ships passing near the "Pirate Coast" of Somalia. France has put detachments of troops tuna boats operating in the Indian Ocean, and Belgium has offered to supply detachments of soldiers for Belgium ships that must move near the Somali coast. But the Belgian offer is not free. An eight man detachment would cost the ship owner $162,000 a week, and so far, only one ship has signed up. Some merchant ships, including American ones, have already arranged to carry armed guards while travelling near where Somali pirates may operate.
Now the United States government is considering offering the same service as the French. Most Western nations have small merchant marine fleets operating under the national flag. It's more common for shipping companies in Western nations to use "flags of convenience" (like Liberia and Panama) to evade laws mandating who can be hired for the crew and what they must be paid (in addition to other restrictions.) Shipping companies using flags of convenience generally do not allow firearms on board, lest they be used by mutineers. There are a few mutinies each year, usually over pay or working conditions. But even if there are weapons on board, you would have to train members of the crew how to use them. Moreover, the pirates often rely on stealth, sneaking up on a ship at night, while the target vessel is far off the Somali coast. This tactic was first demonstrated last year, after a successful pirate attack on a 1,800 foot long, 300,000 ton tanker 700 kilometers off the Somali coast.
The piracy has been a growing problem off the Somali coast for over a decade. The problem now is that there are thousands 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.
Big ships 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 generally 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, or simply two speedboats behind it. 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 out 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.