Somali Piracy: A Solution
Security Aboard Ships - Not USS Sledgehammers - To Fight At Point of Pirates' Attacks
By Steve Schippert | April 9, 2009
The news of an American vessel, the Maersk Alabama, being boarded and commandeered by pirates off the coast of Somalia has brought the Somali piracy issue to the front burner for Americans. Still, the piracy has long been the most widely covered news out of Somalia for Americans. And for this reason, many of them might be shocked to know that al-Qaeda's Somali franchise al-Shabaab actually controls much of the country. But I digress.
It's time for a solution. It's time to get pro-active on the maritime security front. Certainly good folks somewhere have put many hours into contemplating this, and it would be particularly bad form to trumpet here as presumably the only genius with an idea. But, probably much to their shared frustration, we are still where we are: Vulnerable in the vast open waters off the Horn of Africa. Enough.
THE WRONG ANSWER
The US Navy (or any other navy) is not the answer. Wholly cost-ineffective, incapable of covering all areas and like swatting mosquitoes with a sledgehammer. The open seas reaction time is too great. The pirates' take-over of a ship will have (pardon, has) already taken place and the opposing force is faced not with preventing the pirates' boarding, but rather with boarding the vessel themselves in a hostage situation, risking the lives of the crew a second time. We are reacting haphazardly (and slowly) rather than preventing or deterring.
Or, as has been the alternate course more often than not, nations and firms can enter into post-action negotiation for the return of their vessels, goods and men. Paying pirates is a remarkably poor option, particularly after one is so keenly aware of the threat.
THE RIGHT ANSWER
The only tenable solution is to put the prevention at the point of risk: Aboard the vessel.
It is the only solution - sans magical liquidation of all pirates and their havens - that is fast-reacting enough or cost effective enough. (Have you ever checked the expense tab of operating a US Navy destroyer for a 24-hour period of steaming? It's an expense only a stimulus's mother could love.)
What does the security team look like? Pretty simple, actually. 4-6 men from the contracting outfit, with small arms with enough reach and punch to introduce a speedboat to the ocean floor. There is an array of potent automatic rifles available. The team should possess at least one .50 caliber weapon for both range and punch. Certainly no 5.56mm M-16's. As well, some form of grenade weapons should be on hand (RPGs, grenade launchers and/or other shoulder-fired explosive weapons suitable for maritime use.) Night scopes and night vision goggles are essential as well. There are plenty of arms experts who know what would and would not work best. Point is, it isn't rocket science. Get it done.
It must be made known that all small craft deemed a potential threat that come within 500 meters of any vessel in the open seas risk being fired upon and sunk upon approach.
The specific logistics for maximum efficiency can be a challenge, but the basics here are pretty simple - at least on paper. There is no need for the contracted maritime security team to be aboard the vessel outside demonstrated high-risk zones. That, currently, is the float around the Horn of Africa. It is surely possible to coordinate embark and debark points at the ends of that leg of a particular ship's journey. This can happen at a port of call or, most efficiently, via scheduled smaller craft along the way.
The US military has a presence in Djibouti, which can serve as a safe staging point for security teams before the vessel steams toward the Suez Canal. At the opposite end, the United States may assist the contracting organizations in coordinating cooperation with Kenya and a similar use of shoreline military installations for the same staging area purposes. Likewise, for ships steaming eastward, the United States can assist in gaining staging accommodations in Gulf States such as Oman or the United Arab Emirates. Yemen, while logical on a map, would surely be an untenable risky endeavor for such use.
If such staging areas or temporary private bases can be arranged, shipping companies can avoid the undesirable and expensive option of a permanently boarded well-armed defensive presence from port of origin to port of destination. Likewise, if properly logistically coordinated, a security contracting firm can operate relatively efficiently in providing the security precisely where it is needed, when it is needed. With the spiking cost of insuring transit that includes passage through the vital but dangerous pirate-infested waters around the Horn and off the Somali coast, shipping companies will find this a more cost effective way to protect their crews, vessels and cargo.
The option vaguely outlined above may not be pretty, and yes, it is an added expense to doing business. But the bottom line is this: We simply cannot continue to do business in the manner that we have been.
We cannot allow aggressive piracy run amok to be encouraged by their own success, to dictate the terms, to threaten our vessels or to put our civilian crews at risk. Somali pirates currently operate at little risk; small, fast, agile and aggressive. And the payoff for success is huge. They have extracted millions in ransoms.
This has to be confronted intelligently, effectively, and aggressively. Shipping companies must be willing to bring aboard those who will bring violence upon those who would bring violence to their crews. This is, it must be recognized, the language the pirates speak. It's time to communicate deterrence. Remove the profit and the likelihood of success. Then the market correction of big-ticket Somali piracy begins.
Or we can continue doing business as usual with maritime thugs - terrorists at sea. We can pay their ransom demands for the release of our crews, or we can show up a day late and a dollar short on the open waters. As this is being written in the waning darkness of another New York City morning, the USS 'Sledgehammer' has arrived on scene at the Maersk Alabama a couple hundred miles off the Somali coast. The mosquitoes swarm, still holding the ship's captain at their mercy between the two steel hulks.
A day late in the order of battle. It doesn't have to be so.