Editor’s note: We have closed comments on this post, after scrubbing several vitriolic comments. Readers associated with Donald Cook seem to think we are trying to portray the crew, and the Navy in general, as a bunch of no-good alcoholics. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Read the post carefully. Clearly our aim was to demonstrate how difficult the conditions are in East Africa for naval operations. That Donald Cook and other vessels manage to perform their missions, despite the hardships, is testimony to the professionalism of their crews.
Original post: A year after Somali piracy peaked with more than 100 ships attacked, the world’s navies have assembled dozens of warships to combat the threat. David Axe joins the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Donald Cook in Djibouti, to observe firsthand this “global war on piracy.”
by DAVID AXE
The 250 sailors aboard the 9,000-ton destroyer USS Donald Cook have been at sea since mid July. They crossed the Atlantic. They crossed the Med. Today they patrol the Gulf of Aden as part of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2. Their mission: to deter and interdict Somali pirates that have attacked hundreds of vessels since 2008.
It’s gritty work in hot, dirty conditions. “Mostly visual,” is how Ensign Justin Kelly, the officer in charge of the ship’s turbine engines, described it. In high-seas combat with another navy, you can paint them with radar from a hundred miles away. But suspected pirates: you’ve got to get in close, in crowded waters, scrutinize them, weigh intentions.
Pirates thrive in lawless conditions. The same conditions aren’t exactly ideal for a high-tech Aegis destroyer like Donald Cook, called “DC” by her crew. Her systems and machinery break, and she has to sail all the way to Dubai for proper repairs. Even food can be hard to get. The Navy’s Combat Logistics Force — the tankers and cargo ships that resupply warships at sea — doesn’t spend much time in the Gulf of Aden. So DC has to pull into port herself when she runs out of fruit and vegetables. Today she tied up to the pier in Djibouti, near a German frigate whose Lynx helicopter buzzed overhead.
All the ports in and around the Gulf of Aden are austere, at best. Djibouti’s seaport sure beats Oman’s Wild West ports, but that doesn’t mean Djibouti’s some kind of garden spot. There’s a local AIDS epidemic, it’s dirty, it’s hot and the air is choked with insects. But there’s an American base in town. At Camp Lemonier, home of the Pentagon’s Horn of Africa task force, most of DC’s crew will take a short liberty tonight, drink three beers, check their email. The beer’s most welcome. In three months, DC has had just six days in port — most of those in Muslim ports during Ramadan. In other words, no alcohol. “Sailors without beer is a bad idea,” one DC officer said.
Somali pirate attacks are down this year, compared to last. The weather? A changing piracy market? No one is sure why. But you’ve got to assume that the presence of some
20 40 warships, including Donald Cook, is a factor. And that means there are lots of hot, hard, beerless days to come for American sailors.
DC’s experiences raise some important issues. Might a bigger logistics force be a better way to boost the Navy’s overall combat power than more warships? If 3,000-ton Littoral Combat Ships are eventually going to take over the counter-piracy mission, how will they manage, in light of their limited stores capacity? Naval operations in African waters are all about logistics, logistics, logistics. Are we taking the right steps to ensure we can feed and fuel a sustained presence?
(Photo: David Axe)