It was the morning of Oct. 28 off the coast of Somalia when a single skiff — a small, traditionally wooden fishing boat often used by pirates – approached the Liberian-flagged tanker MV Hellespont Protector, sailing inside the so-called Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor, a patrol zone for pirate-fighting warships.
Hellespont Protector’s crew watched the skiff’s approach with wary eyes. When men aboard the skiff opened fire with AK-47s, betraying their piratical intentions, the tanker’s crew increased speed and radioed for help. The Royal Thai Navy logistics ship HTMS Similan, assigned to the U.S.-led Combined Task Force 151, was closest to Hellespont Protector’s location and promptly launched a helicopter and a small boat carrying a boarding team.
The pirates dumped their weapons on the water and fled, but the skiff was too slow for Similan’s boat. Without weapons as evidence, the Thai sailors could not detain the pirates, so they simply ordered the perpetrators to return to Somalia. Commenting on the incident, CTF-151 commander Rear Adm. Sinan Ertugrul, from the Turkish Navy, heaped praised on the task force. “We remain in the area as a genuine and legitimate force for good, providing maritime security to all lawful and legitimate seafarers.”
But it’s not at all clear that Similan’s reaction was a factor in the tanker’s escape, a fact to which Ertugrul alluded when he said Hellespont Protector “did the right thing by increasing its speed.” Indeed, according to one prominent naval analyst, the American-dominated CTF-151 and other counter-piracy task forces are not making Somali waters safer for legitimate seafarers. Three years into the “global war on piracy,” international efforts to suppress Somali piracy remain “small-minded stuff,” according to Dr. Martin Murphy, until recently with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. As a result, the pirates are still winning, Murphy told Warships IFR.
CTF-151 was established in January 2009 by Combined Maritime Forces, led by U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Mark Fox. The task force typically includes around a dozen warships, including frigates, destroyers, amphibious ships and logistics ships. Leadership of CTF-151 has rotated among several countries, but the force retains a primarily American flavor, with U.S. warships dominating the operating forces and U.S. officers comprising much of the task force staff. CTF-151 coordinates its activities with similar task forces from the E.U. and NATO, as well as with independent naval forces from China, India, Russia and other nations.
Despite the impressive organization and purposeful-sounding press statements from naval commanders, CTF-151 and its partner forces have not succeeded in arresting Somali pirates’ steady expansion. In 2009, Somali pirates attacked 214 ships – more than double 2008’s figure – and seized 47 of them, according to the International Maritime Bureau. As of late December, in 2010 pirates had attacked 210 vessels and captured 45, essentially matching 2009. But those figures don’t tell the whole story, for pirates are now holding more crew members – around 600 at the time of writing – and holding them longer. Ransoms, too, are getting bigger, Murphy said, with multimillion-dollar figures not uncommon. And pirates are ranging farther, as far north as the Indian coast and as far south as Tanzania. “We’re not getting anywhere seriously with the issue of piracy off Somalia,” Murphy warned.
American leadership is part of the problem, Murphy asserted, for the Americans hold the preponderance of the world’s naval power but are unaccustomed to using that power to counter “irregular” threats such as pirates. “The U.S. is under great pressure. Sea control is very important to them but they’ve never thought of [being] constabulary as a key part of their role, in part because they’ve got the Coast Guard [for constabulary missions]. You’ve got this challenge … [for] the U.S. Navy in relation to its political masters, what does it mean to international strategy to protect international sea lanes?” This ambivalence is clearly reflected in the deployment of large, heavily-armed warships, such as the American Burke-class destroyers, on counter-piracy missions, when a larger number of smaller and cheaper vessels might be more effective.
More broadly, under American leadership, the world’s counter-piracy efforts have focused on naval operations meant to deter or intercept pirates at sea. That, Murphy said, is a hopeless aim. “When look at the millions and potentially billions [of dollars] that have gone into putting this maritime fleet together and look at what has actually been achieved, it’s relatively limited. … But when you look at the fact there are now 500 hostages and pirates are getting more money, which metric is more credible? The fact that we’ve deterred an increasing number of attacks? Jolly good, but on the other hand, these guys are making more money and hostages are being held longer. These guys are making more money, we’re spending more money. Where does this end?”
The Americans should emphasize negotiation over naval action, Murphy said. He pointed to an historical example. “Pompey, the guy who really defeated pirates in the Roman Empire … people ask why he was so successful, so quickly. Historians suspect he did deals. Yes, he did violence, too, but in many ways he co-opted pirates. What I’ve argued the last two years is we need to get the political end of the seesaw up higher.”
Large warships dashing about on the Indian Ocean make for impressive photographs and chest-thumping press releases, but in fact do little to actually suppress piracy, as the Hellespont Protector incident illustrates. A better approach might see more, but smaller, warships spread across a wider swath of ocean. But even this constabulary should not represent the main counter-piracy strategy for the U.S. and other nations. Beating pirates means “something happening on land,” Murphy said. That means talking, negotiating and compromising. In short, it means politics over war — an approach America sometimes seems loathe of taking.
Originally published in Warships International Fleet Review.