- The ship was hijacked nearly 20 hours ago around 350 miles off the coast of Somalia by 4 pirates.
- Upon hijacking the ship, the skiffs used by the pirates were scuttled.
- The crew was able to arrange some agreement with the pirates that put 3 off the ship with the Captain and 1 other crew member, while the crew took one of the pirates hostage.
- The crew attempted a hostage swap with the 4th pirate, but the pirates did not give up their hostages and the one pirate previously captured is now with the other pirates, holding the Captain and one other hostage, on the Captains launch of the Maersk Alabama.
- As of 3:00pm EST the the Maersk Alabama crew was still in contact with the pirates on the the smaller craft.
Somali pirates are criminals, not victims. There is a tendency in western society to suggest Somali pirates are victims of conditions of Somalia. Lets be clear, Somali pirates contribute to the conditions in Somalia as much as anyone. Somalia is starving, the maritime region between Somalia and Yemen is currently where the largest maritime migration of smuggled people occurs in the world as people flee conditions in Somalia. The United Nations has a refugee program along the southern coast of Yemen that deals with around 20,000 Somali migrants annually. Thousands more are thought to die annually in that maritime journey, and the smugglers who are engaged in the human trafficking of that area are from the same communities as the pirates.
The pirates of Somalia often target humanitarian ships, and due to hijackings of ships delivering aid for the United Nations World Food Program, the WFP was unable to make several deliveries last year until naval escort was finally provided by the Canadians. More recently, European nations have taken up the cause of escorting WFP ships providing food into Somalia. Lets be clear, because pirates actively engage in attempted hijackings of WFP humanitarian ships, the Somalia piracy problem is directly related to the conditions of starvation among the people of Somalia.
Pirates have on occasion hijacked foreign ships illegally fishing in seas off Somalia. European nations and China have been cracking down on vessels flagged to their nations illegally fishing off Somalia, but Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan could still be doing more to stop illegal fishing from their fishing communities off that coast. Somalia is outstanding fishing, with some delicacies available off that coast turning enormous profits in Asian food markets. Illegal fishing is a small, but relevant aspect of the problems that contribute to Somalia piracy. The real problem right now is that piracy is paying much more than fishing is.
The news folks are talking a lot about motherships, but there is context. Somali fisherman usually tow 3-4 skiffs behind a larger fishing vessel well out to sea, then the fisherman will use the skiffs to fish larger areas of the sea in coordination with the mothership for large catches. The fishing off Somalia helps feeds large numbers of people in the Somalia coastal communities, and for that reason the WFP is delivering food in more urban areas and into land, not along the coastal communities that are able to leverage the Indian Ocean for food.
Pirate tactics are similar. A larger vessel, that looks exactly like a larger fishing vessel, will pull several skiffs (which also look like fishing skiffs) out to sea, then the pirates will take their ropes, hooks, weapons, and even GPS enabled systems, laptops, and other modern technologies on the skiffs to chase down and hijack commercial ships. In several cases, a pirate skiff will hijack another small fishing vessel (often Yemeni or other nationality), and then use that vessel to launch an attack on a commercial vessel.
Simply looking for a vessel towing skiffs is a fruitless suggestion, the Indians learned that the hard way when they blew the hell out of a fishing vessel towing fishing skiffs last year. Clearly shooting first and asking questions later will lead to innocents getting killed, the Russians also did this when one of their destroyers killed Yemeni fisherman just off the harbor in Yemen that supports the Russian warships in the region logistically. These types of embarrassing incidents that have created political problems have had a direct influence on the rules of engagement established by most nations in the region.
There are typically around 6000 small fishing skiffs off the coast of Somalia and in the region, with an additional many hundred larger fishing vessels (similar to dhows) in the region. It is very difficult to tell the difference between a fishing vessel and a pirate vessel, all of the vessels look the same. There is no True Value paint store in Somalia, all of the ships are the same color of no paint white with rust regardless whether it is used for fishing or piracy. UAVs with cameras are rarely able to make an effective identification that distinguishes fishing vessel from pirate vessel, indeed pirate vessels often operate very similar to fishing vessels until a target is identified and engaged by the pirates. Proactive identification of friend and foe requires a sailor to pull up next to a skiff or fishing boat and look into the vessel to insure it does not have weapons.
There are many, many false alarms reported by the commercial maritime community every day in the Gulf of Aden, primarily because it is so difficult to distinguish between a fishing vessel and a pirate vessel. A fishing vessel simply relocating to a new fishing hole near a commercial ship is often reported as a pirate vessel, which consumes coalition resources that must respond to the call for help. The golden 30 minutes begins when a ship calls for help. Very rarely is a commercial ship hijacked if a naval vessel, helicopter, or aircraft can respond in 30 minutes.
There are at least 18 warships from worlds most powerful naval powers currently operating in the Gulf of Aden protecting commercial traffic from Somalia pirates. Since mid-March, Somalia pirates have changed tactics, with some pirate clans now operating in the eastern and southeastern seas off the Coast of Somalia and Kenya instead of in the northern seas of the Gulf of Aden. There are still incidents of attacks, and even a hijacking this week, in the Gulf of Aden despite the combined naval power of the international community which tends to suggest piracy as a profession in Somalia continues to be a growing industry.
Policy, Strategy, Technology, and Creativity
There have been zero hostage rescue operations conducted against a ship being held for ransom by pirates. Ransoms to pirates in just the last year have topped $150 million. Counting ransoms, additional operations costs, maritime insurance premiums, labor union requirements for hazard pay in the region, and costs for additional security measures the total cost to the maritime industry in the region over the last year is estimated to be between $500 million $750 million. The total cost of US Navy operations in the region over the same period could be estimated to be around $250 million for piracy alone, so when one adds the costs of naval vessels from China, India, Russia, UK, France, Greece, Turkey, Portugal, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Spain, and Saudi Arabia (plus whoever I forgot) the costs of maritime security are clearly very high, probably higher than the costs of piracy itself.
The United States Navy looks incapable of stopping the piracy problem off Somalia under the current policy, but the US is not alone. The entire worlds naval power collected to fight piracy off the Horn of Africa is equally incapable, and that reality should give our national leaders pause. Piracy is not a strategic threat to the United States, although the side effects of ongoing successful piracy actions can develop into one. The real problem is that the former fishing community of a failed state is achieving continuous tactical success against the worlds largest naval powers, and the naval powers of the global community led by the United States Navy surface warfare community is not only powerless to prevent it, they claim their powerless status, and don't seem to care how powerless they are.
The US Navy has every reason to figure this problem out, because any adversary of a major naval power has a clear tactical example in the form of Somalia piracy for how to conduct a successful commerce raiding strategy against a major maritime power. The complete absence of alarm in the United States Navy surface warfare community that appears to accept being incapable of dealing with this problem should give political leaders serious concern.
The serious challenge to US Navy capabilities is realized with the combination of policy and technology primarily brought about by the absence of strategy. The policy of the United States, indeed the world, is that pirates must be successfully identified, because lethal action is not permitted except when coalition naval forces are directly attacked by pirates. The number of cases where a Somali pirate skiff has attacked coalition forces numbers exactly one, and the Royal Navy made quick work of that issue.
Reports indicate the USS Bainbridge (DDG 96) is moving with haste to assist the US flagged vessel involved in the latest incident. The news reports suggest the area the coalition naval forces are patrolling to fight piracy is roughly 4 times the state of Texas. To give some sense of the situation, the USS Bainbridge (DDG 96) is powerful enough of a warship that it could sink every ship in that entire region, destroy every single pirate facility associated with the clan of hijackers involved in the current incident, and blow every aircraft in that region out of the sky.
But this incredibly powerful warship has very few options when the choices don't include blowing up a specific target. Our restrictive policy that limits the rules of engagement is not compatible with the US Navy technologies that are designed by requirement to blow stuff up. If we are unwilling to adjust our policy to align them with the capabilities of our existing technologies, the US Navy must develop technologies that better align with the policies of our nations leaders. This would, in theory, be part of developing a realistic littoral strategy for surface warfare that addresses littoral challenges during BOTH peacetime and wartime. Surface Warfare is in dire need of new ideas, and the evidence suggests better leadership, or more guidance from leadership, might be needed as well.
I'm waiting, indeed I can't wait to see who suggests the barely manned Littoral Combat Ship is somehow the technology solution in cases like this. The platform would be very useful, but it isn't the only solution needed for a real strategy. The payload of the LCS is an unmanned system. What will a camera or a missile solve in this situation? News reports indicate the US Navy has been monitoring the situation with P-3 aircraft. In the end, it will not be until the United State Navy sailor arrives that this situation be resolved. The necessity to put sailors, regionally concentrated throughout a specific maritime area is a rather obvious element missing from the arsenal of the United States Navy surface warfare capability in addressing the low spectrum challenges in peacetime. These solutions need not be expensive, but should also not be non-existent!
I think the inability of the US Navy to do anything about the small stuff like piracy is embarrassing. I think the unwillingness to do it is troubling. Finally, I think the reasons are fairly easy to explain. The number of days the Surface Warfare Community of the United States Navy has actually been engaged in combat since 1945 is less than the number of leap years since 1945. I think it is both telling and incredible that ZERO surface warfare officers have published under a real name an alternative to the much maligned 313-ship fleet produced in 2005. This suggests to me that the surface warfare community, as a whole, has been silenced into becoming an echo chamber absent creativity or constructive friction. It is clear to me that today's US Navy leadership promotes and fosters a culture that is prohibitive to new and alternative strategic ideas.
That is probably a really bad thing for one of the two elements of the entire joint military force of the United States defense establishment that hasn't faced a realistic strategic challenge since 1945. One would think under those conditions, the SWO community would be the most conscience towards insuring they are promoting creative thinking and alternative viewpoints.