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Our Disinterest is Piracy’s Gain

December 22, 2009

Maybe its just me, but if there is a hindrance to free navigation on the high seas, this should be where the Navy is focused. Rear Adm. Terence “Terry” McKnight, the retired former commander of the international anti-piracy fleet in the Gulf (CTF-151), shows stark unconcern during a recent lecture via DefPro:

“We are fighting wars on two fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan with hundreds of thousands of troops involved. Yet world attention, particularly media attention, is drawn to Somali piracy in the Gulf Aden, which is a very minor problem in the large scheme of things,” he said.

It is true we need to focus and win these wars, but the fleet must play its part as well. Here is a supreme moment for the Navy to show off its relevance in today’s conflict, always important when asking for more money to buy ships. But the admiral’s casual disinterest in the opportunity here is mind-boggling.

Though more than 30,000 ships transit the area annually only 27 attacks have been successful in 2009. The ships that fall prey to the pirates are warned and counseled by the CMF in how to protect themselves. If they follow some simple procedures they can make themselves less attractive to piracy.

The merchants are mostly on their own, though under strained circumstances the government ships will come to the rescue. This is fine, but what if the problem is over before the warship arrives, and can we be sure anything will be done, as occurred with the kidnapped British couple and the RFA Wave Knight incident?

The admiral said there have been some erroneous reports about the sophistication of the piracy operations. “It depends on what you call sophisticated. Somali pirates are easy to spot,” he said. “If they are barefooted in a skiff with grappling hooks, rope ladders, guns and a GPS, they probably aren’t fishermen.”

The pirates don’t have to be sophisticated to be effective. Their very boldness, and the lack of naval attention is their strength. Especially since “The task force is made up of up-to 25 warships from more than 20 nations” with hundreds of thousands of square miles to patrol. The 9/11 terrorists were armed only with box cutters. To make a splash in the headlines off Somalia, just borrow your uncle’s speed boat.

This is a frightening mindset within our leadership, who consider any enemy not armed as we are as no threat. This is where the new insurgents win, and are running rings around us everywhere.

Another rumor associated with piracy is that the ransoms are being used to finance terrorism. McKnight reassured the audience that there was no evidence to support a connection with terrorism.

Maybe, but it seems logical. And considering how we have been consistently surprised and proven wrong by terrorists this past decade, leading to the loss of thousands of civilian casualties, shouldn’t we assume this possibility, in order to save lives? In this day and age, it is dangerous for our default position to be “no terrorist threat”. It should always be taken as a likelihood.

Despite this, there is no doubt this new birth of piracy is yet another form of the radicalism rising in the Middle East within the past several decades. It is all relative, and like countermeasures at sea are prudent. Boots on the ground are as hulls in the water. Reaching for the “hearts and minds” on land can be likened to dealing with the population of the sea, the merchant commerce.

The retired admiral was asked what the best way to stop the pirates was. “A functional government in Somalia with a rule of law, a court system, prosecutors and law enforcement,” he answered.

I agree that ultimately the nation and people of Somalia itself is the answer. While it may be true Piracy can’t be defeated at sea, as my friend Lee Wahler of Warboats would contend, it can be defeated from the sea. In terms of sea control, the navy and air force can play their part much like the U-boats were countered in the World Wars, with standing patrols, convoy escorts, and perhaps even raids on pirate seaports. Aircraft alone will not solve our problems, but combined air and sea operations are a proven war-winning team.

It would require many more ships, and many more planes. But the admirals and generals would never go for increasing their force structures, going to Congress and asking for expansion funds. No, just a handful of new ships every year, and a handful of planes will suffice, and they will continue to posses the world’s strongest military. If any new threats appear that tamper with this strategy, they will just call it a “minor problem”, sweep it under the rug, and let the civilians handle it. Even climate change is preferable since there is no definable building program for this. You can build what you want.

Thank you so much Admiral McKnight, for proving again that the Navy’s strategy and costly building programs have  little in common with current needs and 21st century problems of seapower. You are only making the reformers’ job that much easier.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Chuck Hill permalink
    December 23, 2009 4:40 pm


  2. elgatoso permalink
    December 23, 2009 2:08 pm

    JED,that is the best idea.And cost efective too.

  3. Jed permalink
    December 23, 2009 1:39 pm

    NO amount of warships is going to solve this. Big navies are seemingly required to provide “motherships” for all these OPV’s and patrol boats ? Or are they all to be big enough with long enough legs to operate from neighboring countries? The Admiral suggests we don’t need to go ashore and root them out – or is that just because Somalia is not seen as a candidate for “nation building” while the other debacles are still being pursued? Convoys – but again, apparently the problem is not that bad !?

    Armed contractors, on each ship transiting the area, using fire hoses, acoustic weapons all the way up to shoulder launched rockets of their own and belt fed MG’s = far cheaper, and probably more effective than all these multi-thousand tonne “destroyers” plying back and forth.

  4. D. E. Reddick permalink
    December 23, 2009 11:39 am

    Start contemplating how to protect merchant vessels as distant from the Somali coast as the western coast of India. Eagle1 of EagleSpeak has now twice reported on an unsuccessful pirate attack against an Indian tanker less than 400 miles off the Indian coast. The first report of the incident had just three skiffs attacking the tanker with automatic weapons and RPGs. A more recent report states that there were -EIGHT- pirate boats chasing the tanker. Needless to say, this has gotten the attention of the Indian Navy and Coast Guard. Eagle1 provides maps indicating the location of this attack. These indicate just how far from the Somali coast this attack occurred.

    Press Times of India

    Indian ship with 35 crew escapes pirate attack

    Mumbai, Dec 22 (PTI) A Shipping Corporation of India vessel with 35 crew members on board was attacked by pirates in the Arabian sea, around 300 miles off the western coast, but it managed to escape, a top company official said today.

    The hijack bid took place last night when the vessel ‘Maharaj Agrasen’ was on its way to Vizag from Kuwait, he said.

    “The incident took place on Monday late night when a group of pirates in three speed-boats attacked the vessel with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. However, quick thinking by the ship’s captain saved the crew members,” National Union of Seafarers of India’s General Secretary, Abdulgani Y Serang, told PTI here.

    The Captain, after making an attempt to ram the ship into a pirate boat, changed the direction of the vessel and sped away, Serang said.

    SCI’s Chairman S C Hajara confirmed the incident.

    The Times of India

    Indian ship dodges attack by ‘pirates’

    MUMBAI: An Indian oil tanker, M T Maharaja Agrasen, dodged a suspected pirate attack in the Arabian Sea late Monday night. After a dramatic chase, which saw the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard swinging into action, the tanker managed to escape. It is now sailing safely to Vishakapatnam.

    Officials in the directorate-general of shipping (DGS) said the tanker with 41 Indian crew was on a loaded passage with 1.34 lakh metric tonnes of crude oil from Min Al Ahmadi in Kuwait to Visakhapatnam and sent out a security alert close to midnight on Tuesday.

    “The owners contacted the directorate and informed us that the vessel was under attack by eight unlit boats about 366 nautical miles (about 695 kms) west of Ratnagiri,” said a DGS official.

  5. Joe permalink
    December 23, 2009 1:53 am

    Mrs. Davis jogged my memory on an article I read a few months back that mentioned convoys. Took a bit to find it but a ship Mike rather likes(the Stiletto) is mentioned in this May 2009 Brookings Institution article as an option against the piracy threat: LINK

    From the article:

    {After saying that along the Somali coast, on the approach to Mombassa, Kenya, a WW2 convoy strategy needs to be followed, with up to 15 commercial ships in a convoy…}

    “Thankfully, our Navy is not as overtaxed as other military services in the current wars, so adding five to 10 more American vessels to the operation should be feasible. Over the longer term, this is an added scenario in favor of smaller-ship technologies for the U.S. armed forces.

    One is the so-called Stiletto, a boat of considerable dimensions but modest weight and cost that captures its own wake and thereby can maintain high speeds at modest cost. It is a $10 million vessel, even counting UAVs (armed or unarmed) operated off its decks.

    Such programs would be a good use of some short-term economic stimulus dollars, even as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates wisely seeks to rein in Pentagon spending over the longer term.”

  6. elgatoso permalink
    December 22, 2009 10:44 pm

    I get some links from Solomon blogs and is more like that in my humble opinion we need to tackle the pirate threat.

  7. elgatoso permalink
    December 22, 2009 10:37 pm

    CIA,FBI,NSA and others security forces are more police-like that Army and Marines,and are better prepared to fight terrorism.I am not sure that a armed group trained to use battleship aircraft -carrier and submarines is the best to work in places were they are not capable of using the amazing firepower that characterize this armed group.But a force like a coast guard,riverine command or some kind of SOCOM is more affordable and in my point of view more effective.Even sending Predators with Hellfire is more cost effective that D-51.A lot of off-the -shelf solutions could be used.Protectors,CB-90,NEMO,even Firescout can sink all the pirate fleet and even contractors.But no the battleships

  8. Mrs. Davis permalink
    December 22, 2009 9:05 pm

    Two time proven methods of dealing with pirates are hunting them down in their lairs and destroying them. The other is convoying. We are willing to do neither because we are unwilling to engage the pirates and risk the death of innocent fishermen. As long as the Navy can be defeated by Newsbabes, it won’t be defeating pirates.

  9. Chuck Hill permalink
    December 22, 2009 8:16 pm

    I think there are probably almost enough assets there to deal with the piracy problem if they were being used in a coordinated fashion.

  10. nico permalink
    December 22, 2009 7:26 pm

    just today, read that the pirates are 1000 miles from shore now…..what happens the day they highjack a natural gas tanker?

    Our dear politicians from both parties always say “we are number 1!”, yeah but they never tell people,yes these are the benefits of being number 1 ,there are also some responsiblities that come with that power. you might not like but we are the police force of the world.

    Afganihistan wasn’t our problem once the Soviets were defeated and looked what happened 10 years later. Somalia, Sudan, northern Sahara, Yemen are all small Afganhistan’s in the making, I’m afraid.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 22, 2009 7:08 pm

    elgatoso-So when they start ramming planes in our buildings, is this still a police matter? But the bad guys now possess weapons of power projection and are seeking nuclear, chemical, and biological arms. I don’t think the police is equipped to handle such a foe which we seem to think is minor.

    And there are numerous examples of pirates setting up fiefdoms and outright governments when they were allowed to pillage unhindered. The Vandals eventually looted the capital of the Empire. Recall that the great Caesar was kidnapped by the Mediterranean pirates. And also it took Rome’s then greatest general Pompey to quell these bandits? Imagine the US forced to send General Petraeus to Somalia, but this is what it is coming to unless we answer the challenge now, before they are emboldened.

    20 of the world’s richest nations sending 1-2 warships apiece. Hardly impressive, but lets say they send their entire fleets, where we have 100-200 of our mightiest warships. Here is where the expense is compounded, and our great ships, which you contend are meant to fight other warships are wasted here. It isn’t worth the expense, but low tech, off the shelf warships, small cruisers and corvettes, OPVs are ideal. These can affordably control the spread of piracy while the DDGs guard against greater threats say off North Korea, Iran, Taiwan Straits or even the Black Sea.

  12. Matthew S. permalink
    December 22, 2009 6:54 pm

    ““We are fighting wars on two fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan with hundreds of thousands of troops involved. Yet world attention, particularly media attention, is drawn to Somali piracy in the Gulf Aden, which is a very minor problem in the large scheme of things,” he said.”

    Those wars having been ongoing for several years, what more is there to say about them?

  13. elgatoso permalink
    December 22, 2009 6:22 pm

    The problem is : a Navy is trained to fight.They sink ships.I do not think that the soft power projection is something that is Navy stuff.I am not against some Coast Guard work but you cannot send soldiers to patrol bad neighborhoods.Maybe my ideas are obsolete but I think that navies need to fight and not to make cops job.And you always said that you cannot chase pirates with battleships.For a Navy that is worried in nuclear detterence and balistic missile defense piracy is a very minor problem.I can believe if we use something like that to chase pirates
    but not a D-51

  14. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 22, 2009 5:50 pm

    elgatoso-There are over 20 nations over there besides the US, so this is hardly her acting unilaterally. Plus, it is her commerce at threat as well, and about half our oil passes through or near these waters. This is of vital interest and it would just stupid to expect someone else to defend it.

    Concerning the British couple, I have wondered the same thing, that they knew the risk, though this doesn’t absolve the apparent defenders of the sealanes.

  15. elgatoso permalink
    December 22, 2009 5:12 pm

    Whit respect to the Brithish couple,What the heck were they doing in a dangerous zone?

  16. elgatoso permalink
    December 22, 2009 5:10 pm

    I think piracy is a very minor problem in the large scheme of things and is Coast Guard problem.Why the US Navy need to make the job of World Police.


  1. Piracy Confidential « New Wars

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