Our Disinterest is Piracy’s Gain
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.