Friday, April 10, 2009

L'audace, l'audace, toujours de l'audace

The French have consistently adopted a different policy regarding piracy against French vessels from most of the international community patrolling the Gulf of Aden and Somali coast.

At least three times in the last year, the French government has acted quickly and decisively to free hostages taken by pirates aboard French vessels.

The most recent action was a qualified success - four of the five hostages were rescued unharmed, but the captain of the pirated sailing vessel was killed. He had earlier been quoted writing in his blog, "The pirates must not be allowed to destroy our dream."

This vessel, the S/V Tanit, had been escorted for much of its transit by French naval helicopters, but the helos warned the Tanit that they could not watch out for them around the clock, and the situation was particularly perilous. Nevertheless, when the Tanit was taken (on Tuesday), the French wasted no time in mounting a rescue operation (yesterday).

This compares to the US Navy, who have "monitored" the drifting lifeboat containing Captain Phillips of the MAERSK ALABAMA and a bunch of now hungry and desparate pirates. "Monitored" is apparently a pretty loose term, because when Captain Phillips managed to escape his captors, jump overboard, and attempt to swim away last night, the US Navy did nothing to assist him.

There are four pirates with rifles in the lifeboat, shadowed by a US Navy destroyer a few yards away. Was the destroyer (the USS BAINBRIDGE) not looking when the Captain jumped in the water? Why did they not vaporize the pirates (perhaps using the miniguns or 25mm chain guns they have on the rails for this purpose, or perhaps more precise sniper fire) when the pirates fired on the Captain in the water to compel his return to the lifeboat?

Of course I was not there and don't know exactly what happened, but it really looks like the Navy wasn't paying close attention to the situation. As unbelieveable as this sounds, it wouldn't surprise me. Perhaps more likely, someone on the destroyer watched the whole evolution, but had no authority to take any action to help Captain Phillips without routing a chit through his department head to the CO, who would have then sent a message to the Commodore, who would then convene a VTC with NAVCENT, who would have to coordinate with CENTCOM, who would have to get a JAG review from the Joint Staff and OSD, before doing anything to help out the hostage swimming for his life.

Compare this situation to the French, who have consistently launched a coordinated operation to rescue their people within hours, every time French citizens have been taken.

Mackubin Thomas Owens at the Naval War College makes a compelling case, based on traditional international law, that we are screwing the pooch yet again:

We need to return to an important distinction first made by the Romans and subsequently incorporated into international law by way of medieval and early modern European jurisprudence, e.g. Grotius and Vattel. The Romans distinguished between bellum, war against legitimus hostis, a legitimate enemy, and guerra, war against latrunculi — pirates, robbers, brigands, and outlaws — "the common enemies of mankind."

The former, bellum, became the standard for interstate conflict, and it is here that the Geneva Conventions and other legal protections were meant to apply. They do not apply to the latter, guerra — indeed, punishment for latrunculi traditionally has been summary execution. Until recently, no international code has extended legal protection to pirates.

So first, we should revive that distinction. When they are caught, they should be hanged. Second, I'm not the first to suggest that we should use force to wipe out the pirate lairs. Under the old understanding of international law, a sovereign state has the right to strike the territory of another if that state is not able to curtail the activities of latrunculi.

Most of these principles are still extant in international law, although the current incarnation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is a mess. This mess is, in part, due to the failure of the drafters of UNCLOS III to take the threat of piracy seriously. Another big part of the problem is they were a bunch of bureaucrats and sea lawyers with a serious progressive agenda and a bad case of the "be a victim" mentality.

Piracy is not a minor or isolated problem in 2009. It is not confined to Somalia and it's getting worse in a lot of places. Check out this excellent map showing global pirate attacks so far in 2009 alone. You can drill down and get actual incident reports from the individual data points. Want more? Download this Google Earth overlay to get aimpoints for nearly all the pirate bases and infrastructure in Somalia.

The stubborn determination of many among us to be victims, and make victims of the rest of us, baffles me. There are many in the international naval and maritime community who overtly state its easier to pay ransom than to defend yourself, because "you might hurt the ship or some of the other crew".

The piracy problem isn't really that hard to solve. But it's nearly impossible without a spine.


Eric said...

CW, given that the French failed to rescue all the hostages and it's highly improbable that their effort did anything to deter future piracy, their assault has to be considered a failure. Unless they just really, really wanted the yacht.

I don't know what the answer is, but active failure is no different than passive failure.

Let's hope the American Naval forces in the area, who have far better intel than we armchair captains on the other side of the world, are able to get our man back to his family.

CW said...

Eric: The French have conducted three rescues, freed all the hostages, except for the one (out of 5) who was killed in the most recent operation, and captured or killed almost all of the pirates involved, most of whom (the ones who lived) have been transported back to France to stand trial. While their actions may not deter piracy, they are likely to deter piracy against French vessels. That is failure? I don't get it.

And while it isn't necessarily quite fair to second guess the units on scene who have "eyes on" the situation, they do not necessarily have better intelligence overall than some of us armchair captains. Intelligence doesn't seem to be a big part of it, however. There are four pirates in a boat with a hostage. The problem is to get the hostage away from the pirates in the boat without hurting him. We're not talking the hunt for Osama bin Laden here.

Eric said...

The problem is to get the hostage away from the pirates in the boat without hurting him.


Agreed that the French have had some successful operations; but in the most recent one, they failed to achieve what was presumably the primary objective of the mission (securing the freedom of all of the hostages). A partial success, sure: they rescued most of the hostages. But the primary objective wasn't "kill pirates" or "save the boat"; those were secondary (at best) objectives, and an outcome in which all hostages were rescued and the yacht sank and/or the pirates escaped would have been an utter success. "Killed the pirates and saved the boat" in this case is a gruesome consolation prize, a way to balm the pain of the fact that the mission was, yes, a failure.

Mind you, I don't overly begrudge the French taking the consolation prize: it has to hurt like hell to have come so close to saving a man's life and to have it snatched from you, and I really don't mean to be critical when I say their mission failed. It was a heroic effort, and maybe it was even the right thing to do. But I'm not sure it's the best example to use for what we should be doing, not unless we're willing to say to sailors' families that the primary objectives of our efforts is to deter piracy and if their civilian sons and husbands are casualties of war, it's sad but it happens.

I'm not ready to go there yet.

The good news is that the pirates seem to value their lives. They're not ideologues or zealots. They appear to be smart enough to know that without a hostage they have nothing. They have support ships coming, but hopefully the Navy will be able to keep them at bay. With luck, we can get our man back: if that happens, we can call the effort a success and while it will be nice to take the pirates into custody and try them per the customs of a civilized society that values the rule of law...

...well, there are casualties of war.

CW said...

If the only objective, or even the primary objective, was to secure the release of the hostages unharmed, the French would have just paid the ransome (as many other countries have done).

Jim Wright said...

The piracy problem isn't really that hard to solve. But it's nearly impossible without a spine.

Exactly, CW.

Dr. Phil (Physics) said...

Well put.

Dr. Phil