Thursday, April 9, 2009


Arrgh! I love pirates! Unfortunately the pirates I love are not quite the same as the ones who are getting all the media these days:

The romantic, swashbuckling Pirates of the Caribbean do still exist - I've met and swashed buckles with them. Unfortunately, the pirates getting most of the action these days are not quite so romantic:

Actually these guys look a little more swashbuckling than I expected when I googled pictures of them:

Recently these guys have really made a name for themselves, despite the (supposedly) intense international effort to keep them at bay.

It's been really hard lately to sympathize with the good guys in the pirate war, because the good guys have behaved so much like Governor Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean:

Audacity seems to be prohibited by the sea lawyers who control the world's navies these days, not to mention the merchant lines.

There was a truly dramatic, even audacious, incident yesterday, however, when the heroic crew of the US-flagged MV MAERSK ALABAMA managed to overpower an armed boarding party of pirates, only to have their Captain taken hostage by the retreating buccaneers. There is a story that Captain Richard Phillips surrendered himself to protect the rest of the crew. It's a little fuzzy at this point exactly what happened but it appears certain that Captain Phillips is undoubtedly an old-fashioned hero.

The bigger question is why ships continue to steam unprotected and defenseless through waters that the whole world knows, at this point, is infested with pirates? Also why, with many, many naval vessels, from many countries, operating in Somali waters, the pirates still operate with relative impunity. The excellent navy blog Information Dissemination (the very term makes me cringe) has a very good discussion of the difficulty of the situation.

The arguments do not impress me, however. This isn't really a complicated problem. The core of the issue is the "be a victim" mentality that infests all mature bureaucrasies. Information Dissemination sums it up succinctly:

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 unwillingness of the good guys to tolerate, much less promote, audacity in the war against the pirates is just plain depressing. The Maersk shipping line has a distinguished and honorable history. They are not a bunch of cowards or wussies. There is no international law, convention, or sanction preventing them from defending themselves on the high seas. It is only the bureaucrats and sea lawyers who go on television and say "merchant sailors aren't trained to defend themselves with weapons". They are capable, apparently, of defending themselves with their bare hands against desperate Somalis armed with fully-automatic rifles, but can't be trusted with a few shotguns?
“Use of armed crews who didn’t sign up to fight is a bad idea,” says Giles Noakes, chief maritime security officer for BIMCO, an international association of ship owners. “The industry believes very strongly that it’s not for the companies to train crews to use firearms and then arm them…. If you open fire, there’s potential for retaliation. Crews could get injured or killed, to say nothing of damage to the ship.”
It's all evil, stupid bullshit, and it is so disgusting I can't stand to even think about it. Merchant sailors not trained to use weapons? Ever hear of the Battle of the Atlantic? Half a dozen shotguns could prevent probably 95% of all pirate attacks.

At this point we know where the pirates come from, how they operate, and where they can be found. The world's navies and political leaders, however seem incapable of little more than hand-wringing and excuses. The US Navy's staff responsible for this sorry situation, the Naval Forces Central Command HQ in Bahrain, is an embarrassingly incompetent failure, from the top to the bottom. They make excuses that they aren't allowed to take action by their political leadership, when the truth is they are incapable of planning and executing an operation to walk across the street for a schwarma.

So while the Somali pirates may not be quite as appealing as Geena Davis, they do fit the historic stereotype of the bold seagoing brigands of centuries past. They have way more in common with their 18th and19th century counterparts than we appreciate so far.

We should be splattering them across the waves on sight, which would quickly teach them that sailing under the black flag is ultimately a bad choice, in the tradition of Woodes Rogers, Chaloner Ogle, Stephen Decatur, and David Porter. Instead we've been teaching them that crime does pay, and pays especially handsomely on the high seas, so we're only seeing more and more of it.


Eric said...

CW, I also saw a story suggesting that another reason for not Arming crews is concern about flammable cargo--a recently-hijacked ship carrying full oil barrels was cited for illustration. Then for another, we might consider the pirated ship we were all talking about 'round here a few months ago, the one that may have been carrying toxic (perhaps even radioactive) materials; while presumably not explosive, a containment breach caused by a wild shot might leave a poisoned crew wishing they'd just handed the ship over. So I'm not sure arming the crews is that great an idea. (Can we get everybody to agree to use swords again? That might resolve the whole issue.)

That said, I entirely agree with you that the international community should make an effort to curb the issue, including deployment of warships.

Even so, for the use of force to be more than mere treatment of systems, the international community will eventually need to engage in some nation-building. The roots of the problem are in Somalia itself, a failed state in which the pirates--not unlike their historic counterparts in 17th Century Port Royal--are driving the economy. Regrettably, that's a task that is unlikely to be undertakable (much less undertaken) in the foreseeable future.

CW said...

Eric the argument that merchant crews couldn't be armed because of flammable cargo is just silly. Ever been on an aircraft carrier? Practically everything on the damn thing is flammable, explosive, or radioactive, and all that has never proven much of a hazard to the routine employment of small arms by the crew.

The only case where you probably would have a point are on bulk LNG carriers. But our problem is not with pirates taking bulk LNG carriers, its with pirates taking ships loaded with humanitarian aid.

Swords would be fine if the pirates didn't have Dragunovs and dashikas. I'll take a cutlass AND an M203, thank you.

Also deployment of warships is not an issue either. There are approximately 25 warships from nearly a dozen countries patrolling the Pirate Round already. The problem is they aren't permitted to, nor are they particularly proficient at, confronting pirates.

I think we need to give letters of marque to private military companies to combat pirates - but the recent incarnations of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (most recently UNCLOS III, 1982) have substantially diminished the legal recourses available to nation states for combating piracy. Unlike traditional Admiralty Law, UNCLOS III gives pirates the right to due process and protection from unreasonable search and seizure. That sounds really nice, but doesn't work at all on the high seas, where our lubberly judicial systems aren't available and don't apply.

The United States did not ratify UNCLOS III, and explicitly claims adherence to "customary international law of the sea". There is abundant precedent for summary judgement of pirates on the high seas in customary international law, not to mention the right of all vessels, naval or merchant, to use force in self defense against piracy.

The international community has tried nation building in Somalia since at least 1992, and Somalia just doesn't seem to want to be built. The closer parallel is to the Madagascar pirates of the late 17th century, the Gulf of Guinea in the first three decades of the 18th, or the Barbary States in the early 19th. In each case, the international community used force, including force projection ashore, to deter the continued spread of piracy. The problem in the Horn of Africa will continue to worsen until we do the same thing there.