March 29, 2012 by Rich Cooper

Despite Defense Department budget cuts and ongoing military operations, pirates in the waters off the coast of Somalia won’t see a decrease in naval military presence any time soon. NATO allies recently agreed to continue through 2014 the Ocean Shield operation – a counter-piracy naval operation off the Horn of Africa protecting merchant ships from pirate attack. This is welcome news to many ship owners and charters, which have seen an increase in the number of pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean. In 2011, Somali pirates attacked 439 vessels, fired on 113 of them, hijacked 45, and took 802 hostages. The pirate threat and the international response seem only to be escalating.

Piracy in the Indian Ocean threatens human life, regional stability, and international commerce, costing the global economy $7 billion to $12 billion annually. To address this issue, the National Chamber Foundation (NCF) recently hosted “High Risk on the High Seas: The Economic Impact of Piracy in the Indian Ocean,” an event featuring comments from industry and government experts on the challenge of piracy and the threat to commercial interests in the Indian Ocean.

For ships passing through the 2.5 million square nautical miles of water where Somali pirates operate, security measures are a necessity. Speakers at the NCF program offered several perspectives on the pirate threat, offering insight into the primary areas where governments and industry should focus their efforts.

The immediate need is to mitigate the direct threat to crew members and their ships. One of the panelists at the program, Paul Gugg, Company Security Officer for Chevron, said the “critical evolution in an attack is getting from the small skiff up the side and onto the ship.”

Given that, ships are increasingly fitted with fairly basic physical barriers, like greased rails, fire hoses, and electrified wire. In total, ships passing through the Indian Ocean trade lanes have 14,000 miles of 750 mm stainless steel razor wire protecting ship perimeters. To put that in context, the Somali coastline is only about 1,200 miles long, leaving Gugg to wonder whether the razor wire is being deployed in the right places.

Another effective defensive tactic is speeding through the dangerous waters. Rear Admiral Terry McKnight, former Commander of Piracy Task Force 151, the international naval force tasked with anti-piracy operations, said no ship traveling at 18 to 20 knots will be caught by pirates in small skiffs.

Perhaps even more effective in deterring attacks is the presence of private security firms, hired by ship owners to escort their crew and cargo through pirate-infested waters. Pirates have not succeeding in taking a ship where armed security teams were present.

As an example, Mark Martecchini, Managing Director at Stolt Tankers, said during the program that “in using armed guards, we have had no ships taken, no unfavorable incidents, and the warning shots that have been fired on about 10% of the occasions of transits going through [the Indian Ocean] have been effective in getting the pirates to go search for easier targets.”

While private sector protective measures are important, all of the event’s speakers agreed the continued presence of naval forces in the region is critical to stemming the pirate threat.

The NATO decision to continue the Ocean Shield operation through 2014 supports this. One constant challenge, however, is what to do with pirates once they have been captured. At present, as much as 75% of captured pirates are released making them free to attack another ship on another day. The reasons for this are fairly straightforward: there are not enough nations willing to take the apprehended pirates and put them on trial, and there is not enough prison capacity in Somalia to hold the convicted.

The threat may manifest at sea, but the origins lay on land in Somalia’s turbulent and unstable political environment. While there has been some progress in building prison capacity in the Somali regions of Putland and Somaliland, it is not yet enough to manage the large numbers of pirates caught in the act. Somalia has long been plagued by violence and political unrest. Beyond a weak (if not absent) central government, the al Qaeda-affiliate al Shabaab conducts terrorist acts threatening regional stability. With these significant challenges – which no doubt contribute to the escalating pirate threat – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said:

“We will encourage the international community to impose further sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on people inside and outside the [Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government] who seek to undermine Somalia’s peace and security or to delay or even prevent the political transition.”

Even as the international community targets pirate ringleaders on land and addresses the growing threat at sea, the panel made clear it is critical to understand that piracy presents large economic costs to industry, the supply chain and the global economy.
In reflecting on these conditions, Mitch King, Supply Chain Director for the Dow Chemical Company, offered:

“This is not just a problem for the vessels that transit through this area. The impact reaches around the globe, from the supplier to the manufacturer, to the shipper, and to the customer…Delays related to piracy create a ripple effect in the supply chain.”

The risks are great, as are the challenges. The common wisdom presented at the program is that there is no silver bullet for piracy in the Indian Ocean. With industry and government continuing to work closely to mitigate the threat, it seems the best course for ships and crew is – to borrow from the maritime lexicon – batten down the hatches and full steam ahead.

This piece was originally posted on the National Chamber Foundation website.


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