The recent pirate attack on the MAERSK ALABAMA generated a great deal of reporting and discussion on how to respond to the future pirate threat.  Many of the reports came to the conclusion that the area to protect is so great (over 1 million square miles of ocean) and the pirate threat so pervasive, all of the ships in the U.S. Navy couldn’t protect shipping in the area.

The officials responsible for the security of the U.S. often find themselves in this dilemma; too many threats and not enough resources to counter all of them.  In these challenging cases, one of the fundamental rules of security is this: If you try to protect against all threats you will spread your capacity so thin that you will not effectively protect against any of them.  Security planners must identify the most valuable things to protect, assess threats and evaluate enemy capability using robust risk management tools.  The results of this risk assessment are then used to determine how to optimally deploy limited capacity with goal of safeguarding the most important potential targets.

A risk assessment and U.S. counter-piracy plan might look like this:

1)    Protect U.S. shipping first.  U.S. flagged vessels are sovereign territory of the U.S. regardless of where they are in the world.  It is incumbent on the U.S. government to protect this territory as aggressively as we do our homeland.  Ship owners that register their vessels in the U.S. expect this protection.  As a matter of scope, there are only 422 U.S. registered merchant ships over 1000 gross tons (CIA Factbook 2008) operating around the globe and only a small percentage sail in the vicinity of Somalia.  Military escorts, armed boarding teams, and, if necessary, convoys could be used to protect this small number of U.S. flagged ships.
2)    Protect ships carrying U.S. and U.N. sponsored relief supplies.  If capacity is available, protect non-U.S. flagged ships carrying relief supplies to the Horn of Africa.  Prioritize highest value cargoes and begin by protecting these ships first.
3)    Partner with other nations to build capacity.  The French, Dutch and others have credible naval presence in the region.  Agreements could allow for sharing intelligence, protection and boarding of the partner’s flagged vessels, and coordinating patrol areas.
4)    Partner with regional naval forces.  Work with coastal states to gain intelligence from coastal radar and AIS sites in order to improve maritime domain awareness.  The more U.S commanders know about maritime activity in the region, the better they can detect threats and position forces.
5)    Build regional capacity.  The long term goal would be to build effective governance and law enforcement capacity in Somalia.  That is not on the horizon so we should help build credible regional naval forces that can assist in countering the pirate threat.  For example, the U.S. has helped build a fledgling Yemeni Coast Guard that has improved maritime domain awareness and coastal security in the area.  More can be done for both Yemen and other Horn of Africa nations.

The pundits and reporters who work under the assumption that all shipping in the region should be protected by the U.S. and then wring their hands because there are not enough resources to protect everything are missing the point.  The U.S. is not responsible for solving the Somali piracy problem, but we are responsible for protecting U.S. citizens, territory and interests in the region.  If we start with that goal in mind, the problem becomes manageable.

  • Antonio Manso

    I can´t believe how navies that could address the threat of nuclear powered submarines, can’t overcome a bunch of pirates.
    For the moment being, creation of convoys, satelite and drone tracking of pirate mother ships, creation of exclusion lanes inside which every boat should be considered as hostile, seem reasonable mesures to be taken alongside with resources already deployed in the area.
    Raids ashore whenever deemed necessary, tracking of ransom money, inteligence gathering and other unconventional methods, for example punishing shipowners that don’t comply with agreed security procedures or accept to pay ransoms, shoul be considered as well.
    Above all we need to agree that they are just bandits and don’t start to legitimise their actions by saying that they are only opposing illegal fishing , dumping of toxic waste and
    similar crap.A limited amount of brute force against the warlords could help as well.