Piracy Watch: Good on the French!

Piracy Watch: Good on the French!

By Cdr. Herb Carmen, USN Best Defense pirates columnist

In my last post, I wrote about the EU’s expanding mission against piracy near Somalia.  Well, quite impressively, EU NAVFOR wasted no time in taking action. Since Thursday’s post, the French frigate Nivose has seized 35 pirates, four motherships, and six skiffs. This is good news because the fight against piracy hinges on international willingness to take action.  What the French intend to do with the captured pirates has not yet been made clear, but what is clear is that there are 35 less pirates on the seas and, as Bryan McGrath has described it, 35 "empty chairs at the dinner table."

That’s not to suggest this is a battle of attrition. By capturing pirates, EU NAVFOR took away the reward 35 pirates had hoped for and replaced it with confinement. The capture of dozens of pirates sends a message to pirates ashore that the risk-reward equation has changed. 

Nivose‘s success over the last week is really just the beginning of a long fight that requires operational stamina and determination. It’s far too soon to tell whether ramped up counter piracy efforts will be disincentive enough to discourage future pirate attacks.  In fact, we will likely see more attempted attacks over a greater expanse of ocean in the weeks ahead.  The monsoon season has passed, which means that the seas will be calmer and more conducive to pirate attacks, including the "swarm tactics" that the Chinese naval contingent apparently witnessed a few weeks ago.  Just last week, the Norwegian oil tanker, UBT Ocean, was hijacked off of Madagascar, much farther south than most previous attacks.

The opportunity for pirates to gain millions of dollars from the capture of merchant vessels will endure, despite the best efforts of international navies.  Reports are that pirates continue to receive multi-million dollar ransoms, including $5 million for the release of a chemical tanker Friday and $3 million for the release of a Thai fishing vessel Sunday. Even if the ransoms doubled tomorrow, the payments will still just be a fraction of a percentage of the total value of shipping through the Gulf of Aden. Also, as seen in the actions of over one quarter of the merchant vessels sailing in the region today, shippers are willing to more than double their chances of being hijacked (from 1 in 500 to 1 in 200) by ignoring best practices in an effort to save tens of thousands of dollars of operating costs and days of sailing time. As long as insurance companies continue to reimburse shippers for ransom payments and shippers are willing to risk hijacking, the pirates will still have potentially rewarding targets of opportunity. 

In attacks on targets of opportunity, pirates will likely become more and more hostile in the face of resistance. Over the last 6 years, pirates have gradually become more violent at sea. In 2004, just seven ships were fired up on the region. In 2009, there were 114 such attacks. Expect a spike in violence at sea as pirates find hijacking ships increasingly difficult. As pirates get squeezed, the "market" will determine whether they wish to sustain a calculated level of success — which may be financially less than what they see today — or risk raising the level of violence to a point that further tilts the balance of international will against them. This is the season that pirates will test those waters.