You Ain’t Seen Pirates Yet

The disappearance of the Arctic Sea highlighted the growing problem of piracy -- and demonstrated that the world's navies can't stop the coming surge of attacks.


This week, the Russian Navy found the Arctic Sea, a timber freighter that mysteriously disappeared at the end of July after passing through the English Channel. The Maltese-registered, Russian-crewed ship ended up 300 miles off the coast of Cape Verde — a spectacular act of piracy and one of the first in European waters since the 1700s.

The incident has shaken sailors and governments. This week, for instance, the Swedish Shipowners’ Association went so far as to remind its members that they faced a real pirate threat, advising them to adopt the same safety procedures in home waters as they do elsewhere.

But they don’t know the half of it. Naval commanders and ship owners alike are bracing themselves for an imminent surge in attacks — and the world’s navies are in no position to stop it.

Much of the anticipated uptick is expected to come when the monsoon season ends in the Horn of Africa. The Maritime Security Center, run by the EU Naval Force, warns mariners to expect "a continuing spreading and a rapid increase of piracy in the Indian Ocean directly after the monsoon" and "a moderate increase" in the Gulf of Aden once the rains and strong winds that have deterred the marauders dissipate in late August.

This September surge will come on top of an unprecedented rise of piracy in just the past few years. According to a recent study by the International Maritime Bureau, the number of attacks between January and June more than doubled — to 240 — year on year. Although the rise is largely due to well-publicized efforts of Somali pirates, the phenomenon is global — as the Arctic Sea incident demonstrates. In Nigeria alone, there were at least three dozen attacks in the second quarter; attacks have doubled in Southeast Asia and the Far East. Worldwide, in just the first six months of 2009, 78 vessels were boarded, 31 successfully hijacked, and 75 fired upon. In the same period, 561 crew members were taken hostage, 19 injured, 7 kidnapped, and 6 killed. Eight remain missing.

It is increasingly clear that naval power is not going to stop the spread of piracy anytime soon. Take the case of the waters off Somalia. No fewer than three dozen ships from three powerful multinational forces patrol the coast: the EU’s Operation Atalanta, the U.S.-coordinated Combined Task Force (CTF) 151, and NATO’s Operation Allied Protector, plus independent flotillas from China, France, India, Malaysia, and Russia, among others. Despite this unprecedented mobilization, the number of attacks by Somali pirates this year already exceeds the total number recorded last year.

Why such helplessness?

First, modern piracy is a sophisticated enterprise; pirates have proven themselves to be highly adaptable. Turkish Rear Adm. Caner Bener, commander of CTF 151, acknowledged last month, "While our ability to deter and disrupt attacks has improved over time, we are constantly adapting the way we do our business as the pirates adapt and modify their tactics." As the massive hunt for the Arctic Sea highlighted with respect to the Russian fleet, it is easier to look for one missing boat than to prevent its seizure.

Second, no less a figure than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, has pointed out that to cover all the expanses of sea at risk of piracy would require 1,000 ships — three times the size of the entire U.S. Navy. And naval forces aren’t what they used to be. The United States has an aging, shrinking fleet and has slashed its shipbuilding budget. With the exception of China, where the People’s Liberation Army Navy is in the midst of a major expansion, other navies are dwindling even faster thanks to recession-necessitated cuts.

Third, even if there were enough naval vessels to cover the entire world’s piracy "hot spots" — to say nothing of the problem of coordinating their commands — the effort would hardly be cost-effective. Piracy strikes less than 1 percent of shipping vessels, and the price tag, financial and otherwise, of keeping naval forces on semipermanent patrol far from home ports would be extraordinary.

Fourth, as I pointed out earlier this year, piracy is a crime of opportunity nourished by both negative (e.g., lack of governance) and positive (e.g., the fabulous ransoms that have been paid) factors. Unfortunately for merchant ships that must transit near the coasts of Somalia — and, increasingly, elsewhere — both are found in great abundance.

Fifth, if piracy is, as Martin Murphy demonstrates in his comprehensive new tome Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money: Piracy and Maritime Terrorism in the Modern World, a land-based problem requiring a solution onshore, the reluctance on the part of the United States or any major power to get involved in anything even resembling "nation-building" in pirate lairs such as Somalia renders any naval action even less sustainable.

Given that a military solution to the piracy plague isn’t going to happen, governments and commercial shippers need to begin thinking less about political posturing and more about practical, sustainable solutions. And they need to do so quickly because not only is pirate season just around the corner, but the predators’ range is encroaching more and more on vital sea lanes.

J. Peter Pham is the vice president of research and regional initiatives at the Atlantic Council and director of its Africa Center.

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