Secretary of Defense Bob Gates recently told an audience in Bahrain, “Under the United Nations Security Council resolution passed last week, members of the international community must work together to aggressively pursue and deter piracy.” This should not be interpreted as a new “war on piracy” or a call to wage war against pirates, a policy that would not bring stability to the Gulf of Aden.

While declaring war on a phenomenon can bring momentary satisfaction, it will not solve the problem. One need only look at the record of the war on drugs or the war on terrorism to understand this.  The problem began with illegal fishing in the Indian Ocean, which destroyed the livelihood of Somali fishermen, and will not end until political stability, which has eluded Somalis since 1991, is established.   Beyond that, there are some strong reasons not to declare war on piracy.

First, the ocean is very large. This is a blinding flash of the obvious, yet there does not seem to be an appreciation of size as it relates to naval capacity. The Gulf of Aden is four times the size of Texas or France. No country or coalition has the capacity to monitor this amount of space closely enough to keep small boats from operating. To be sure, there are well-identified pirate anchorages.  While very little kinetic energy is required to neutralize piracy, vast amounts of intelligence is required to find the pirates.

Pirates do not have peg legs, wear eye patches, and fly the skull and crossed bones. The pirates are better thought of organized crime at sea and have developed a successful business model to extract million dollar ransom payments from shipping companies. Unless there is an attack, warships are unlikely to find “pirate ships”, which do not stand out from other fishing vessels. Secretary Gates understands this targeting difficulty. “With the level of information that we have now we are not in the position to do that kind of land attack.” However, he hints that this is an intelligence problem to be solved. Assuming pirates can be targeted at sea, it’s essential to understand that piracy begins ashore.

Consequently, a war on piracy will inevitably bring land operations in Somalia. Russia has called for an amphibious invasion of Somalia, but this has largely fallen on deaf ears given the “Blackhawk Down Syndrome” and the more recent experience of US-supported Ethiopian forces in Somalia. If a war on piracy begins, the US or EU does not have the resources or the political will for land operations even if it only focused on known anchorages or pirate towns. And if land operations commence, we should expect the pirates to target European warships to undermine political support for the operation. Is NATO or the EU willing to test its resolve and credibility in Somalia? Given the challenges in the Balkans and Afghanistan, the answer should be No.    

If EU/US/India/Russian warships do become more aggressive, then they should be prepared for the pirates to fight back. Thus far, the pirates are behaving as reliable by preserving the safety of the ship, crew, and cargo. Direct lethal operations could result in changing this. A long-term solution of the ICU/ICC winning the civil war is unpalatable for the United States, but a new administration might have a different view on a political Islamist regime if it will subscribe to international norms that suppress terrorism and piracy. There is some history to suggest that when the ICU/ICC exerted control several years ago, illegal activity decreased, but there may be an unacceptable decline in human rights if the political Islamists consolidate power.

The Pentagon seems to understand these challenges and has cautioned against seeking a military solution to piracy. “I think there are many that are seeking a simple military solution, or solely a military solution, to address the piracy issue,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. “And I think we need a more comprehensive look at this.

Given the limits of military power, what is to be done?

Arming crews or deploying security teams on-board civilian ships isn’t necessarily required. Pirate attacks have been easily frustrated by sailing fast rather than by actively repelling pirates. Consequently, slow merchants ships need to avoid the area. Also, a chance of being attacked this year is about 200 to 1, with a 500 to 1 chance of being captured. While this is a dramatic increase for this part of the world, two things stand out. First, this increase occurred at the same time friendly naval presence increased, which illustrates the limits of naval power. Second, merchant shipping companies have not responded as quickly as they should have and are now adjusting how they operate in this dangerous part of the world.

While there is international frustration with the growing impact of piracy on international shipping, the United States must recognize that a superpower is not a superhero. Likewise, Europe must remember that there are limits to naval power. Even with good intelligence, military forces cannot expect to solve every crisis in the world. Instead of focusing on military solutions to a non-military problem, it’s essential to understand how and why out of work Somali fisherman, thugs, and businessmen can challenge traditional concepts of security. To stop piracy, these relationships need to be broken by some combination of ending illegal fishing and bringing stability to Somalia.

Derek Reveron is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI.