With three months to go in 2009, pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean have already exceeded 2008 levels, when pirates generated at least $30 million in ransoms.  Attacks slowed during June and July, but not because of naval patrols.  Instead, bad weather and good seamanship kept the pirates at bay.

  As the summer monsoon season winds down we should expect to see more pirate activity this fall and winter.

Earlier this week, a U.S. Navy helicopter took fire as it conducted surveillance of a hijacked Taiwanese fishing vessel.  As the incident suggests, pirates are not deterred or impressed with naval warships or helicopters.  They are willing to protect their interests and fight back.  This has important implications for the 25 or so warships patrolling the Gulf of Aden and efforts to counter-piracy.

With NATO’s naval operation approaching its year anniversary and U.S.-led coalitions continuing for the foreseeable future, enough time has passed to evaluate why navies cannot control piracy.

  • First, there are not enough ships in the world’s navies to adequately patrol oceans.  The lack of ship-building over the last 20 years has left a seapower deficit in the world that pirates, drug smugglers, and human traffickers exploit.
  • Second, international coordination is challenged.  There are at least three discrete task forces conducting maritime patrols in the region and additional unilateral efforts by China, India, and Russia.
  • Third, there is no single event (U.S. Navy SEAL snipers included) to deter the pirates.  Transnational actors, like pirates, do not care the United States is a superpower, NATO is the most developed military alliance in the world, or China and India have global ambitions.  Piracy is business and navies are just one more obstacle to avoid.
  • Finally, piracy begins ashore.  To date, international efforts neglect (for obvious reasons) addressing conditions in Somalia that encourage and support piracy.

Just because navies are not the answer to piracy does not mean the world has to live with pirates.  Analysis of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden and surrounding waters suggests that merchant shipping companies can counter piracy more effectively than navies can.  This year, it is estimated that 80 percent of pirate attacks were defeated by merchant ships.

This is profound.

The answer to piracy lays in the private sector not the security sector.

As we enter the fall pirate season, it is important to review what made a successful attack before discussing countermeasures.

  • Pirates go after easy targets.  Ships that have low speed, low freeboard (area about the waterline), and poor situational awareness are vulnerable.  It is rare for a ship traveling above 15 knots to be hijacked.
  • Pirates capture easy targets.  Ships that lack adequate passive defense measures such as increased look-outs or do not rehearse anti-piracy drills are vulnerable.

The lessons can be interpreted as blaming the victim, but merchant shipping companies are responsible for avoiding dangerous waters with vulnerable ships.  With this in mind, merchant shipping companies recently released Best Management Practices to prevent hijacking.  It details defensive measures such as minimizing external communication (to include disabling AIS locater information), installing razor wire to make boarding difficult, and rehearsing a anti-piracy plan.  If a ship is attacked, then speed should be increased, steering should zigzag the ship, fire hoses could be used to repel boarders.  When attacked, the report advises, ships should:

  • Activate the emergency communication plan and report the attack to maritime security watch centers.
  • Make a ‘Mayday’ call and reactivate the AIS transponder to make location easier by warships or helicopters.
  • Prevent pirate skiffs from closing on the ship by altering course and speed.

The advice highlights that merchant ships are not sitting ducks and do have power to be successful against pirates.  Yet, best practices are relatively sanguine once ships are boarded.  Current advice demands full cooperation with the pirates to avoid escalation.  Shipping companies recognize that once boarded, the risks are too great for armed resistance.

Given that, it appears that shipping companies accept the current model of paying ransoms to gain release of crews, cargo, and ships.  This is unsatisfying for the merchant mariners and international norms, but is part of a new reality characterized by threats without borders.

Derek Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.  These views are his own.