There have been a number of ideas floated regarding options for dealing with the pirate activity around the coast of Somalia.
Ultimately, it has been noted that none of the options are really good, and absent a commitment on the ground to change conditions in a society that really hasn’t known true domestic governance since the 17th century Ajuuraan Sultanate, the world is picking from a list of difficult choices.
Solving the issue of Somalia is going to take awhile, and likely be a feature of the Obama administration whether he likes it or not. The question facing the Obama administration is what level of effort the military is going to be asked to make to coincide with a comparative effort of the State Department. Ideally the Transitional Federal Government, currently in Djibouti after being run out of their country by Islamists, will be stood up with a legitimate government military force and be able to establish some law and order. This won’t be easy, the opposition is consolidating their position. Even if that is to happen, the diplomatic activity to create a solution, find funding, and take over meaningful governance is going to take awhile (some say it may not even be possible).
This analysis assumes that if the policy regarding the use of military power stays at the current level, which is in essence ineffective despite current record levels of international naval assistance (which will dwindle in the weeks ahead), the problem will get worse as the weather improves over the next few months and the Obama administration will see its leadership credibility globally erode. This is a potentially debatable position, but history does not suggest ineffective action in the face of serious security problems that are only getting worse leads to good things.
This raises the question, if we know the diplomatic efforts are going to take a long time to develop, what tactical actions should the Obama administration approve for the military to buy time for the long term Somalia policy to form? This analysis looks at three possibilities: engage from the air, engage on land, and engage at sea.
Action from the Air
Using air power to bomb or the Navy to cruise missile the bad guy was American small wars policy from the end of the cold war until the Iraqi surge. This limited financial cost approach (comparatively) also came with limited success, and the implementation of air power centric solutions have largely been discredited as a strategic approach to fighting small wars. The entire decade of the 90s was essentially an Air Force campaign in Iraq following Operation Desert Storm, and the fact Iraq was invaded a second time 12 years later suggests that any air power centric approach to fighting piracy on land will almost certainly be ineffective.
Due to the competition found in the Somali clan system, the Transitional Federal Government is unlikely to complain too much about US attacks on pirate clans, but even active approval of a clearly flawed strategy does not lead towards a security solution, and may indeed produce larger security problems. From regional air bases or from an aircraft carrier, CIA and special forces operating on the ground can certainly paint targets to bomb, but to what end?
Obviously, the air power centric approach to fighting piracy on land is not only the least likely solution, it is the least likely solution to produce any meaningful results towards a strategic end that eliminates piracy. In my opinion, there are no air power centric solutions for Somali piracy.
Engage on Land
The US military, if working in cooperation with international partners, does have a few limited options for engaging pirates on land. This would not happen immediately, but is certainly possible. Major naval powers globally are currently undergoing a major buildup of naval power centered around the amphibious ship. Nations that have either recently built or in the process of developing new amphibious ship platforms include South Korea, Japan, China, Australia, Singapore, India, South Africa, Turkey, Italy, Spain, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, the United States, Brazil, and Russia.
In the 90s, several strategic discussions that led to Marine Corps concepts like From the Sea, and Forward… From the Sea discussed the possibility that in the 21st century, rather than large invasions of other state powers the Marine Corps would be asked to do what some call amphibious raiding operations. These raids, usually conducted at a level consisting of 2 battalions, are rapid insertion of Marines to destroy an enemy capability, capture some bad guys, and essentially rapidly retreat back to sea without leaving a sustained footprint on land.
The strategic intent of these raids is similar to military activities the US Marines have conducted in Iraq, including in Fallujah and Baghdad. The way this would work against the pirate cities is for Marines to land forces at key points to cut off supply and prevent retreat from the city, setting up checkpoints and establishing a hold on the high ground. Heavy units would be moved from ship to shore away from the city before moving into the cities, clean out as many weapons as possible, and retreat back to sea. The primary purpose of the sweeps is to raid (and burn down) the property of pirate leaders, gain intelligence, destroy as many weapons as possible, destroy as many drugs as possible, and generally create chaos by targeting illegal goods and targeting pirate leaders.
When Marines are pulled back to sea, special forces would establish ambush points for targetting resupply of weapons and leverage intelligence gained to create more problems for pirate leaders. The point is to create enough chaos, confusion, and fear on land in these pirate cities that nobody has time to be a pirate. All American $100 bills would be confiscated for being money stolen through piracy, and high value pirate leaders could be extradited to countries willing to hold major pirate leaders accountable for their crimes.
These would obviously be expensive operations, particularly if conducted against the various different cities where individual pirate clans are active. The US commitment would probably be 2 MEUs, and would probably require additional international forces to help secure the ground. Amphibious raiding however, is a way to conduct operations without establishing a footprint, and would almost certainly heavily reduce piracy from these areas to buy time for long term solutions.
Engage at Sea
There are two ways to escalate military activity at sea that can produce measurable improvements over the status quo: convoys and security detachments on commercial shipping. This strategy is unlikely to actually reduce the dangerous security conditions at sea, but would decrease the number of hijackings. This would also be an expensive solution.
First, it should be noted that convoys are already established from the Red Sea to northeast of the Horn of Africa, and this has produced some positive results. Convoys do work, and by reducing the area that needs to be protected by multinational forces the naval power available becomes more effective fighting off pirate attacks. The problem is, a similar such traffic lane is needed along the length of the eastern Somali coast from the Horn of Africa to Kenya.
One way to address this is to strategically place amphibious ships and use soldiers under a UN flag for force protection on ships. On the heels of the activities of private consulting companies in Iraq, government troops is just about the only way to do this, and given the multinational nature of the challenge, multinational forces under a UN flag is about the only way to get past several legal problems.
By putting an amphibious ship near Djibouti, helicopters can be used to place squads on ships that are entering the Gulf of Aden while retrieving squads from ships entering the Red Sea. The idea would be to use the amphibious ship as a platform for shuffling squads to and from commercial traffic that transits the area, and add force protection to every ship in the region.
An US LHD would be stationed somewhere near the Yemen island of Socotra. The LHD would not only add and remove UN squads coming to and from the Red Sea, but also add security teams to ships transiting the east African coast along an established transit lane. Another amphibious ship would then be placed a couple hundred miles off the coast of Kenya, and would be used to add/remove squads from ships heading north and south.
There are several issues. First, there is a need to increase the number of ships off the east coast of Somalia to patrol any transit lane, but this is hard to do because it pulls from the number of ships protecting the Gulf of Aden region where pirate activity has been very high. One option would be to use Sea Fighter as a rapid response platform off the east coast supporting UAVs, and surge a handful of Perry frigates to patrol the eastern coast line of Africa. The Perry class was built to protect commercial shipping, why in the world is it not being used in this role when it is commercial shipping that is being targeted?
Because there is a possibility that squads could be unbalanced with ships potentially moving in greater numbers in certain directions, there will be a necessity to move squads back to the LHD from the other amphibious ships. This role can be uniquely filled by using the MV-22, which has the range to act as an air shuttle for the squads. By flying the transit lanes used by commercial ships, the MV-22 also becomes an early responder should a ship under attack need an additional squad or two to reinforce a ship being assaulted (a very unlikely scenario btw). If the damn thing had a gun, the MV-22 would be a very nice force multiplier in this situation.
Ideally, only the LHD would be a US ship, while the role of the other two amphibious ships in this model being supported by from other nations. The addition to CTF-151 of Singapores LST RSS Persistence (209), for example, would allow the role of the amphibious ship off the coast of Djibouti to be filled by a coalition partner. The Netherlands, Great Britain, France, South Korea, China, Japan, Spain, Italy, or India could potentially be another partner in this model.
Under a UN flag, this model would allow any nation to use UN squads for protecting merchant vessels in the threatened area. The squads would ideally be from multiple countries, allowing for several countries who may not be willing or able to send a warship to send soldiers, sailors, or Marines for force protection instead.
The addition of security teams to commercial shipping reduces the probability a ship will be taken, thus reducing the necessity for convoy escorts and allows dispersal tactics to be leveraged for the reduced number of warships.
Ultimately, these are expensive solutions, but they do buy time for the diplomatic efforts to develop long term solutions on land. For example, the sea solution that leverages UN squads could be a mitigating tactic leveraged while a Somali coast guard solution is developed as a way to be proactive against pirates.
I don’t advocate for any specific idea, although I am against an air power solution. I am a believer that the current policy is not only bad policy, but dangerous long term as better weather approaches in June. The size of the international naval force gathered to fight piracy will get smaller in the future, so a tactical adjustment must be made. This is a small problem, but allowing it to continue should be seen as an unacceptable option for the Obama administration, because if piracy increases as it continues to do, a perception will develop that suggests the US is either incapable or unwilling to deal with the problem. That comes with a political cost, and more importantly, if a perception develops that the US is not putting out effort, any major disaster will be blamed on the US.
The Obama administration foreign policy appears to be designed to create a sense of international partnership for dealing with international challenges. There are huge political gains to be made in US foreign policy by capitalizing on the international partnership opportunities surrounding the Somali piracy activities today, but the policy has to produce a perception of positive results to validate the desired cooperative approach of the administration, otherwise the policy loses credibility both with partners, and at home.