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Piracy on the high seas

I have written about this subject before as an urgent issue of security, and surely the topic of piracy must be at the top of countries’ security agendas now that a large oil tanker has been seized. It makes me wonder what insurers such as Lloyds of London must think: surely, if shipping fleets want to keep insurance premia down, an obvious solution must be to arm, or better protect, such vessels. I do not know what the law is about whether ships, operating in international waters, on carrying weapons on board merchant vessels. In centuries past, vessels of the East India Company, for instance, were frequently as well armed as many naval vessels. They had to be.

If this problem gets worse, then it is not just the navies of the western powers, such as those of Britain or the US, that might have to think about protecting shipping routes more aggressively. I think that the rising economic power of India must take on more responsibility to guarding some of the shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean. India, after all, is a prime beneficiary of globalisation and global trade. For that matter, China probably will have to think about protecting its shipping more effectively, as must jurisdictions which engage in much ship-borne trade such as Singapore and Australia and Brazil.

One of the reasons why a strictly isolationist foreign policy does not work is that in the real world, the web of global trading routes from which we all benefit have to be protected. Free market transactions must be protected against predators. That means things like naval bases or agreements between states to protect certain shipping routes, for example. If states cannot do this, but somehow expect merchant ships to continue conveying the goods which drive the world economy, pressure to let merchant ships carry weapons will be irresistable.

Some time ago, I read the Frederick Forsyth novel, The Afghan. I won’t give away the plot but piracy is a key part of it. Any security policy, including an anti-terrorist one, must take account of seaborne threats. It might seem rather obvious to point this out in an island nation like the UK, but a large proportion of our economic produce is conveyed over the wet stuff. If the anti-terror experts have not addressed themselves fully to this issue, they had better start doing so. Maybe this hijacking might have a galvanising effect.

Here is what the US navy has been doing.

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31 comments to Piracy on the high seas

  • If things have deteriorated to the point where the brigands have a sanctuary city (Eyl) then it is time for a good dose of what we gave the Barbary pirates. I suggest I MEF is sent ashore to kill any male inhabitant that looks capable of lifting an AK47 and then raze the town. Pirates are hosti humanis generis and the combating of piracy is one instance where I think that savage state-instituted violence is not only permissible but necessary.

  • My guess is that all the other pirates in this part of the world may soon be rather pissed off at these particular desperadoes, who’ve now made this activity front page news.

    Until now piracy has been plot background for action-comedy movies like Six Days And Seven Nights, and an excuse for joking by the likes of Guido Fawkes and Instapundit. International Talk Like A Pirate Day, ho ho, aaarrrgh aaarrrgh, etc. Now it’s suddenly serious, not just to people to whom it has long been serious anyway, but to millions of others.

    It reminds me a little of 9/11. When that happened, I recall thinking that some of the bad guys might wish later that that operation hadn’t been quite so successful, so newsworthily, and so it proved.

    It’ll be interesting to see if this stays in the news.

  • J.M. Heinrichs

    1. The problem with weapons on merchant ships is not on the high seas, it is in port.
    2. The first step in solving the problems is to start killing the pirates on the high seas, with warships. As fewer come home, the urge for others to go out will subside.

    Cheers

  • tdh

    Historically, there are 3 successful ways of eliminating widespread piracy in the short term: (1) destroy their bases; (2) threaten to destroy their bases (only effective if you’re doing (1), too); and (3) bribe them. These are most effective when used in full combination. The same techniques should apply to terrorists, although bribes are less likely to work, and a similar ambiguity of appellation applies; this doesn’t count situations in which military enemies are casually labeled pirates, for example.

    Trying to go after such pirates on the high seas without addressing the fundamentals is a waste of lives and resources.

    IMHO, somebody needs to start by annihilating a Somali pirate port or two, if the roaches haven’t already scattered.

  • M

    One of the reasons why a strictly isolationist foreign policy does not work is that in the real world

    If we had fewer foreign commitments though, we would probably have more military resources available to combat piracy. As someone who is generally an isolationist, I would be delighted to see Britain’s forces being used to shoot up pirate ships rather than being used for futile nationbuilding missions.

  • Whilst I have no problems with nations defending the high seas with their navies, the first solution should be to ensure that no laws or regulations are preventing the private shipping companies from arming and defending themselves.

    Ron Paul said 9/11 wouldn’t have happened if the airlines were allowed to look after their own security with armed pilots, in much the same way private guards with armored vehicles are able to look after transporting precious cargo for banks.

    As usual, the government regulations get in the way of people defending themselves.

  • The pirates are playing a dangerous game. Misbehaving Third World countries with conveniently long coastlines are tailor made for First World navies to assault.

  • RobinGoodfellow

    President Barack Obama’s first order of business should be to issues letters of marque and reprisal against these pirates. They have stood at the edge of the water hole giving the stink eye to the rest of the herd long enough.

  • Laird

    RobinGoodfellow beat me to it. Letters of marque are specifically authorized by the Constitution, and were the primary means by which the original Barbary Pirates were eradicated. And of course merchant ships need to be armed. A few pirate vessels (along with their crews) disappearing without a trace would go a long way toward dealing with the problem. (Plus there’s no tedious paperwork to worry about afterward.)

  • Johnathan,

    India has dispatched a frigate to African waters. Nitin Pai of the Acorn has been tracking this. Two relevant posts here and here.

  • bgc

    Various countries and groups of countries have actually been doing a fair bit about this over the last decade. The multinational effort in the Strait of Malacca, for example, seems to have had a positive effect on the levels of piracy there.

    The main areas where there are problems seem to be fairly limited geographically and reflect either failures in civil government, such as Somalia, or governments which are unable or unwilling to take action (Nigeria and some of the countries other than Somalia on the Gulf of Aden perhaps?). There are possibly cultural factors in these countries that support piracy as an acceptable activity as well. I think that it’s the existence of these havens from which pirates can operate that really underlies the problem rather than the lack of weaponry on merchant ships – although this isn’t to say that there might not be a case for that.

    BTW an excellent source of info on this topic is Eaglespeak’s blog.

  • James

    From what little information can be gleamed from various internet forums the grassroots feeling within the Naval Service and wider forces seems to be in favour of fierce contact with the pirates.

    The home ports of the pirates are known and I shouldn’t think that 40 Commando (who should be presently filling the Lead Cdo Gp role) would have any major dramas with overcoming the opposition and levelling such places.

    The difficulty appears to be political, apparently the FCO fears the pirates will claim asylum if they set foot aboard one of the Queen’s ships and of course the ‘governments’ of such places don’t like it when foreign troops land on their soil and butcher their paymasters.

    Of course in the short run it’s probably easier just to pay their ransoms since they evidently don’t do much killing, however, in the long run the problems could get a lot worse.

    Paper robber barons shouldn’t play with fire.

  • ian

    Speaking of the Indian Navy:

    An Indian warship was able to fight off and destroy a suspected Somali pirate vessel, the navy said on Wednesday, the same day two other ships were hijacked off the coast of Somalia.
    The pirates had threatened to blow up the INS Tabar after Indian officers asked the pirate vessel to stop on Tuesday to be searched in the Gulf of Aden, the Indian navy said. Officials said they had also spotted pirates with rocket-propelled launchers on the vessel.

    Apparently it was self defense but if it wasn’t would anyone really care?

  • llamas

    It should be borne in mind that there is a very long tradition of Western ground forces coming in for some very nasty surprises when attempting to subdue the natives in these regions.

    For, like, the last millenium.

    These folks have the money and the contacts to buy some very snappy weaponry. Yes, I know they look like a bunch of shoeless jackanapes toting RPGs and AK47s, and no doubt many of them are. But the places that sold them those RPGs and AK47s will also have SAMs and anti-ship missiles available for the asking.

    I understand that the VLCC that has recently been taken was stopped 300 miles offshore. So this is not some bunch of amateurs out in a fishing boat for a 3-hour-tour – to find and stop a large vessel in mid-ocean, board it and bring it to port is not a trivial act. Whoever organized this has the capacity to put on a very stiff resistance if challenged.

    It’s all very Marine Corps and Jack Aubrey to talk about slapping these heathens back into their lairs and Showing Them Who’s Boss, harrumph, harrumph. But gunboat diplomacy only works a) when you have naval rifles and the natives have assegais and b) when you are quite prepared to reduce their homes to fields of gravel from horizon to horizon, and have shown your preparedness by doing so in the recent past and upon less provocation than that offered by the particular band of brigands outside whose port you lie anchored.

    The only way to deal with these folks is the Chicago way, and despite the origins of the US President-elect, I don’t see a single Western leader who has the spine for this. Raining HE down on Africans in rags – not going to happen.

    Putin – now there’s a different matter. I’ll bet that these buccaneers all know which ships have Russian registry and Russian interests, and leave them the hell alone. Why bring a nest of hornets down upon yourself when there’s any number of fat prizes with European or US flags – places you know will not do anything serious about it?

    If it were me, I would contract the job to the Russians or the Israelis.

    llater,

    llamas

  • mike

    “Free market transactions must be protected against predators. That means things like naval bases or agreements between states to protect certain shipping routes, for example.”

    Wrong.

    “If states cannot do this, but somehow expect merchant ships to continue conveying the goods which drive the world economy, pressure to let merchant ships carry weapons will be irresistable.”

    Two-thirds wrong.

    The shipping industries need to be allowed to hire naval protection freely and figure out for themselves the best ways to deal with the problem. Yes private hire of professional forces will cost, but so does State protection (and in more than the cash sense).

    “Putin – now there’s a different matter. I’ll bet that these buccaneers all know which ships have Russian registry and Russian interests, and leave them the hell alone…If it were me, I would contract the job to the Russians or the Israelis.”

    For the time being anyway, that might not be the worst idea, but getting matey with bastards like that will have its’ consequences.

  • Surellin

    My understanding is that whacking the pirates is not a difficult technical exercise, but that the rules of engagement with which the anti-pirate forces are hobbled have weakened their efforts hugely. For instance, before force is used, an officer is supposed to board the alleged pirate vessel and see if anything looks suspicious. Of course, if the pirates choose to just leave without being searched, they can’t be stopped. Is this a UN project, by any chance? I suspect that a few hangings and boat-burnings would have a remarkably salutary effect.

  • Laird

    Mike, if your proposal is that shipping companies should hire armed escorts, why is it “two-thirds wrong” for them to be armed themselves? What meaningful difference is there between the two?

    Most libertarians believe that protection against criminal predation is one of the few legitimate functions of government. The use of naval forces to protect shipping lanes would seem to fall within this. Why do you assert that it is “wrong”? A conclusory statement like that adds nothing to the discussion; provide your rationale.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    The shipping industries need to be allowed to hire naval protection freely and figure out for themselves the best ways to deal with the problem. Yes private hire of professional forces will cost, but so does State protection (and in more than the cash sense).

    Partly correct, but your dismissal of any role for states is wrong. If the state has a basic function at all, it is to protect life and property. That is why navies and other defence forces exist. So while I think it entirely right for merchant vessels to be armed if need be, I think that is not always sufficient. To be blunt, imagining that we can deal with piracy without attacking pirate bases is naive.

  • John B

    Further to the above post about the Indian navy sinking one of the pirate vessels (suspected of being a “mother ship”) – does this qualify for a Darwin Award?

    “The pirates had threatened to blow up the INS Tabar after Indian officers asked the pirate vessel to stop on Tuesday to be searched in the Gulf of Aden, the Indian navy said. Officials said they had also spotted pirates with rocket-propelled launchers on the vessel.”
    http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2008/11/19/pirate-somali.html

  • RAB

    Well the Indian Navies responce is to be highly commended.
    They fired on us we fired on them.
    Their boat sank.
    Oh dear, how sad, never mind…

    Much better than our FO telling our ships to leave well alone, or the fuckers might claim asylum!

    Yes Johnathan is right, you have to take out the land bases or you are wasting your time.

    You could follow the money too though. I hardly think the Saudis are getting instructions to leave 20 million in the third waste bin down from the corner of Mogadishu Hight Street, in return for their tanker now are they?
    No Bank transferences are involved.
    Find, freeze or block them. Better still confiscate them.

  • lucklucky

    I think that sinking by Indian Navy might be an historical landmark. NATO have ships in Indian Ocean since long ago and due to enormous rules burden and mission confusion due to cultural and post-modernism in Western World political thinking have been unable to do anything meaningful to make it costly to pirates. As such this is a path where Aliances with and within Western World means nothing and it would be preferable to make it with Chinese, Indians, Russians and all others that don’t suffer from a post-modernist society.

  • Snag

    Not ‘premia’ surely.

    What do you call those quacks who talk to the spirit world, media?

  • jsallison

    A couple of 30 calibers mounted on the bridge wings would put paid to this. Why is this even being discussed?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Snag, “Premia” is the plural of premium. Premia also happens to be a place in Switzerland or northern Italy, I believe.

  • llamas

    jsallison wrote

    ‘A couple of 30 calibers mounted on the bridge wings would put paid to this. Why is this even being discussed?’

    and that is exactly the sort of simplistic, one-dimensional thinking that will NOT solve this problem.

    These are NOT simply a bunch of feckless African peasants whiling away an idle afternoon, and easily scared off by white man’s juju. They already have heavy weapons – RPG’s, heavy mounted machine guns, all kinds of infantry weapons and they just took a freighter carring 33 Russian-made main battle tanks as well as a host of other infantry and mounted weapons. What, you think that was just a coincidence? These folks have the makings of a small army at their disposal and the cash to buy as much more as they need.

    As their latest exploits have shown, they are now capable of complex logistics and intelligence-gathering, finding and stopping a VLCC in mid-ocean using at least two other vessels hijacked solely for the purpose and bringing it to a secure anchorage.

    And you think that ‘ . . . a couple of 30 calibers mounted on the bridge wings would put paid to this.’ These folks left that sort of simplicty behind some time ago. When you open up with your 30 calibers, expect to be replied to by a twin DShK 38 mount or a hail of RPGs – or perhaps even a volley or two from the 125mm cannon and the 9M119 missile launchers mounted in the T70 MBT that they have chained to the deck.

    Tchah!

    llater,

    llamas

  • Snag

    Snag, “Premia” is the plural of premium.

    If you were writing in Latin, undoubtedly.

    In English, it’s ‘premiums’.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Snag, whatever. I am can provide you with a version in classical Greek if necessary for the expression “get a life”.

  • Wouldn’t something like an anti-tank missile of the Javelin variety really put a crimp on their day? Oh and of course a load of 50 calibres. Hell’s teeth how much is a Phalanx defence system. I heard the USN had modified them to tackle small boats. In anycase Somalia is a hell-hole of epic proportions so if we just level the gaff who’s gonna even notice? Or maybe not. I dunno. I read somewhere these guys are heroes back home. And if the Battle of the Black Sea is any measure they are not casualty averse. Some deranged loon charged at the US Rangers astride a cow during that one. This is because they are all bombed out of their boxes on khat. The Ranger who mowed down the bovine cavalry said it was like “being attacked by refugees from the Disco Generation”.

    A few frigates and a few helicopter gunships ought to keep the problem tolerable.

    Or of course we wait until Obama decides to go nation-building.

  • Subotai Bahadur

    Just as in domestic politics in the Western world, the uneven [and biased towards those in power] application of laws and constitutions forbids solutions to problems. There is no doubt that a sufficient [and to be honest relatively small] application of force at a critical point would bring this problem to a screeching halt. If say the port of Eyl, Somalia is, as reported, one of the centers of pirate activity; the application of a concept called “ARC LIGHT” to the area without warning would soon put an end to pirate activity not only there, but also elsewhere. It would not even require precision guided munitions. Just dumb bombs. A lot of them, delivered with no possibility of interference by the locals.

    That, of course, will not happen. Because modern Western sensibilities are such that any attacks by tribal and non-melanin deprived populations on the West are not to be responded to in a way that would ensure victory. It would not be either fair or compassionate in modern terms.

    Letters of Marque, which would be a wonderful solution for a number of problems in the world, were banned by treaty long ago. Britain and the EU have drawn their own rules against their own interests to such a degree that they cannot kill pirates except at the cost of the careers and possible incarceration of the military forces who do the killing, and if they capture them the pirates become clients of the Euro-welfare state with more legal rights than the average Euro-subject. There will be no help from Western Europe. The less that is said about which side the UN would be on, the better.

    The United States will not be operating against pirate bases while Hussein Pasha is in the White House, and indeed our military will probably be subservient to the “Civilian National Defense Force” he will be creating outside their control. [for Brit readers, yes he really announced such in a speech not 50 miles from where I am writing, on July 2, and it has been confirmed by his new Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel. Think Ton Ton Macoutes.]

    National governments will not allow the creation of a truly private military force outside their political control strong enough to do the job, because once created they might be hired by dissidents to work against national governments.

    The West has tied itself up in its own legalisms and political correct attitudes to the point of being unable and unwilling to defend themselves against armed attack. Of course we knew that from other incidents long before piracy loomed large on the horizon.

    The only entities which have the capability to do something, and which may have the will to do so would be Russia, China, and India. Each has its own reasons for not doing so. IF a Russian or Chinese vessel were to be taken and say the crew killed, there might be a limited strike similar to what the Soviets did in Lebanon the first and only time Soviets were kidnapped there. But that would only grant immunity to their own vessels.

    Being a “barbarian” in the world works, so long as the “civilized” world refuses to deal with them in the only terms they understand. For some, the statement Oderint dum Metuant is a reasonable explication of national policy.

    Get used to piracy being an effective and profitable tactic for a number of years.

    Subotai Bahadur

  • James

    I think that llamas overestimates the strength of the Somali pirates, although he is right in stating that it is too optimistic to expect you can deal with them with a few machineguns bolted to the bridge wings. It’s not a matter of having the arms, but of using them effectively if you have to and having the know-how to avoid trouble.

    “And you think that ‘ . . . a couple of 30 calibers mounted on the bridge wings would put paid to this.’ These folks left that sort of simplicty behind some time ago. When you open up with your 30 calibers, expect to be replied to by a twin DShK 38 mount or a hail of RPGs – or perhaps even a volley or two from the 125mm cannon and the 9M119 missile launchers mounted in the T70 MBT that they have chained to the deck.”

    I’m no master mariner but that would seriously hinder the seaworthiness of a dhow…

  • llamas

    James wrote:

    ‘I’m no master mariner but that would seriously hinder the seaworthiness of a dhow…’

    The VLCC Sirius Star was taken by pirates operating off an ocean-going tug/tender. These vessels typically have a large open working deck aft, where towlines and other gear are stored and flaked out for use. Plenty of room, and all the rigging in the world, to set out and secure virtually any land-based weapons system there is. The T70 has a fine targetting system for the main gun, which I feel sure could handle mild to moderate seas with no problem.

    The world is awash with people who have the know-how to deploy the most complex weapons systems. Such persons are especially plentiful in the Near and Middle East. And the pirates of the Indian Ocean have all the money they need to hire whatever skills they want.

    Put out of your mind the idea that these are simply some feckless nomads in fishing boats out for what they can find. That’s what they used to be – but not anymore.

    llater,

    llamas