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Piracy Surge? The Jolly Roger is Active Again

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After the Easter, 2009 takedown of Somali pirates who held Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama hostage, one would have thought that the pirates of the Somali region would have avoided attracting the attention of the United States Navy. After all, three dead pirates and one facing federal trial in New York would tend to be behavior modification.

Yet, in the spring of 2010, what is happening? Violent encounters with pirates have gone down – not just between American ships and the pirates, but also from other countries.

Top:The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Farragut (DDG 99) passes by the smoke from a suspected pirate skiff it had just disabled. USS Farragut is part of Combined Task Force 151, a multinational task force established to conduct anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Cassandra Thompson. Above: Sailors assigned to U.S. Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security Team 91114 and the visit, board, search and seizure team of the Arleigh Burke-class guidedmissile destroyer USS Farragut (DDG 99), signal a Somali skiff with suspected pirates to raise their hands before boarding. Farragut is part of Combined Task Force 151, a multinational task force established to conduct anti-piracy operations. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Elizabeth Allen

On 1 April, 2010, two separate groups of pirates had a bad April Fools’ Day. In the first incident, at 0027 on that date, a group of pirates fired on the frigate USS Nicholas. Sailors on board the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate then pursued the skiff and the mothership, eventually sinking the former and capturing the latter, along with taking five pirates in custody.

Later that day, the flagship of the combined force off Somalia, Combined Task Force 151, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Farragut, responded to a distress call from the tanker MV Evita routed through the International Maritime Bureau. The Farragut detained and released 11 pirates after sinking a mothership. It was not the first time that the force had faced pirates in a violent confrontation.

On 5 April, USS McFaul, another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, responded with an Omani vessel to distress calls from the MV Rising Sun. When the Omani vessel arrived, the crew of a hijacked Indian dhow used to launch the attack on the Rising Sun jumped overboard. The pirates were eventually captured by USS McFaul.

The major force opposing piracy around Somalia since January 2009 has been Combined Task Force 151. USS San
Antonio, the lead ship in America’s new class of landing platform dock ships, served as the force’s first flagship, carrying Marines, helicopters, a Navy visit/board/search and seizure (VBSS) team and a Coast Guard law-enforcement detachment (LEDET).

Also included initially was an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer (USS Mahan) and a Royal Navy frigate (HMS Portland). Eventually, other vessels joined as various countries around the world decided it was time to get involved.

So why do a bunch of nickel-ante thugs off Somalia matter so much? The answer centers around the very ships that are caught up in the pirate attacks. Ships like those hijacked by the pirates carry nine-tenths of the world’s trade. Much of that includes stuff that is delivered either in bulk (say petroleum, grain, ores, or coal), or which may be bulky (like cars and main battle tanks).

Maritime trade is the global economy’s lifeblood. In good times, disruption can be a distraction. In tough economic times – like the present day – disruption of maritime trade can push a shaky economy over the edge. So, securing maritime trade is pretty important. It is one of the main reasons that countries built navies in the first place.

The merchant ship is well-designed for its mission of hauling loads of cargo. The cargo-carrying ability is maximized – and its power plant is designed more for long range and reliability as opposed to high-speed performance. A merchant vessel is also designed to be efficient – operated by a small crew. In essence, a merchant vessel is not meant to be flashy or spectacular – it just moves stuff from one side of an ocean to another – or across multiple oceans.

Yet these same design characteristics that help a merchant ship carry its share of the world’s maritime shipping also make it a whole lot easier for some bad guy to take it down. Its relative lack of speed means that it can easily be chased down. The same cavernous holds that enable the ship to carry large amounts of cargo also create a vulnerability. Either a loaded ship’s waterline is low, making it easy to board, or the waterline is high –making it hard to see someone coming alongside.

The small crew is also a huge vulnerability – usually around 20–30 people to handle a ship that can weigh as much as 300,000 tons – that pirates exploit. The crew is also unarmed. This makes it easy for a small group of armed pirates to take control of the ship once they have boarded it.

As the pirates operate further afield – recently pirates have attacked vessels in the Indian Ocean – the task of keeping the sea lanes safe becomes much more difficult. Despite unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) deployments to the Seychelles, and the U.S. Navy and others intercepting pirates, the attacks – and seizures – continue.

Task Force 151 still faces a difficult mission, and naval forces find themselves stretched thinner and thinner. The surge by the pirates will represent the task force’s next big task – and how this task is handled will have an effect measured far beyond the headlines.

Harold Hutchison’s first novel, Strike Group Reagan, is available from Amazon.com and comfortpublishing.com.