'Piracy on an almost industrial scale'
17 June 2010
The words "dhow" and "skiff", the types of vessels used by Somalia's pirates, are fast entering the defence lexicon. More than just a fly in the ointment for states and shipping companies sending goods through the Suez Canal, the ships represent a piracy problem costing millions of dollars in resources every year. Powerful warships are being diverted from their regular duties to tackle gangs in these small vessels armed with Kalashnikovs demanding multi-million dollar ransoms for hijacked merchant ships.
In recent years attacks by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden have been reduced, and of the forces operating in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia, the EU Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) has built its capacity to coordinate the response to the pirate threat.
Speaking to Defencemanagement.com before his departure, Rear Admiral Peter Hudson, then Operation Commander of the EU Naval Force operation Atalanta, said that while piracy has been reduced in the Gulf of Aden, piracy off the Somali coast was growing on an "almost industrial scale". Of the two areas that EU NAVFOR patrols, he describes the Gulf of Aden, through which 30,000 ships transit each year, as the most important.
"It's a strategic artery of international importance linking East and West," says Rear Admiral Hudson. "That's where we've concentrated our efforts and that's where most of the warships are. Not only ships from the European Union but ships from NATO, coalition forces based in Bahrain and independent nations like Japan, China, Russia, Malaysia, South Korea, India have ships patrolling the Gulf of Aden just because of that important artery it provides."
The focus came, Hudson says, as the level of piracy "got out of hand" towards the end of 2008.
"During the last three months there we saw about 20 ships seized in the Gulf of Aden," he says. "Since then we've worked with the IMO (International Maritime Organization) to build and develop an internationally recognised transit corridor about 500 miles long through which the majority of merchant ships travel. We now base our military patrols along that corridor. We fly maritime patrol aircraft to cover it on a regular basis and we've built a security centre here in Northwood called the Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa in which merchant ships register. They let us know their movements, we tell them where high-risk areas are and we have a dialogue with the ships which wasn't there before.
"So from a state where we lost 20 ships in the space of three months, along that corridor only three ships have been seized over the last year. The number of attacks - which was running at around 15 a month in the Gulf of Aden has dropped now to around four or five a month - so a significant drop.
"We have made a difference. Not just with the military forces, but also the merchant community. They have been much more diligent in their self-protective measures and adherence to best practice, and our relationship with the countries in that region has also developed. So collectively we've made that difference."
In the other areas, such as the waters off the east coast of Somalia, Rear Admiral Hudson says there has been a significant increase in activity.
"In the Somali basin we have seen a surge in piracy on almost an industrial scale during the inter-monsoon season," he says. "At the moment the weather conditions as we run into the summer monsoon prevent pirates from operating in the Somali basin, but in the period February to May we saw large numbers of pirate action groups, motherships, attack skiffs putting to sea in the Southern Somali Basin to try and strike merchant ships. This was because the level of interest by these pirate groups is still very high. So the pirates are still active but the way that we work with industry now means that the Gulf of Aden is a lot more stable. The Somali Basin is a different beast.
One major criticism levelled at the forces operating in the region is that they are seen as unable to adequately detain and prosecute the pirates, even if they do catch them. Stories of men caught attempting to board ships and having to be released had caused controversy and even brought the various naval forces' roles into question. However, Hudson says that detention policy is not a problem for EU NavFor.
"Our rules of engagement are pretty strong and we don't have too great a difficulty detaining these pirates on our warships," he says. "Where we have a direct link between a pirate group and an attack on a specific vessel, in general we get the pirates in front of a court. We've got a large number now in Kenya, in the Seychelles and indeed in many European member state capitals.
"The difficulty is when we arrest a pirate or detain a group of pirates who are conspiring to commit piracy - who go out with weapons and ladders, fuel and food, not to catch tuna but to catch merchant ships. Getting those into a court - whether it's in the region whether it's in Europe or anywhere else in the world - is extremely difficult."
In those cases the warships will attempt to disrupt pirate activity, destroying vessels and equipment if it is obviously intended for use in hijacking ships, and releasing the pirates. Despite the obvious limits on prosecutions, Hudson says the EU has "good legal links" in the region and "more options than the majority of forces" for prosecution.
Naval forces cannot be everywhere, and some private sector firms have taken to installing armed private security teams on their vessels. While Hudson says there is an "understandable nervousness" in the shipping sector regarding security, particularly in the Somali Basin, he discourages the use of armed security contractors.
He does, however, see merit in the use of unarmed private security firms. "A lot of the ships that transit the area have very small ship's companies, they have very limited ability to mount additional watches to take security regimes seriously and put up additional barriers for entry," says Rear Admiral Hudson. "There are a number of security teams who will do that for shipping companies - provide those extra lookouts, eyes, listen to the radio and have the dialogue with military forces - and those are a very responsible group. But armed security teams? We would tend to favour the IMO, flag state and major trade organisations in that we would discourage it.
"One of my prime jobs is to escort humanitarian ships into Mogadishu and logistic supply ships to support the African Union into Mogadishu," he says. "I work hard to put military teams on some of those ships. There are good rules of engagement, clear command and control, they're well led, very strong and there's an unambiguous relationship between the master of the ship and the detachment commander with mutual support from warships in the vicinity. With private security teams, it's a little bit more ragged. They have in the past killed pirates who've been attacking and the relationship between the private security team and the merchant community is very different because it's based on money. However, if a ship does embark with an armed security team we won't discriminate against it, we'll give it the same support and reassurance that any other ship gets as it goes through the Gulf of Aden.
Another security option involves crews entering a ship's 'panic room' or 'citadel' when they realise that pirates are aboard.
"We need to be careful about giving the impression that jumping into the citadel, the secure environment, automatically results in military action coming back," says Hudson. "There are on occasion – and I stress the words 'on occasion' - circumstances when it is appropriate, but in general those citadels are an area for security for the ship's company of the merchant ship to ensure that during the period when the pirates are on board that the master has control of the ship's company and they are safe. Then the master can decide – depending on the dialogue that's taken place with any ships in the vicinity, whether that's other merchant ships or military, what he is or is not going to do. I don't want to give the impression that going into the citadel means the cavalry will be over the horizon."
But how long will the cavalry even be needed in the area? EU foreign ministers have agreed to extend Operation Atalanta until December 2012, so the threat is not expected to go away soon. Asked how long he expected warships to be committed to the region, Rear Admiral Hudson is unable to provide a definitive answer.
"The solution to piracy does not rest with expensive destroyers and frigates racing around the Indian Ocean chasing skiffs," he says. "They are expensive assets and they are not designed for that sort of business, but we deliver maritime security whilst the land problem which is Somalia is worked by international bodies such as the UN, the European Union, the United States the African Union and so on because it is ashore that the solution rests.
"We'll wait and see what progress is made there with the transitional federal government in Mogadishu, we'll see what progress is made with the African Union and the other regional states and on the back of that a judgement will be made as to how long the operation will or will not endure."