Thursday, April 16, 2009

Not one cent for tribute

Some thoughts on curbing piracy, principally in Somalia, but applicable, I hope, to wherever the scourge is endemic:

As in so many of our problems, the essential question is whether we have the will, not the means. We may not be able to eliminate piracy, but we can surely reduce it to a manageable annoyance if we exercise the will to do so. For instance, one idea that's been bruited about is to go in and clean out the pirate havens on the Somali coast. But whenever that is brought up, someone is sure to murmur, "Blackhawk Down." While the deaths of 18 American soldiers in Mogadishu was an unspeakable tragedy for them and their families, in the scale of war that firefight was a minor engagement. It became a major embarrassment for the United States not because of any intrinsic factors--although it did reveal a want of planning and command response--but because we, principally President Clinton, permitted it to become so.

Fortunately, we can probably curb pirates around the Horn of Africa without having to go ashore. Here are a few approaches:

It's not just business: Stop permitting shipping companies and insurers (or anyone else) to pay ransom for ships and crews. The problem goes beyond the individuals and the ships involved. Misplaced feelings of sympathy, and the desire for corporate profit, only make things worse. If shipping companies, their agents or insurers pay ransom, provide that the ships in question will be forfeited and sold, with cargo, in a prize court. Shippers and insurers will try to find third-party fronts so that they can keep paying ransoms--it's cheaper and easier than resisting--so efforts will have to be made to keep them from getting away with that.

Convoys: Convoys worked in both World Wars and they would work off Somalia. True, they would be inconvenient, as ships would have to wait for the convoy to assemble and then travel at the speed of the slowest vessel. On the other hand, given the nature of the threat and today's military technology, escorts could offer almost complete protection. Fortunately, convoys through the seas off Somalia would not have to be as large as those in the Atlantic during WWII, because they get much more complex as the number of ships grows.

Guards on Shipboard: We should have squads of Marines and/or sailors on board vessels traveling through the threatened areas. Think of 12 to 15 men (and possibly women) armed with a couple of machine guns, some shoulder-fired missiles and assault rifles. Pirates have threatened merchant ships with automatic rifles and RPGs. I think it's safe to say that a TOW missile would do a lot more damage to a pirate skiff than an RPG can do to a 15,000 ton ship. A recent story said that 20,000 ships pass by the Horn of Africa each year. That is a large number, but it comes down to around 55 per day. A few battalions of Marines, stationed on Amphibious Assault Ships, could rotate squad-sized units on and off ships passing through the lower end of the Red Sea, off the Horn of Africa and the southern border of Somalia. Not all ships passing through would have to be given armed guards for them to be a powerful deterrent. This kind of duty, by the way, is exactly what marines have been doing for hundreds of years. It's a lot more in the Marine tradition than slogging through Fallujah or Tora Bora. Other nations that have naval vessels patrolling of Somalia should be asked to contribute to the guard force. (I am resolutely against private armed forces on ships. If there are any core government functions, law enforcement and national defense are among them. Privatization has an even worse record in those areas than in others.)

Broaden the Military Response: The Amphibious Support Ships mentioned above can dominate a large area. They carry helicopters, Harrier aircraft and small seacraft. Unfortunately, the latter have been landing craft, which are relatively slow. For anti-pirate patrols these need to be replaced with fast, maneuverable boats that can match, or even outrun and out maneuver pirate craft. Some of the larger commercially-available RIBs can probably be outfitted with machine guns and in any event can carry sailors or Marines armed with the kind of light weapons that the pirates have. Better would be the kind of high-speed patrol boats that the Coast Guard employs.

Prosecute the Pirates: Pirates captured by US forces should be prosecuted in US courts here in the United States. The prospect of long prison terms in the States would be another strong deterrent to turning pirate, even though the food in our penitentiaries is probably more plentiful and of better quality than what a lot of the pirates are now getting. The French are already prosecuting pirates that they have captured.

Many authorities have pointed out that the real solution to piracy off the Somali coast lies in creating a working state in Somalia. True. But that could take decades. The steps that I have outlined can be taken the next few months, some in just a few weeks. They would be relatively inexpensive (by the standards of military operations), require relatively few resources (though now than we have dedicated now), and would as a side benefit provide valuable experience for the kind of small-unit actions that our military is likely to see a lot more of in the next few years.

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