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High Stakes on the High Seas

“When crime is down, the first thing people want to do is cut the police force,” says retired Navy Admiral Terry Mc-Knight. That’s true whether the crime is on land or at sea.

McKnight helped establish the Combined Task Force 151, an international coalition of navies charged with patrolling the 1.1 million miles that make up the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in an effort to discourage piracy.

In 2008, the coalition established an Internationally Recognized Transit Corridor (IRTC), which is a safe zone for merchants to travel. Navies patrol the IRTC to prevent and respond to pirate attacks. The United States, Iran, and European Union countries all have an interest in trade in the area. Consequently, they all have navy vessels operating in the region to protect those interests.

The effort has been successful. Since 2008 and the arrival of navies, pirate attacks worldwide have dropped dramatically. In 2012, 297 ships were attacked worldwide compared with 439 the previous year. The drastic change is credited to the reduction in piracy in Somalia, which accounts for 25 percent of attacks. Seventy-five ships reported attacks off Somalia and the Gulf of Aden last year, compared with 237 in 2011.

“It’s very quiet,” said Carolyn Jones, Lieutenant Commander Royal Navy, in a recent interview. The decrease can be attributed to a number of factors, but there’s no doubt that having navies in the area is helpful in policing volatile waters, she said.

But experts note that the countries patrolling the waters are not the ones whose ships are at risk. In other words, for example, the United States is essentially watching over ships that aren’t its own, Mc-Knight said. And with budgets tight and the number of incidents down, there may be a tendency to pull back on the part of the countries patrolling those waters. Of course, countries like the United States use the goods being transported, so they do have a stake in the viability of the waterways even if it is not their fleet at risk. But the protection the United States is offering does not come cheap.
Piracy around the Somali coast cost the global economy $7 billion in 2011, according to advocacy group One Earth Future. Twenty percent of that comes from government counter-piracy operations. Experts question whether governments are always going to feel that the cost of operating so far from home is worth the expenditures.

McKnight, along with John A. C. Cartner, author of Defending against Pirates: The International Law of Small Arms, Armed Guards and Privateers; Advanfort President Will Watson; and Charles N. Dragonette, a retired U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence analyst, all expressed the view that countries are going to eventually pull their navies out, leaving merchants to fend for themselves. These experts shared their views at a Washington, D.C., press conference announcing the launch of the online magazine Piracy Daily.
It’s not a matter of if the navies are pulled, but when, they said. When that occurs, you can expect to see a few things start to happen, says McKnight. In the absence of government forces, merchant ships are likely to abandon safer routes like the IRTC in favor of faster ones. The experts also predict incidents will increase as pirates try to take back control of the sea. In other words, the gains of the last few years may be lost.

“You reverse all of that progress if you take away the police force,” McKnight said in a follow-up telephone interview. “Merchants will start diverting away from the IRTC, and they’ll start to cut corners, especially ships going around the horn of Africa going south.”

But at this point, no one knows for sure that governments will let that happen. Lieutenant Commander Jones states there are no plans for navies to pull out in at least the next two years. And if they do leave, it won’t be without a comprehensive plan, she says.

Ships that are traveling through these danger zones are already asked to follow a set of security best practices that include tips like traveling faster than 18 knots (no ships traveling 18 knots or faster have been successfully boarded), adding barbed wire and fencing to make it harder to climb onto the ship, and having a citadel, or safe area, in case pirates do manage to come on board.

In addition, says Watson, ships that haven’t already added security teams should consider doing so. No ships with private security teams have been successfully hijacked, he notes.

“The sea will be controlled by whoever has the most firepower. It was the Somali pirates at one point. Next it will be the private security providers,” Dragonette adds, if navies withdraw.

The navies provide more than firepower, however. Their value in the region is broader than that because they fulfill other roles as well. For example, they carry out rescues and interdict weapons and drug smuggling. McKnight cites a mission where the USS San Antonio was retasked to chase a boat carrying arms from Iran up the Red Sea.

But the main focus in the region remains the counterpiracy mission. At the time this article was written, Somali pirates still held 133 hostages aboard seven different hijacked vessels.