Can Pirates be Stopped?

Naval expert Rick Gurnon tells homeland security conference attendees that the fight against Somali pirates has no clear answer, and won't be solved anytime soon

An American president has only been in office a few months, when an American vessel is attacked by pirates. The pirates demand a high ransom for the safe release of the vessel and all on board. It is a common scene, as pirates have been a problem in this part of the world for some time. Yet, prior to this new president, all previous American presidents and other leaders of the world have chosen to ignore the problem. Conventional wisdom has thus far been to pay the ransoms, rather than send war ships to the troubled waters to drive the pirates out by force. The new president knows how he handles this new attack on an American vessel could make or break his presidency.

While this may sound like the circumstances surrounding the capture of Captain Richard Phillips and the crew of the Alabama Maersk off of the coast of Somalia just weeks ago, this story has nothing to do with that attack, or President Barack Obama. Instead, the story is of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the U.S., and the events that lead to the wars off of the Barbary Coast.

Rear Adm. Rick Gurnon of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Bourne opened his keynote speech at the 9th annual IEEE Conference on Technologies for Homeland Security in Waltham, Mass., Monday with the tale of Jefferson and his historic actions. The Barbary Wars, according to Gurnon, are important in the history of the formation of the U.S. Navy as we know it today, he noted. At that time, Jefferson managed to convince the U.S. Congress to raise taxes in order to fund war ships to be sent in for battle against the piracy problem. One of the vessels, the USS Constitution, is still in active duty today. But the outcome in the modern day battle against pirates is still unclear. (See piracy expert Roger Hawkes weigh in on the topic here)

The IEEE conference, which brings together companies, researchers, government officials and others involved in homeland security, aims to highlight new technologies and address market gaps in the homeland security arena. Gurnon expressed his hope that some of the topics and technologies discussed at the event would be useful in the fight against pirates today, which is most problematic in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia.

"A report to the UN security council concluded that these pirate groups now rival established Somali authorities in terms of their military capabilities and resource basis," said Gurnon. "This is certainly no smash and grab operation."

Gurnon noted that a ransom as high as $3.2 million was collected recently for the release of a Ukranian vessel.

"Just as paying ransom to the Bays of Tripoli failed to stop piracy at the turn of the 19th century, paying insurance money to the Somali pirates at the beginning of the 21st century is doomed to fail," said Gurnon.

Gurnon said he believed ship owners and insurers bear some responsibility because their payments are causing more and more Somalis to seek the job of piracy; a job that can pay the equivalent of hitting the lottery considering the average daily wage in Somalia is a mere $2.

"It's a business that will continue until someone changes the way business is done," said Gurnon. "President Obama says America is resolved to address the problem. But how?"

Gurnon noted by some estimates it would take over 100 war ships to secure the Gulf of Aden and several times that number to protect seas off of the region's east coast.

Protective measures, such as convoys aren't practical, he said. And arming either security personnel on a vessel or merchant seaman will, at the very least, lead to a spike in insurance rates and the cost of training will be expensive, too.

"For now, passive self defense is generally the norm, that includes operating at fast speeds of advance, above 14 knots," he said.

Other tactics some vessels have employed include barbed wire at low areas of the ship to prevent boarding and charged fire hoses to drive oncoming pirates away (see How Shipping Companies Can Fight Pirates for more practical advice).

Ultimately, the real solution is on land, not at sea, said Gurnon. Somalia needs viable government to control its seas and shores. But with Iraq and Afghanistan still hot, there aren't too many countries, including America, interested in getting involved in a protracted land war in Somalia, he said.

For now, according to Gurnon, "We are going to have to pay ransoms, and invest in naval warships; a coordinated effort to patrol those shores in an attempt to make the business of piracy unprofitable. Until that happens, we are going to be doing this over and over again."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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