Prepping for Piracy

Although pirates have faded from the headlines, they’re still going to be a problem. Maybe a new set of international-shipping standards could reduce them to criminal nuisances instead of romantic brigands.

Funny how piracy faded from the headlines. Once the captain of the M/V Maersk Alabama was rescued, the television coverage shifted to other topics, and the attention span of the armchair admirals who were calling for an all-out war on sea and land against Somali pirates moved on to the next topic du jour.

Unfortunately, responsible national-security policy cannot be driven by headlines. The cable network shows have moved on to the next big topic-the swine flu pandemic!-but pirates remain active in the shipping lanes. They are just not attacking U.S. flagged vessels and thus not garnering twenty-four-hour coverage.

And there is still an ongoing, day-to-day antipiracy mission led by the U.S. Navy via Combined Task Force 151. But even with the expected participation of some twenty nations, plus the arrival of naval assets from countries like India, China and Russia, there are simply not enough warships to provide security for the some twenty-five thousand vessels that operate in the area vulnerable to Somali-pirate attacks. Moreover, if each naval vessel were to be assigned a specific "grid" of ocean to be responsible for, it would be an area of some sixty-seven thousand square miles!

But before we move on to grandiose plans for deploying massive fleets of warships to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, or contemplate an invasion of Somalia itself, why not first insist that the governments who register and flag merchant vessels impose and enforce standards that would make the pirates' job harder?

Cyprus provides a good example of how "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Back in 2005, it required all vessels flying the Cypriot flag to have updated "Ship Security Alert Systems" that would provide real-time warnings and information. Even as early as 2002, Cyprus was warning its flagged vessels about piracy emanating from Somalia and mandating procedures to reduce the threat. Currently, circular 4/2009 of the Cypriot Department of Merchant Shipping requires vessels to maintain a twenty-four-hour watch, monitor communication bands used by pirate groups, and to carry out regular exercises to prepare for pirate attacks. Such efforts proved their worth back in November 2008 when the Cyprus-flagged Kapitan Maslov was attacked three hundred nautical miles from the Somali coastline. Pirates fired rocket-propelled grenades, causing a fire on board; the crew responded by extinguishing the blaze and successfully maneuvered the ship away from the pirate launch, thus avoiding capture. Training paid off.

The Proliferation Security Initiative demonstrated how the United States could work with the leading civilian maritime powers to reduce the spread of dangerous WMD technologies-an effort supported by Cyprus and other states like Malta and Panama. Why not create a Piracy Security Initiative (PSI) where the major military-naval powers and the major civil-maritime powers work more closely together to ensure the safety of the sea lanes? They are, after all, vital to the health of the global economy, since 90 percent of all goods traded travel on the water at some point.

One aspect of such an initiative would be new regulations on crew training and proper investment to keep vessels from being targeted. (After all, as the Cypriot circulars note, "low freeboard and slow speed makes any vessel very vulnerable" to pirate attack.)

Some have argued that this is unreasonable; that in response to increased regulation companies will find more lenient jurisdictions in which to flag their vessels. But, if that is the choice made by a shipowner, he should have to live with the consequences. The priority of U.S. and international efforts to aid and assist vessels being beset by piracy should then be those ships that would be part of this new PSI. In turn, this could help reduce instances of free riding by vessels counting on the protection of naval forces but not doing much to enhance their own security.

It also bears reminding that the Somali coast is not the only region where piracy and maritime crime is taking place. These PSI efforts could also help enhance maritime security in other dangerous waters-the Gulf of Guinea, for instance-that aren't making the headlines.

Just because pirate attacks are "out of sight" does not mean the problem is solved. But better preventative efforts could make pirate attacks more of a nuisance rather than a growing threat to the world's economic lifelines.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.