March 25, 2013
Credit: EU NAVFOR
The greatest challenge facing counter-piracy operations today could be managing success. The European Union's counter-piracy mission, spearheaded by its Naval Force (EU Navfor) but encompassing a range of economic, political and legal initiatives, has helped to sharply reduce the incidence of piracy off the coast of Somalia. As of March 12, only two vessels and 60 hostages remained in pirate hands. But a growing misperception persists that Somali piracy has been beaten, and with budgets under increasing strain, pressure will mount to stop funding a solution if people think the problem has gone away.
“We are conscious that the media is carrying this message that piracy is over,” EU Navfor's chief of staff, Royal Navy Capt. Peter Olive, tells Aviation Week. “I heard it on the [BBC radio's] Today program only a few weeks ago. On the basis of one report from one pirate saying he was giving up piracy, the whole piracy venture was over. That really does not stand up to any kind of factual analysis.
“The stats show [that incidences of Somali piracy in] 2012 [were] down on 2010 and 2011, but nowhere near down to 2008 levels,” Olive says. “The pirates are still at sea, they're still evolving their tactics, there are still attacks going on. Over the last six weeks alone we've transferred 21 pirates for prosecution to Mauritius and the Seychelles, so they're still looking to attack merchantmen who are vulnerable, and we're still continuing to operate to stop them. We still all need, collectively, to keep the pressure on.”
Current and former U.S. Navy officers share that concern, expressing worries that, once piracy is considered dead, resources will shift elsewhere, creating an enforcement void that pirates could be quick to exploit.
With the “Pacific pivot” pushing more Navy ships to Asia, for example, the U.S. presence in Somali waters could diminish, creating fertile ground for pirates to flourish again there. The U.S. likely will pull back from anti-piracy missions with the Pacific shift and increasing emphasis on ballistic missile defense, says U.S. Navy Rear Adm. (ret.) Terry McKnight, who, as commander of Task Force 151 was in charge of anti-piracy efforts off Somalia.
In his book Pirate Alley, about commanding the task force, and in later interviews, McKnight highlights the need for continued naval presence in pirate-infested waters, especially with the proper mix of ships, including fast and agile vessels combined with command-and-control platforms. The Navy is deploying its Littoral Combat Ships into coastal waters with antipiracy missions in mind, but McKnight contends they may lack some of the attributes needed for the job.
And while Somalia-centered piracy may be on the decline, similar concerns remain throughout the world. Pirate attacks have been a major problem since goods and people were first transported by ship, and the IMB Piracy Reporting Center reports 47 attacks around the globe this year, including three hijackings.