Does the successful rescue of an American cargo ship captain from pirates of Somalia signal a coming change in U.S. strategy for combating crime on the high seas?
Experts and policymakers have long seen piracy as a law enforcement problem, requiring civilian answers – economic and judicial – rather than a military problem.
But that was before a U.S. ship or an American seaman was taken by 21st Century buccaneers. A new strategy could emerge, given the high tech operation to rescue Richard Phillips, captain of the U.S.-flagged cargo ship Maersk Alabama from Somali pirates. The operation included Navy SEAL snipers, airborne insertion via parachute, unmanned aircraft surveillance, and the close-quarters maneuvering of at least three U.S. naval vessels: the destroyer U.S.S. Bainbridge; the guided missile frigate, U.S.S. Halyburton; and the U.S.S. Boxer, an amphibious assault ship. Three pirates were slain and the captain was rescued unharmed.
An AH-1 Super Cobra helicopter escorts a UH-1Y Huey in support of counter-piracy surveillance operations over the Gulf of Aden, April 6. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Robert C. Medina
After the incident, President Barack Obama said his administration remains “resolved to halt the rise of piracy in this region.” To achieve that goal, Obama said, “we must continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks, be prepared to interdict acts of piracy and ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes.”
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) says 22,000 vessels annually use the sea lanes of the Gulf of Aden -- between Yemen and the Horn of Africa -- carrying around 8 percent of the world’s trade, including 12 percent of all oil transported by sea. Pirate attacks and attempted attacks in the gulf jumped from 13 in 2007 to 92 in 2008, according to the IMO.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) warned that piracy will continue in the area “as long as safe havens exist along the Somali coast.” He called on the international community to “come together, take a good look at our options, and seriously consider what can be done to eliminate the threat.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates concedes he and his staff will probably be spending a lot of time in the situation room over the next few weeks “trying to figure out what in the world to do about this problem.”
During a visit to the Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Va., the day after the rescue, Gates said solving the problem will be difficult. Unlike the Straits of Malacca, where Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and India stepped up naval patrols to control a burgeoning pirate problem, Somalia is a failed state with no central government, warring factions and a collapsed economy. Many of its neighbors are in only slightly better shape. “So it’s a serious international problem, and it’s probably going to get worse,” Gates said, adding that “there is no purely military solution to it.”