A Surge to Wipe Out Pirates of the Horn

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Last night the Indian Navy Ship Tabar struck a long overdue blow for freedom of the seas by sinking a pirate mother ship in the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden. At last, the pirates will know that the hijacking party has been crashed.

Some are questioning whether the Tabar acted in self-defense. Ridiculous, they acted in the cause of law and order in support of freedom - a much higher calling.

Perhaps this event will shake other nations out of their unwillingness to address the threat and put together a meaningful military force to eliminate these nautical terrorists who prefer to call themselves businessmen. They make the Mafia look like kindergarteners.

Yes, there are a few military ships in the area, one of which, the Royal Navy HMS Cumberland, engaged other pirates a few days ago. But for all the pirate-suspect ships, the cruise seems pretty unchallenged. Yes, the area is large and the traffic density high, but the pirates have far too many successes. The US Fifth Fleet seems to have a rough time keeping up with the press releases about hijackings.

Pirate hijackings are one of the oldest forms of naval warfare. The more civil term, privateer, was used by the Continental Congress to allow designated ships to attack any British ship during the revolution. The British allowed similar activities and the French attacked both sides. The tables turned after the revolution, as the United States became a world merchant sea power and began to confront the Barbary pirates based in North Africa, specifically Tripoli. These pirates had been terrorizing the Mediterranean basin for centuries and having learned that tribute and ransom could be collected, turned it into a business. Sound familiar?

Young America was drawn into this cyclone because it had no alternative. As resentment grew in Washington, Adams, Jefferson and the Congress, construction of new ships was authorized, which were available when Algiers declared war on the US for not paying tribute. After two wars in 1801-1805 and 1815, the United States obtained freedom of access in that area.

Why this diversion into history? History is starting to repeat itself, but with much higher risk levels. No one seems to know where the ransom money is going. Since Somalia has been a longstanding supporter of Islamic terrorist activity, it seems reasonable to assume that most of this money is going to expand terrorist attacks someplace. I hold this view until proven otherwise.

Millions of dollars a year can support thousands of attacks worldwide. Ransom payments, while very humanitarian, only support wider terrorism. That is why the success of INS Tabar is so important.

What now? The maritime world has evolved into two groups—ships flagged in countries that do not have navies to protect them, and naval powers that do not have merchant ships to protect. International cooperation is a must to cross this abyss. Yes, there is a cooperation group now for this area, but we see the inadequate results. It is time for a Security Council mandated effort with the ship-owning countries and exporting countries paying their share for a change.

Many countries can contribute. This would increase the number of intercept ships capable of doing what INS Tabar did. The US Navy is incapable of providing much help in this area, having destroyed rather than mothballed most of its non-guided missile ships a few years ago. However, it could provide at-sea bases using amphibious ships designed to support assault craft as well as helicopter operations including gunships.

I suggest positioning these ships 200-300 miles apart through the affected areas to create corridors for passage. These command ships could be used to direct the activities of the smaller investigative ships or aircraft.

The most important contribution the US could make would be intelligence. If the intelligence community cannot provide good surface images useful for separating and tracking the pirate ships, maybe some commercial activity can. I apologize to my tactician friends in Blue: I am sure you can do much better with a plan using these concepts. Perhaps this work could also apply to the piracy problems in the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea.

I call this concept the International Anti-Piracy Maritime Surge. It is time to start now.

Thank you, INS Tabar. You have done the world a valuable service. I hope to meet you someday. In the meantime, I wish you Fair Winds and Following Seas.

Everett Pyatt was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and Assistant Secretary of the Navy (USA) in the Carter and Reagan administrations.
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