August 24, 2009: Off Somalia, 136 ships have been attacked so far this year, and 28 (21 percent) have been taken. Last year, the pirate success rate was 40 percent. Moreover, 80 percent of the attacks defeated do not involve the foreign warships now patrolling the coast. The merchant sailors, and the ship owners, have adopted defensive measures that have become remarkably successful in defeating pirate attacks.
It's that last bit that's really got my attention. As much as I feel the piracy situation warrants very serious attention, up to and including military involvement, the latter would not be my first choice, given the nature and scale of the mission, and the fearsome expenditures (to uneven benefit) it demands. Stepped-up patrolling is helpful and necessary, but maritime laws put suffocating constraints on the Navy's rules of engagement, not to mention the maddening tangle of statutes on the disposition of prisoners. And the geopolitical implications of any direct action against headquarters ashore give me a headache even to contemplate.
It is encouraging, then, to hear of merchant vessels' crews training in countermeasures against pirate pursuit and boarding. They are learning to zig-zag a freighter at flank speed (and so creating dangerous wakes for pursuing speedboats), training with water cannon and long poles, stringing barbed wire across vulnerable spots to repel boarders. They are setting up "panic rooms," provisioned with food and water, and (perhaps most importantly) radio gear. These all make a world of sense and have apparently been hugely successful. Holed-up sailors can call for a patrolling ship, sticking pirates with the choice of waiting for the Navy on a ship they can't operate, or beating a hasty (and trackable) retreat. It's a nice 'force multiplier,' since it gives time for sea-borne assets to reach the scene (which means they don't have to try and be everywhere at once).
Indeed, given the legal complexities involved in arming merchant ships (e.g., many ports won't let ships with unlocked weapons --or any weapons at all-- come in and dock), it would even make sense for small teams of Special Forces operators to make the rounds of merchant vessels, providing training in defeating would-be invaders. Providing SF expertise on everything from passive countermeasures to hand-to-hand combat could in many cases obviate the need for weapons lockers, and make in-theater military assets more effective.
Ultimately, anything that makes the job of pirating more expensive, difficult, and risky is worth doing. If this can be done without so heavily leveraging the (already-stretched) wealth of nations by calling upon their militaries, then so much the better.
So, to the rigging, m'lads!