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April 14, 2009

Questions about the Navy's new pirate policy

Galrahn at the U.S. Naval Institute blog has some questions about why the Navy departed from its usual procedure for dealing with pirate hostage scenarios:

I posted something similar to this on my blog today, but after seeing the emotional responses, I have concluded what is needed is more thoughtful consideration than my original post allows for, and perhaps some investigative journalism towards finding the answers. Hopefully by framing the questions directly, the questions will be taken more seriously.

It is my understanding that the standard U.S. Navy practice in maritime kidnapping situations like the Maersk Alabama incident has been to stand aside while ransom negotiations take place between the pirates and the ship owner/operator.  The pirates sometimes contact the Navy, but the Navy’s practice in such instances has been to provide them with the telephone number of the ship owner/operator, so that the pirates can negotiate directly with the firm.

I have a few questions. Why didn’t that happen in this case? Why did the Navy in this instance apparently engage in direct hostage (i.e., non-ransom) negotiations with the pirates, instead of letting Maersk negotiate with the pirates for a ransom?  Was it because the ship originally hijacked was a US-flag ship?  Because the kidnapped person was a US national?  Because the situation was logistically different in terms of the kidnapped person being on a lifeboat and the hijacked ship no longer being in the possession of the pirates?  Some combination of these factors? [USNI]

It's a great post and you should read the whole thing.

Galrahn argues that the Maersk Alabama hostage incident marks a significant shift in the U.S. Navy's anti-piracy strategy, one that hasn't been adequately explained or justified.

Galrahn notes that this new policy runs the risk of making piracy more violent overall. So far, the pirates in the Gulf of Aden haven't killed very many of their victims:

As acknowledged by Admiral Gortney toward the end of his telephone call with news reporters, the killing of the three pirates by the Navy SEAL snipers creates a risk of elevating the overall level of violence in future ship hijackings, which can increase the risks faced by the mariners on these cargo ships.  If that’s the case, and if there aren’t enough naval ships from various countries to fully patrol the area, as the Navy repeatedly acknowledges, then was this operation an unalloyed success?  Will people still be celebrating this operation if the pirates adapt by starting to make more use of more highly lethal forms of violence when attempting to seize control of ships? [USNI]

Beth Van Shaack has a fascinating primer on piracy and international law.

[HT: Robert Farley]


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It's not clear there will be more lethal pirate attacks as a result. Ransom payments led pirates to believe that there was nothing to lose from attacking ships, as pointed in an earlier post on the same blog you're linking to.

I'm not really sure that makes a lot of sense. If we're assuming rationality on the part of the pirates, the last thing they want to resort to is overhwhelming brutality, which would likely result in a decrease of ships coming through the area, thereby presenting fewer chances for piracy.

It would be nice to hear a little more about the waste dumping and stealing of fish stocks which were (part of) what led to the piracy beginning.

The argument makes more sense when you consider that piracy off the Horn of Africa has been almost entirely devoid of deaths or serious injuries up until now. The big shipping companies basically took the same attitude as New Yorkers who carry mugger money.

If the usual anti-pirate tactics didn't work, the sailors would basically let the pirates take the ship. The pirates would negotiate with the insurance company, bag a couple million dollars and depart. The ransom was a bargain compared to the value of the ship and everyone was insured. It was a better deal to pay the odd pirate ransom than to pay to train, equip, and insure armed crews to fight off pirates (not to mention the potential legal liability of having armed sailors).

The reality was that most ships were going to get through just fine. Sharing the risk through insurance was infuriating, but it was the safest and cheapest alternative. The ship owners didn't want a pissing match, they wanted to make money with minimal hassles. Pirates have been operating in that region for 800 years.

Going on the offensive against pirates rather than letting private owners buy them off could significantly increase the overall violence. I mean, even in the case of Captain Phillips, the pirates probably would have let him go as per usual if the US Navy had stuck to its original plan. The pirates weren't just holding on to him for fun.

Lindsay, you're doing yourself a disservice by comparing piracy insurance to mugger money. New Yorkers didn't just carry the money; they eventually gave up and elected an autocratic asshole as Mayor, and even reelected him after believing he was responsible to their not having to carry mugger money anymore.

Alon Levy -

Rudy Giuliani lost the first time he ran against David Dinkins. He won in a re-match because people were unhappy with lots of things about Dinkins' record, not just crime.

Personally, I didn't like that Dinkins promised to make City College free the first time he ran, then said that we can't afford it as soon as he was in office.

And the more women resist during rape, the more likely it is that rapists will be violent.

"Galrahn argues that the Maersk Alabama hostage incident marks a significant shift in the U.S. Navy's anti-piracy strategy, one that hasn't been adequately explained or justified."

There's no onus on justifying the old free-hand-for-piracy policy, which has nurtured a burgeoning problem? The more rewarding piracy is, the more piracy, the more costly, the less--isn't that the reasonable expectation? And to restore the policy of indulging the pirates now, in the face of their escalated threats, would reward them more and exacerbate the problem.

I heard a cable news pundit make a good suggestion: ships in the western Indian Ocean would register their courses in prescribed sea lanes with a central bureau. Unregistered vessels that intruded into those sea lanes would be presumed hostile and engaged by warships and aircraft from a coalition of navies that would surely include ours and the French.

If there was a good chance that an unregistered speedboat with Kalashnikov- and RPG-armed passengers would be sunk, that should be the end of the problem. Death, not riches, should await them.

Dabodius -

Kill all the passengers in unregistered ships. What could possibly go wrong?

It would be as great as the US military in Iraq shooting at any car which drives near their vehicles. And shooting at cars which don't stop when a US soldier on the side of the rode waves.


Dabodius -

Sorry that my last post was rude. I shouldn't have phrased it that way.

"Mugger Money?" Are you kidding?

I suggest Lindsay step outside of the pampered confines of whatever cafe she happens to be blogging from and trek around in parts of the Balkans, rural Mexico, Sicily, Indonesia or southeast Asia where people routinely pay special "fees" to police and public officials so they may cross bridges, use roadways, obtain burial plots, or access water pumps. Talk to the people who actually live every day under such abuse and hear what they have to say.

In places where such extortion became accepted as a "cost of doing business," the perpetrators systematically oppressed entire communities, and inevitably used violence because they never get enough. Where such extortion was resisted and prosecuted --often with force-- the practice was fairly quickly stopped.

Why? Because most of these criminals are simply opportunistic and don't seek to engage in life-threatening fights. When people willingly hand them "mugger money," they see it as easy cash, and keep coming back for more. It only tales a few casualties before they get the message that kidnapping and piracy aren't worth it.

It's a metaphor. This was the way it was explained to me by an acquaintance who works on pirate-related security issues for an international shipping business.

So far, the companies have been chosen to negotiate with the pirates because it is in their rational self-interest to do so. Pirate attacks are dramatic, but they're statistically quite rare, and so far, almost invariably non-lethal.

Until recently, there has been a kind of modus vivendi among the pirates and the shipping companies.

The companies do everything they can to harden their ships against pirate attacks, from eardrum-rupturing air horns to fire hoses to special tactical training for crews.

Nobody in the industry wants to arm the crews because it would be astronomically more expensive and risky to equip and train them and it would be impossible to get insurance under those circumstances. Also, the merchant mariners didn't sign up to fight as irregulars in an anti-pirate army.

The understanding is that if pirates manage to seize the ship, you negotiate with them to get the boat back. All these vessels are heavily insured.

There's no problem getting insurance because the insurance companies have crunched the numbers and determined that pirate attacks aren't really that common, or that expensive in the grand scheme of things. One expert estimated pirate insurance expenses at around 1% of the total cost of shipping.

If it's possible to beef up security along those shipping routes at a reasonable price, that's a great idea--analogous to New Yorkers paying more taxes to increase police foot patrols.

Still, I'm not wild about investing huge amounts of scarce tax dollars to police the Gulf of Aden when private companies have been managing the risk quite well for many years.

AnthonyG, what privileged world do you live in where a land war in Somalia seems like a good idea right now? Are you volunteering?

If we're assuming rationality on the part of the pirates, the last thing they want to resort to is overhwhelming brutality, which would likely result in a decrease of ships coming through the area, thereby presenting fewer chances for piracy.

Not going to happen. If you don't travel via the Suez Canal, you have to go right round the Cape of Good Hope, adding umpteen thousand miles and potentially more than doubling your journey time and fuel costs. Plus the weather gets pretty nasty down there, and I'm pretty sure more ships are lost to weather than piracy. Remember, Britain and France went to war with Egypt over control of the Suez Canal. Nobody's about to give it up over a bunch of pirates.

First para should be quoted. I can't type for shit today.

Nobody in the industry wants to arm the crews because it would be astronomically more expensive and risky to equip and train them and it would be impossible to get insurance under those circumstances. Also, the merchant mariners didn't sign up to fight as irregulars in an anti-pirate army.

Why wouldn't it be possible to get insurance if crews of the ships included armed security personnel? The story you link to claims that it would be impossible, but doesn't say why. It may be the case that it's not economically feasible to use armed crews as part of a counter-pirate strategy. Are you relying on the word of your acquaintance in the industry, or is there some more detailed analysis you could link to?

Eric Jaffa, no offense taken.

Were you thinking perhaps of Iran Air Flight 655? The officers and crew of the Vincennes feared a kamikaze attack (with good reason) but panicked (without); they imagined a hostile plane attacking them with seconds to react. OTOH, while in those years the Navy "martyred" many AK47- and RPG-armed Iranian Revolutionary Guards trying quixotically to attack our warships in speedboats, I don't remember any civilian vessels sunk by mistake.

As for worrying that the atrocious incidents in Iraq you allude to might be repeated at sea, consider that the high seas have no indigenous human population. The exclusionary zone would have to be well publicized to the Somalis to work. Moreover, the demise of the Somali fishing industry from overfishing is commonly cited as a reason some Somalis are resorting to piracy, so no need to worry about fishing boats. And anyway the navies enforcing wouldn't be there to fire on a trawler with nets out, or a sightseeing excursion of Somali nuns or a Somali Diana Naiad's chase boat or a Somali Branson's graphite kayak etc.

Paying off the pirates has thrown fuel onto a rising fire. If a teen who isn't even under military discipline extorts payment by pointing a gun at you with a live round in the chamber, the safety off, and his finger on the trigger, it's no thanks to him if you aren't killed. Piracy should make them sharkmeat, not rich.


The fish stocks and nuke stuff is a lefty red Somali herring.

The society fell apart. Criminals ( Somalis and their foreign friends ) filled the vacuum.

The collapse of Somali society led to more illegality as per waste dumping, and the lack of control over the nation's resources, not the other way around.

Ship owners are loathe to have guns on board period. Quite frankly, they don't trust their crews.

Car jacking is a more apt analogy for this situation. If someone tries to steal your car, do you fight him for it, or do you let him take it and call your insurance company? In some sense, yes, it rewards carjacking--but do we really expect private property owners to risk their lives to make sure that crime doesn't pay?

Maybe we should beef up security around the shipping routes, but let's keep the problem in some semblance of perspective.

The Secretary of Defense says he doesn't see the need to increase security in the region.

Maybe we need a new Secretary of Defense

Ship owners are loathe to have guns on board period. Quite frankly, they don't trust their crews.

Well, this isn't the same as saying that ship owners who want to have armed secruity personnel as an anti-piracy measure can't get insurance. Why wouldn't those owners be able to get insurance?

Also, the presence of armed security aboard the vessel isn't the only alternative. According to an AFP story from 2005, But with companies paying sometimes more than 100,000 US dollars for an armed escort mission, there is undoubtedly demand for extra security from merchant vessels concerned about their vulnerability to pirate attacks.

The same story reports that several industry organizations are critical of the escort vessels, so clearly some shipping companies do regard paying ransoms as better business than defending against pirates. But support for that option is apparently far from universal.

Maybe we need to stop thinking with our limbic systems and conduct a dispassionate analysis of where our real interests lie.

If you have a better anti-piracy plan for the Gulf of Aden, I'm all ears. But keep the following in mind: We're broke, our military is overstretched, and the navy isn't currently equipped to be an effective pirate fighting force.

There's already an international force patrolling the area, but we're dealing with massive expanses of ocean.

Maybe this has been mentioned before, but there are defensive options that can be nearly as good or better than firearms

Water cannons

Electric fences


Parse, I wasn't clear. I haven't read any proposals for armed security guards on merchant ships. That might be a good idea.

However, for the ship owners, it's a cost-benefit analysis. Do they want to pay to put armed guards on every ship on the off chance that the firepower will provide some marginal benefit? How many guards will you need? Is there room for a security force aboard a typical merchant freighter?

I'm guessing it's not cost-effective.

The crew of the Maersk Alabama was trained in defensive anti-pirate tactics, which they used to great effect.

The problem with the "mugger money" analogy is that the pirates aren't individuals launching crimes of opportunity, but parts of sophisticated crime syndicates. A better analogy is "mafia protection fees," many of which are actually paid by businesses and governments operating in that area.

That analogy reveals the core problem here: each time you ransom a ship, you provide new liquid capital to the crime syndicates, enabling them to reinforce their stranglehold on Somalia and to launch both more attacks in general and to be able to risk resources on more sophisticated attacks, leading us into a vicious circle.

That's not to say kill 'em all is the appropriate recourse, just that ransom presents its own substantial problems. In some sense, what just happened was inevitable -- even if you don't take the Navy's story at face value, at some point along the way, pirates were going to take a US crew member hostage, were going to become increasingly agitated as the standoff wore on, and were going to behave in such a way as to convince the tactical commander that they needed to act. Indeed, you could argue that the "protection fee" model inevitably ends up in some sort of breaking point requiring a new strategy.

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