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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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You make a good point, Max. These are international crime syndicates. I wonder how far we'd get if we sunk more resources into anti-moneylaundering and arms trading enforcement, the way we've done with other international criminal organizations. You could pay a lot of investigators and prosecutors for the cost of dispatching the USS Bainbridge.

Lindsay, you said that ship owners couldn't get insurance if their crews were armed. Who says they can't they get insurance if their crews are armed, and do they give any explanation as to why?


I'm in the insurance industry ( not marine ) and there would be an insurability issue if the crews were armed.

Crews are from many nations, and they don't always love one another. If everyone was armed, a beef could become something bad, easier.

Also, many ports are thought to not want armed crews on visiting ships.

Perhaps the issue will be revisited, but thats how it is now.

Here's an interesting article from Business Insurance that explains the pros and cons of having firearms aboard merchant ships.

Some owners and underwriters are challenging the conventional wisdom and experimenting with armed guards, but most owners are adamant about the no guns rule.

If you're an employer and you want to train your employees to use deadly force in an emergency, you have to pay to insure against all kinds of bad things that might happen as a result. Insurance companies are not going to look kindly on any scheme that involves putting weapons in the hands of minimally trained civilian crew members. There's just so much that could go expensively wrong--anything from accidents to Blackwater-style abuse of force to battle wounds. Insurance companies aren't charities, if you want protection against those kinds of expensive mishaps, you have to pay for it.

Piracy is a low-frequency event. There were fewer than 300 incidents last year in the Gulf of Aden. The vast majority of vessels get through just fine. Arming crews would be expensive and you'd have to do it on every trip. It's probably a hell of a lot cheaper to let insurance pay the occasional ransom if defensive measures fail.

I subscribe to that publication - you are looking in the right place.

Billions for defense, not one penny for tribute ( to paraphrase the old saying ) The right amount of ransom to pay is zero.

Fewer than 300 incidents is not a small number in my book

Most people in Detroit will never be murdered, but that does not mean that the murder rate in Detroit is acceptable

Dabodius: the point that "The exclusionary zone would have to be well publicized to the Somalis to work" is counterfactual. Governments are terrible at doing this sort of outreach well outside their core constituencies, and militaries are especially bad. The US didn't fail to have stop signs in Arabic at checkpoints in Iraq, leading to civilian cars being fired on, because of a delusion; it did because of a functional weakness in the way army checkpoints are run.

Dunc: the volume of shipping could go down. The cost may be just 1%, but it's unpredictable. Insurance companies can spread the risk around, but crews may demand raises, shipping companies may be afraid to put their best ships on the route, etc.

Providing ransom funding is immoral and will lead to continued growth in piracy. I don't want to fund this crime, I want to destroy it.

The international policing model runs into three problems: (1) local enforcement is abysmal; (2) the "law" of grabbing a foreign pirate and trying them elsewhere is not much clearer than the "law" of grabbing a foreign terrorist and doing the same; and, most importantly (3) there's no shortage of young men in desperate circumstances willing to risk their life for a chance at making a fortune.

In many ways, the pirates and Al Qaeda (and the drug cartels and even many urban US gangs) are one and the same problem: what on earth do you do about sophisticated, well-funded criminal organizations operating out of places unwilling or unable to police them? Stepping back, there is not that much difference between Al Qaeda's protection by the Pakistani intelligence forces, Somali pirates effective immunity from Somali government, and the terrible effectiveness of "stop snitching" in the urban US.

Odds are, the results of the "police enforcement" route would be, in the best case scenario, akin to Mexico and Colombia's drug enforcement efforts. Sure, you'll catch plenty of kingpins, each of which will be instantly replaced.

I think we need a lot of comprehensive measures at once -- and I agree with Peter Pham (link below) that "Somalis are going to have to step up," the question is how we give them legs to do that. IIRC, our last major intervention into Somalia did not get such a warm reception.

(My apologies for being such a downer; I think Noah at Danger Room had it right with the "few options" post, unless you believe we ask the Chinese to reveal their dolphin defense system!)

There's been no change in policy. This was a US-flagged vessel with a US crew. Only five percent of the world merchant fleet is registered in the US, because it's much cheaper to fly under a flag of convenience with a crew of Indonesians or whatever. (Most US merchant ships are carrying military or other government cargoes. The Maersk Alabama was carrying humanitarian aid.)

So usually when a ship is hijacked for ransom, the US Navy's response is, it's not our problem, if the Panamanian navy wants to intervene that's fine with us.

But this was an American ship with an American crew. The last time a US-flagged ship was taken by pirates was in 1815, and we went to war with the Barbary Pirates as a result. (That's what the Marines were doing on "the shores of Tripoli.")

So a military response to the hijacking of an American vessel has been the consistent policy for two centuries. No change in strategy at all.

Cool -- for more on the pirate crisis and Obama's military policy, check out

Come visit!

That is an interesting article, Lindsay, and it's at odds with your claim that 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.

The article says that only a minority of people in the industry want armed personnel aboard the ship but that the number is growing. It also reports: Still, it appears insurance policies generally do not prohibit the use of firearms aboard ships.

"There's nothing (in marine insurance policies) right now to the best of my knowledge that excludes you from arming yourself," said E. Anthony Cowie, an Armonk, New York-based senior vp at Swiss Reinsurance Co. and a hub head for marine. "Maybe that's a question underwriters need to be asking themselves."

Has the position of the event been reported? Was it within 200 miles of the Somali coastline or beyond that? The range of these pirates can't be that great so staying further offshore would lessen the likelihood of piracy. This may not be possible in the Red Sea but I suspect the staying further off will lessen these events. Of course staying close to shore might be a more direct course and this might have to change.

Its not just the terms and conditions of the insurance policy - its what you tell the insurer when negotiating the policy

If the underwriter does not like your procedures he won't write your risk in the first place

Of course you wouldn't deliver a diplomatic note and then rely on the Somali government to publicize the exclusion zone, Alon Levy --AIUI, there is no Somali government worthy of the name, hence the piracy problem. But wouldn't broadcasts, the web, and leaflet drops to coastal settlements suffice? The literate, the wired, and the radio'd would spread the word.

AP reports today:

"Pirate attacks in the region have rapidly increased lately, according to the International Maritime Bureau. In less than four months this year, there have been 79 attacks, compared to 111 for all of 2008. In 2003, there were only 21 attacks by Somalis in this expanse of water. Last year pirates took 815 sailors hostage and hijacked 42 ships."

Rewarding piracy has only made more of it. Better to try killing it off. Avarice motivates the pirates, not zeal or ideology or their patriotic figleaf; they are "rational" in the grotesque, economic sense. Now they expect their crime to pay. If instead they expected it to get them killed, shouldn't we expect it to stop?

Correlation doesn't necessarily imply causation.

The pirate threat has been around for a long time, as has the tradition of unarmed merchant ships. There's been a recent spike in pirate attacks, but the incentives haven't changed. Dramatic events capture our attention but they can blind us to the real odds.

Military historian and navy buff Robert Farley thinks that the increase is attributable to deterioration of the security situation in Somalia itself. Piracy has actually declined compared to what it was in the early nineties.

ThePhantom I got that information from the Independent (uk) via HuffPost

http:/ /

It's also well known and documented that toxic waste was dumped on the west coast of africa, I don't find it hard to believe that it was dumped in Somalia too. The fishing thing has been on CNN.

Martin: if it's just a response to toxic waste, then why is there piracy in Somalia and Indonesia but not West Africa?

Dabodius: there is such a thing as total deprivation of information - literacy, radio, and television - especially in Somalia, which according to the CIA Factbook has 38% literacy. If early warnings employed by the US in Iraq (with 74% literacy) and Israel in the Gaza Strip (with 92% literacy) have not prevented massive civilian deaths, why do you think early warnings will work in Somalia?

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