WASHINGTON: The U.S. military will continue its efforts to help thwart acts of piracy off the coast of Somalia, but merchant-ship-supplied security is the best short-term defense, a senior Defense Department official told Capitol Hill legislators here today.
“Our goal is to encourage all vessels to take appropriate security measures to protect themselves from pirates,” Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy, told Senate Armed Services Committee members.
“We will continue to respond when U.S.-flagged vessels and U.S. citizens are attacked by pirates,” Flournoy continued. “But when ships have effective on-board security measures in place, the vast majority of attempted pirate attacks can be thwarted without any need for military intervention.”
Therefore, the U.S. military’s main task with regard to piracy, Flournoy said, is “to help commercial carriers turn their ships into hard targets.”
About 78 percent of pirate attacks on merchant vessels transiting the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen were thwarted by the ships’ crews, Flournoy pointed out.
More than 33,000 vessels transit the Gulf of Aden area each year, Flournoy said. In 2008, she said, pirates achieved 42 successful attacks out of 122 attempts. And the relatively low instance of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden region, Flournoy said, “does have implications for how we allocate military resources.” Military or law enforcement interventions, she noted, played a role in thwarting pirates in only 22 percent of unsuccessful assaults.
“This highlights the fact that the single most effective short-term response to piracy will be working with merchant shipping lines to ensure that the vessels in the region take appropriate security measures,” Flournoy said. Such security measures, she said, can be passive or active in nature.
Passive anti-pirate security measures may include maintaining good communications with maritime security authorities, varying routes, avoiding high-risk areas, removal of external ladders, posting look-outs, limiting lighting, rigging barriers and other tactics, she said.
Commercial shipping companies also may opt to adopt active anti-pirate security measures, Flournoy said, such as rigging fire hoses to repel pirates or maintaining professional civilian armed security teams aboard ships.
The U.S. Congress could be engaged to offer tax credits so merchant shipping firms could more easily invest in anti-pirate measures, Flournoy said.
From the Defense Department’s viewpoint, Flournoy said, confronting piracy off the coast of Somalia involves components of deterrence, disruption and interdiction, and prosecution.
However, she said, combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden region is a challenging endeavor for several reasons:
- The geographic area is vast; the Somalia-based pirates operate in a region of more than one million square nautical miles, making it difficult for naval or law enforcement authorities to reach the scene of a pirate attack quickly enough to thwart it.
- The causes of Somali piracy are rooted to the poverty and instability that continues to plague that country.
- International law recognizes a country’s right to arrest pirates and put them on trial. However, some nations still lack a viable system of laws or an effective judicial system to prosecute pirates.
- Many merchant shipping firms believe, unrealistically, that military forces always will be present to thwart pirate attacks. Consequently, many firms are unwilling to make investments to outfit their vessels with anti-pirate security measures.
Most merchant vessels plying the Gulf of Aden’s waters that are prepared and equipped to thwart pirate attacks successfully do so, Navy Vice Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s director for strategic plans and policy, told committee members.
“The majority of ships, notably those with high access points and reasonable rates of speed,” Winnefeld said, “are able to defend themselves quite well, without any kind of assistance, using the relatively simple passive measures that we’ve discussed.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. military will continue its longer-term efforts to prevent and punish those who commit piracy off Somalia’s coast, Flournoy said.
“We will work with allies and regional states to develop their capacity to control the seas and protect their own shipping and we will encourage them to take any steps necessary to prosecute pirates in their own courts,” Flournoy said. “And we will work, when possible, with Somali authorities to address the on-shore components of piracy – tracking pirates’ investors and safe havens.”