The seizure by Somali pirates on September 25, 2008, of the Faina, a Ukrainian-flagged vessel transporting 33 Russian tanks and depleted uranium ammunition to Kenya for consignment delivery to the Sudan People's Liberation Army was startling in its audacity and haul. Even more alarming, however, was the November hijacking of the 1,000-foot supertanker Sirius Star. The Liberian-flagged vessel, owned by Saudi Arabia's Aramco, was carrying more than $100 million in oil to the United States when pirates seized the ship and its 25 crew members some 400 miles out to sea, then motored for the Somali coast and dropped anchor. Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was stunned by the capture, which sent shocks through global energy markets. The seizure of a supertanker was unprecedented, and the daring attack so far from shore suggested the pirates were using the shipping industry's open-access automatic identification system (AIS) to intercept merchant ships. Merchant ships on international voyages are required to transmit AIS locational data, but criminal gangs at sea operating commercial equipment can receive these signals as easily as do naval forces and maritime law enforcement--and use it to target ships. Since January, more than 97 ships have been hijacked in the dangerous waters off Somalia and Yemen, and the ransom for some vessels can fetch into the millions of dollars.
Maritime piracy is experiencing a renaissance not seen since the period of the Barbary pirates. Instability from maritime piracy in the Gulf of Aden is sending ripples throughout the global supply chain, which is already reeling from the collapse of shipping rates brought on by the worldwide economic slowdown. The Baltic Dry Index, which measures the cost of shipping most commodities other than oil, has plummeted to its lowest level in six years and has fallen 93 percent from its peak in May 2008. Indeed, the surge in piracy is coming at the worst time for the shipping industry. More problematic, the resurgence is occurring along critical sea lanes: 20,000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden adjacent to the Indian Ocean each year, transporting cargo that includes 12 percent of the world's daily oil supply.
While it is impossible to eradicate maritime piracy completely, the threat can be greatly reduced if we broaden efforts to work with international partners. Significantly reducing criminal acts at sea in an area that stretches the distance from Miami to Maine, however, poses significant logistical, operational, and political challenges which require us to work smarter, not harder. This means that although there have been greater calls for expanded naval patrols in the western Indian Ocean, these efforts will not be effective until we change the way we address the problem. What is needed now is a network of shipping states, regional partners, and major maritime powers that can collaborate on how to respond to piracy attacks.
Out of Control
Piracy in the Gulf of Aden is "out of control," reports Captain Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau. The area is the unfortunate home to the highest risk of maritime piracy in the world. To counter the threat, nations for the first time have begun to employ maritime power in the Horn of Africa. Warships from NATO and the European Union have deployed to the Gulf of Aden to conduct patrols or participate in the multinational Combined Task Force 150. Naval forces from the United Kingdom, Canada, Turkey, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, and other countries have also deployed to the area. Furthermore, the private military security contractor Blackwater has made available to commercial shippers in the Gulf of Aden the services of a security escort ship that includes a helicopter, as an organic naval aviation capability is essential for ships to conduct effective maritime security operations. Although the vessel will not be armed, it will carry armed security personnel who can operate from rigid hull inflatable boats.
These patrols have had limited success. In November, Russia, Britain, and India separately thwarted multiple piracy attacks. During the summer and fall of 2008, the U.S. Fifth Fleet and an associated coalition task force repelled two dozen pirate attacks. But for every success there are many attacks that go undeterred, and the pirates have only become bolder. Because of the vast geographic swath--2.5 million square miles--naval forces are simply unable to prevent most attacks. Moreover, once pirates successfully board and hijack a ship, they take the crew hostage and threaten to sink the vessel, limiting options by on-scene warships to rescue the crew and free the boat. Incredibly, nearly 600 seafarers were taken hostage in 2008 and 250 of them and dozens of ships are still being held for ransom by pirates in the area of Harardhere, Somalia. The situation is reminiscent of the Barbary pirates who terrorized the Mediterranean Sea from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, seizing vessels, cargo, and hostages from European and American ships, and exacting ransom and tribute from governments and private individuals. Vice Admiral William E. Gortney, commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet which plies the waters of the Arabian Gulf and Horn of Africa, notes that coalition warships patrolling the Gulf of Aden have been so frustrated by piracy attacks against merchant shipping that commercial vessels will have to assume that, if attacked, they are on their own. After Sirius Star was seized, Odfjell, a leading Norwegian shipping group, suspended transits through the area due to concerns over safety. Danish shipper Maersk, one of the world's largest, is considering forgoing the Suez Canal and routing ships around the Cape of Good Hope in order to avoid piracy-prone Somalia. In either case, the cost of shipping and the time of transit--an additional two weeks at sea--would increase greatly.
In 2006, the British Parliament concluded that the growth in piracy over the past decade represents an "appalling amount of violence against the maritime community." Maritime piracy, which includes hostage-taking or kidnapping, even murder, imposes human and economic costs on shippers which deter legitimate marine commerce upon which our economies so deeply depend. In the Indian and Pacific Oceans, maritime piracy costs shipping companies some $13-$15 billion annually in losses. In recent months, insurance rates have soared. Premiums for a single transit through the Gulf of Aden, for example, have risen from $500 to as much as $20,000. Beyond the immediate threat to crews, property, and ships, maritime piracy endangers sea lines of communication, interferes with freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce, and undermines regional stability. Piracy also is corrosive to political and social development in Africa, interrupting capital formation and economic development, abetting corruption, and empowering private armies. Left unchecked, the cumulative effect of piracy eventually can lead to the decline of vibrant commercial centers. In the late sixteenth century, for example, piracy from Algerian and Tunisian corsairs triggered an irreversible decline in the viability of Venice as a trading city state. Today, burgeoning piracy off the coast of East Africa is imperiling mariners, weakening the global shipping industry, and has the potential to disrupt the flow of oil to the world economy.
The American Experience
Since its founding, the United States has fought maritime piracy and championed the freedom of the seas. Piracy prompted President George Washington to launch the U.S. Navy by building six frigates to operate against the corsairs that preyed on Western shipping in the Mediterranean. Many of the most important federal court cases in the nineteenth century involved piracy. Throughout this period, U.S. and European warships and privateers were successful in arresting piracy. These efforts relied on a robust application of the law of prize, in which pirate vessels and cargo could be seized and forfeited. During the first half of the twentieth...