On a voyage across the Aegean in 75 BC, Julius Caesar ran afoul of Cilician pirates. Caesar was kidnapped, smuggled to an island stronghold, and held for ransom. As the story goes, Caesar maintained an air of superiority and good cheer throughout his 38-day ordeal, even insisting that the gold for his ransom was too low. The pirates doubled the ransom and the Romans were forced to pay handsomely for his release.
After being set free Caesar did what any self-respecting emperor would do: he raised a fleet, captured the pirates, and had them executed.
Today, not so far from the Eastern Mediterranean where Caesar dispatched his pirate captors, similar scenarios are playing out every week. In the costal regions off Somalia piracy is good business. Ships are frequently hijacked, crews and cargos are held for ransom, and negotiators are pressured into paying ever-larger sums for their release.
One obvious difference is the methods used to deter pirates. Gone are the good old days of gangplanks and executions by imperial order. Today’s navies and Western governments walk a tight rope of international legalities, maritime borders, and public opinion at home. The complexity of the situation makes solutions difficult.
So what to do?
The answer may lie in confronting the pirates directly - though maybe not in the way Caesar would’ve liked to. Today’s solution will require a sustained effort from the existing piracy task force, as well as new measures in a first line of defense aboard commercial ships. Some of these defenses seem straight out of a James Bond flick, but they’re very real and can go a long way in deterring pirates.
But before we get to the technical details, it’s helpful to have a bit of background on the situation.
Colonized first by Britain, then France, and later Italy, Somalia eventually found it’s way into the hands of dictator Siad Barre. During the Cold War Barre was backed by both Russia and the US, but was eventually overthrown in 1991. Clan-based civil war broke out shortly after and rival warlords carved out their own provinces. Following the disaster of Black Hawk Down in 1993, the international community pulled out of Somalia and the country began its unenviable decent into the status of ‘failed state’.
Without a functioning government basic public services are a luxury. In Somalia, an absent Coast Guard allowed international fishing vessels to troll local waters. In the free-for-all that ensued local fishing stocks were quickly decimated.
Local fishermen, plagued by shrinking catches and strange illnesses they believed were caused by illegal toxic dumping, took matters into their own hands. They pursued foreign fishing vessels and began taking them by force. After holding some of crews for ransom, the new pirates realized that hijacking wasn’t a bad way to pay the bills. Soon they were hunting bigger ships for bigger payoffs.
Piracy increased steadily in the region as ransoms grew. In 2006, Somalia reported just 10 cases of piracy. Reports tripled in 2007. In 2008, the situation deteriorated further, culminating in the hijacking of the Ukranian cargo ship, Faina. The Faina was stuffed to the gills with 33 Soviet-designed tanks, small arms, rocket launchers, and munitions. It was a good day to be a pirate.
After the Faina, Western governments finally took notice and a naval task force was set-up to patrol the waters off the Horn of Africa. Initially it had little effect. Piracy continued to increase, doubling in 2008, before peaking at 117 incidents in 2009. Scrambling for a solution, navies, shipping companies, and the UN began coordinating their efforts in an attempt to reduce the attacks and bring down the costs of piracy, now estimated at $7-12 billion per year.
Militarily the situation is a logistical nightmare. The Gulf of Aden covers an area four-times the size of Texas, while the Somali coastline stretches the entire length of the Eastern seaboard. There’s just no way that the existing task force can effectively patrol the entire area. What’s more, any intercepted pirates are often just released at sea. There’s no effective legal apparatus within which to prosecute them.
The situation on land isn’t any better. Costal communities lack opportunities for alternative livelihoods and youth are attracted by the promise of European cars and fancy villas. According to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “Although piracy manifests itself at sea, the roots of the problem are to be found ashore…. piracy is a criminal offence that is driven by economic hardship, and that flourishes in the absence of effective law enforcement.” If Ban is right, only a focused international effort to help rebuild Somalia and revitalize its fisheries can ever hope to stamp out piracy. But that’s not going to happen.
In the world of commercial shipping and national defense budgets, we need a solution with immediate results; and we need it cheap.
Until now shipping companies have resisted bearing the costs of protecting individual vessels. Instead they look to lobby international governments for greater security in the region. That security has come, but pirate risks remain high. Insurance prices are now climbing and shippers are beginning to look for additional solutions to reduce the risk of hijacking.
Individual ship defenses are the simplest and most cost effective way to reduce the problem. The first steps have already been taken. Since 2009, for example, slower ships sailing through the Gulf of Aden have formed convoys to be escorted by warships. A channel has also been secured, 450 nautical miles long by 20 wide, to help grant ships safe passage. Combined with increased naval surveillance and drones, hijackings were cut in half during 2010. But there’s more to do.
Ships traveling in hazardous areas, especially those far from naval forces, should be defending themselves through a number of measures. The industry-approved, Best Practices Manual, for dealing with pirates recommends using barbed wire on ship railings, electrified barriers, high-slip paint for side walls, and maneuvering tactics that increase a boarding pirate’s exposure to wind, waves and stern wash. Combined with the spray of heavy water cannons usually used to extinguish fires, water curtains, and loud sonic devices, these measures add up to a substantial deterrent against boarding pirates.
If pirates do board the ship, crew may retreat to an onboard ‘citadel’; a secure lock-down area within the ship where crew can take refuge and wait safely until naval forces arrive.
Most ships use some but not all of these measures. The main reason is cost. Presently, it’s cheaper for shipping companies to roll the dice and pay for a single hijacked ship than it is to make ships safe. But these costs don’t account for diplomatic missions, military resources, or the personal well-being of captured crew. Were the shipping companies on the hook for these additional costs, the price of barbed wire and water cannons would start to look like a good deal.
Piracy today is different than it was in Caesar’s day, but like then, solutions aren’t complex they’re near at hand. The best practices listed above need to become the industry standard. They can't solve the root causes of piracy, but when used with naval forces already in the area, piracy can be prevented in all but the most extreme cases.
Here's an example of an LRAD (long range acoustic device) in use.