Taming Piracy’s Wild West

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Taming Piracy’s Wild West

Merchant crews travelling in the waters off Somalia should consider arming themselves in the name of self-help.

Huzzah! to the South Korean and Malaysian warriors who took down pirates in the Gulf of Aden last week. On Friday, commandos dispatched from the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) destroyer Choi Young boarded the Norwegian-owned, South Korean-operated chemical carrier Samho Jewelry about 800 miles off the Somali coast. Corsairs had hijacked the merchantman in the Arabian Sea, testifying to their audacity and expanding radius of action. Supported by a nearby Lynx helicopter and an Omani patrol boat, the ROKN force liberated 21 crewmen, killing eight pirates and capturing an additional five in the process.

Hard on the heels of the Samho Jewelry rescue, Malaysian Royal Navy commandos boarded the Malaysian-flagged tanker Bung Laurel. Backed up by an orbiting attack helicopter, the boarding party exchanged fire with the Bung Laurel’s hijackers. The commando force apprehended seven brigands in the course of freeing 23 merchant mariners.

Sadly, the international response was swift and disappointingly familiar. By January 25, a few days after the apparent triumph on board the Samho Jewelry, South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung Hwan felt compelled to take to the airwaves to defend the ROKN’s use of force. Voice of America News reported that European naval officials had voiced concern ‘that taking military action against pirates endangers kidnapped mariners.’ Official policy in Seoul prohibits negotiating with pirates. European navies, by contrast, are wedded almost entirely to passive defence measures intended to harden commercial ships against pirate boarding and attack. Most crews are unarmed, but they can do things like steer evasive courses, remove ladders from the sides of their vessels, rig barriers of various kinds to block access to the decks, or simply transit through pirate-infested waters at high speed.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this. Shipping firms must keep improving passive defences on board their ships. But what if marauders penetrate the defensive shell? Many Europeans oppose more forceful measures to protect shipping. A warship or aircraft from one of the naval contingents plying the western Indian Ocean will respond if it receives word of a hijacking attempt and happens to be within range. However, it’s by no means a foregone conclusion that a man-of-war will be nearby, considering how thin multinational forces are spread in the vastness of the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea.

In 2009, I travelled to the Clingendael Institute of International Relations, The Hague, to brief Dutch Navy commanders before they assumed operational control of the European Union Naval Force Somalia, or EUNAVFOR. Here’s how I put it to the EUNAVFOR representatives.

The Gulf of Aden and adjoining waters are sparsely governed territory, like the 19th century American West. Lawmen are too few and too far between to fully stamp out anarchy. Banditry runs wild. Townsfolk either take up arms in lawless times or submit to it. Transposing the analogy from the Wild West to today’s Indian Ocean, it only makes sense for those who pass through anarchic seaways to arm themselves. By defending themselves, merchant crews can ward off seafaring bandits until the ‘marshal,’ a navy ship bearing unbeatable firepower, arrives on scene to restore law and order to the nautical thoroughfare.

In modern terms, arming merchantmen connotes stationing marines or other government forces on vessels transiting the region, hiring private security firms to perform the same function, or issuing firearms to crewmen. Ragtag Somali pirates could hardly compete with trained, well-equipped forces. My analogy fell on largely deaf ears, but there’s a European precedent that also warrants rediscovering. A century ago, historian Sir Julian Corbett pointed out that ‘all the maritime republics’ of Renaissance Europe made it ‘a standing order’ that ‘no merchant vessel must go to sea without an armament of guns in proportion to its tonnage.’ Ships’ armament ‘continually increased,’ and it did so mainly ‘with a view to their individual safety from pirates.’ Then, as now, merchant skippers simply couldn’t count on navy protection. The oceans are too vast, and the number and reach of ships too small in even the most overbearing fleet.

The logic of self-help, then, is neither new nor peculiarly American. South Korean and Malaysian fighting men have established a template for no-nonsense response to piracy. If merchant crews can tend to their own defence, navies will seldom need to resort to such tactics again.


James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.