How to Beat the Pirates

It’s time for a rethink on tackling Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. We can start by targeting mother ships.

By Gabe Collins for

Following is a guest entry from China SignPost co-founder Gabe Collins.


The South Korean and Malaysian Navies’ recent use of commandos to retake ships held by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean suggests an increasing openness to more aggressive anti-piracy tactics.

Piracy’s human and economic costs—$7 billion to $12 billion annually, according to Oceans Beyond Piracy—are clearly unacceptable. It’s time for global navies to bottle the Somali pirates up by denying them the use of the large ‘mother ships’ that allow them to threaten shipping hundreds of miles at sea. Such moves, combined with rules of engagement that permit operations against pirates’ safe havens on shore, would help slash the pirates’ operational range and restore the freedom of navigation in key shipping lanes near the Horn of Africa. 

Neutralizing the ‘mother ships’ Somali pirates use to support their operations far out into the Indian Ocean can shrink the threat zone to a more manageable belt within 150 miles or so of the Somali coast. Coalition forces can bottle mother ships up in port by stationing warships within visual range of major Somali ports like Mogadishu, Kismayo, and Berbera, as well as known pirate bases such as Eyl and Garacad and prohibiting vessels longer than 35 feet from leaving port without being boarded and searched.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Somalia's coastline is long, but features only a handful of ports and fishing anchorages large and busy enough for pirates to easily conceal their activities among legitimate commercial and fishing operations. The worsening pirate threat to international shipping justifies maritime checkpoints that permit registered food aid and other legitimate traffic to pass through but curtail passage of potential mother ships. Such a strategy would also make much more effective use of naval assets in the area. Forty-odd warships are hard pressed to effectively patrol a piracy danger zone that’s now approaching 1.5 million square miles in area—roughly three times larger than the Gulf of Mexico.

Restricting large vessel traffic around suspected pirate ports could flush pirates out and force them into new areas where they are less likely to enjoy reliable protective networks and intimate knowledge of the terrain. This would make them more vulnerable to air strikes and special forces raids. Naval forces in the region should also be given looser rules of engagement, particularly with respect to hot pursuit of suspected pirates. As things currently stand, pirates are safe once they reach Somali territorial waters. This is a highly artificial limitation, given that Somalia lacks a functioning national government.

Allowing coalition forces to pursue pirates up to the beach and engage them on land will help eliminate safe havens. US warships and AC-130 gunships have already struck suspected al-Qaeda targets in Somalia, so precedents do exist for taking kinetic action against non-state threats on land in the area. In addition, French commandos went ashore in April 2008 to capture pirates that had attacked the French yacht MY Le Ponant earlier that month.

With fewer pirate ships able to reach distant shipping lanes, the coalition can use high-endurance UAVs like the RQ-4 GlobalHawk and long-range patrol aircraft to locate and pinpoint suspected pirate vessels, warn shippers, and vector boarding teams to those vessels. Aircraft can identify suspicious vessels far out at sea and patrol large swathes of ocean much more quickly and cost-effectively than surface vessels can. If necessary, many of these aircraft can carry a range of weapons capable of destroying or disabling a sizeable ship. Djibouti or Kenya could likely accommodate UAVs and additional long-range patrol aircraft involved in anti-piracy missions.

Restoring maritime order off the Horn of Africa is a vital global strategic interest and should commence as quickly as possible.  All trading nations benefit from the ability to move goods between markets as safely and efficiently as possible.  American naval leadership and credibility are also at stake, with key implications for maritime security in the Asia Pacific region. Since the end of the Second World War, the US Navy has provided the public good of ensuring safe transit along key global shipping lanes. A system of maritime checkpoints would require close operational coordination and offers key Asian naval forces including the Chinese, Indian, Japanese, South Korean, and US Navies an excellent opportunity for cooperation and trust building working against a common threat.

If the pirate threat isn’t curbed, leaders in China and other emerging powers may conclude that they need independent, globally-capable naval forces to protect their growing maritime interests. This could usher in an era of destructive naval competition and instability. Denying pirates access to mother ships and pursuing them on land offers a better way to utilize the existing international naval assets in the region and reduce the pirate threat to international shipping. 

Gabe Collins is the co-founder of China SignPost and a former commodity investment analyst and research fellow in the US Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].