Gen. Chen Bingde’s instincts on how to battle piracy are sound. Hopefully his, and his political superiors’, strategic judgment is equally sound. “For counterpiracy campaigns to be effective,” declared the chief of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff, “we should probably move beyond the ocean and crash their bases on the land.” He wants to lop the head off the snake. “It’s important,” argued Chen, “that we target not only the operators, those on the small ships or craft conducting the hijacking activities, but also the figureheads.” And indeed, taking more offensive, more decisive action makes intuitive sense – so much so that in late 2008, as the international community bestirred itself to combat piracy, the United Nations explicitly authorized member states to act against coastal villages from which corsairs stage sea raids.
Of late, the international community has remained mum about carrying the fight ashore. Since 2008, periodic U.N. Security Council resolutions renewing the counterpiracy mission’s mandate have made no mention of it. That’s probably because few political or military leaders are enthusiastic about putting boots on the ground in Somalia. It has no constituency within the Security Council. Why should U.N. ambassadors endure the hassle of negotiating potentially controversial language if no one intends to act on it? If Beijing is serious about offensive action, nevertheless, it can probably convince the council to renew the mandate for land operations. There is precedent.
Assailing pirate bases appears lawful, but is it wise? There’s the rub. I’ve urged constabulary forces to stay on the strategic defensive in the Gulf of Aden unless the situation worsens dramatically. That hasn’t happened. Statistically speaking, maritime brigandage remains a nuisance relative to the massive volume of shipping through the western Indian Ocean. There were 27 hijackings, 17 boardings, and 122 foiled attacks last year by the Office of Naval Intelligence’s count. Compare that to the roughly 20,000 ships that transit regional sea lanes each year. NATO, the European Union, a U.S.-led task force, and several independent naval contingents patrol these waters in an effort to keep an “internationally recommended transit corridor” clear of pirate vessels. But the Gulf is so big, the adversary so dispersed, and the number of warships so modest that the multinational squadron is spread thin. Consequently, the best way to protect shipping is for ships to defend themselves. To date no merchantman defended by an armed detachment – usually from a private security firm hired by the shipper – has successfully been hijacked.
While defensive measures are wearisome, the offensive strategy Chen Bingde prescribes would entail hazards of its own – which is why careful forethought should go into any decision to attack piracy at its source. Strategic theorist Carl von Clausewitz maintains that the value statesmen place on their political aims should govern how many lives and how much treasure a belligerent expends on an enterprise, and for how long. The higher the stakes, the greater the effort. Clausewitzian cost/benefit logic warns against paying a heavy price for meager gains. Piracy is bothersome but poses too small a threat to justify a prolonged, costly entanglement on China’s – or anyone else’s – part. If the stakes are low but Beijing decides to go ashore anyway, its challenge will be to design expeditionary operations that fulfill its goals at low cost and risk.
Chen entertains two basic approaches: assaults on bases and targeted strikes at pirate chieftains. To my mind, the latter makes a better fit for a venture driven by modest political objectives. Vice Admiral Mark Fox, commander of the Bahrain-based U.S. Fifth Fleet, has proposed applying the counterterror model to Somali piracy. That presumably involves everything from gathering actionable intelligence to unraveling pirate finances to taking down key leaders. Admiral Fox sees such an approach as natural given mounting evidence of collusion between the corsairs and al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated terror group striving to topple the Somali Transitional Federal Government. “Al-Shabab is responsible for a lot of training activity and camps and that sort of thing in Somalia,” notes Fox. “The pirates use these things. There cannot be a segregation between terrorist activity, in my mind, and counterpiracy.”
Counterterrorism is one “economy of force” option, but other low-cost, low-risk alternatives are available as well. Last Friday, the European Union took one commonsense step. In the course of renewing Operation Atalanta, the EU naval contingent off the Horn of Africa, EU defense ministers empowered naval commanders cruising along Somali shores to take boats, fuel dumps, and other targets of opportunity under fire. Chen’s ambitious vision of completely eradicating pirate bases is more problematic. Putting a permanent end to this scourge would seemingly require Chinese soldiers or marines to go ashore – and stay there. Coastal raids would do little good. Villages could be cleared readily enough, but would they stay cleared? In all likelihood the brigands, already a dispersed lot, would simply scatter at the approach of foreign troops and return later. History has been unkind to the come-and-go approach. On the other hand, establishing a sustained presence along the coast would start to resemble a counterinsurgency campaign, with all the hardships and perils that mode of warfare entails.
That’s not a choice Chinese leaders should relish. One hopes Beijing undertakes some hardnosed Clausewitzian thinking before seizing the offensive against piracy.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. He traveled to The Hague in 2009 to brief EU Naval Force commanders on counterpiracy strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.