Defense Technology International May 01 , 2010 , p. 32
Naval forces disrupt Somali pirates
Printed headline: Fighting Back
Just after dawn on March 23, as the Panamanian-flagged cargo vessel MV Almezaan was churning toward the port of Mogadishu, Somalia, the ship’s lookouts spotted three boats approaching at high speed. In the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden off the eastern coast of Africa, it was a scene that has played out all too often over the past several years, but this time things would be different. The plan of the two small skiffs manned by seven Somalis and the larger “mother ship,” one surmises, was to board the Almezaan and take its crew hostage. But there was something different about the cargo vessel the pirates would discover too late.
EU boarding party approaches a skiff suspected of being used for piracy.Credit: U.S. NAVY
In the curt language of a press release put out by the European Union Naval Force (Navfor), which is patrolling the waters off the Horn of Africa, here’s what happened next. The cargo ship had a team of private security guards onboard, and when the pirates attacked, they “returned fire, successfully repelling the first attack, but the pirates continued to pursue. A second attack was repelled and the pirates fled the area.” In the end, a Spanish Navfor ship came to the Almezaan’s aid and apprehended the pirates, but not before one had been killed in the firefight—the first time private security forces had slain a pirate.
The piracy epidemic in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean has given rise to a fierce debate over arming crews or stationing security forces aboard commercial ships, an argument that is played out each time the shipping industry’s non-lethal tactics are successfully used. Increasing speed and using diversionary tactics are recommended by industry groups, as are water cannons, sonic blasters, barbed wire and electric fences—all of which have proven to be successful.
Hands up: Suspected pirates surrender to a Navfor boarding party in the Gulf of Aden.Credit: U.S. NAVY
Cmdr. John Harbour, spokesman for Navfor Somalia, says the incident with the MV Almezaan isn’t as much of an outlier as it might appear, since French and Spanish tuna fleets are starting to use armed guards on ships, and “certain ships that have to go near the shore use armed guards.” But the majority of the 25,000 ships that pass through the Gulf of Aden every year do not have armed escorts. “What we do is recommend that they register with the Maritime Security Center, Horn of Africa. When they register there they get advice and guidance on how to self-protect,” he says, adding that with speed and a good lookout most ships can avoid attack.
According to the International Maritime Bureau, Somali pirates attacked 217 vessels in 2009, managing to hijack 47 ships while kidnapping 867 crewmembers. That was a sharp rise from 2008, when there were 125 attacks, with 50 hijackings in the Gulf of Aden.
In 2010, with increased intelligence and more experience, there have only been about 15 attacks, with several successful hijackings. Harbour says that the security effort has been so successful that “we effectively pushed the pirates out of the Gulf of Aden, down the Somali coast and into the Indian Ocean.” Navfor’s “far more aggressive policy” has resulted in the capture of more than 100 pirates this year. The suspects are routinely sent to Kenya and the Seychelles for prosecution, and Tanzania is looking at accepting pirate suspects as well.
One aspect of the increased intelligence-gathering operation, a naval source confirms to DTI, is that some pirate groups have been selling out rivals to the authorities to eliminate competition. Armed with this intelligence, naval forces have a much better idea where the pirates operate from and where they plan on going. During the monsoon season that just ended, knowing that the pirates were going to push farther out to sea to stay away from Navfor and other warships patrolling closer to shore, the naval vessels actually pushed in closer to catch the pirate action groups (two skiffs and a mother ship) as they left shore. Well over 20 such groups have been stopped this year.
Some of the most effective non-lethal techniques to guard against hijackings on the high seas are to string barbed wire around the handrails of the ship, or to lock ladders along the side below the 5-meter (16-ft.) line. In November, the security team aboard the Maersk Alabama (which was hijacked earlier in the year) fended off an attack by using a Long-Range Acoustic Device, which transmits deafening sound, and small-arms fire. Secure-Marine of the Netherlands produces a 9,000-volt electric fence that extends from the rails of a ship. It is being used on 40 commercial vessels worldwide. CEO Raphael Kahn says that for a “mid-sized ship,” the price for the system is in the neighborhood of €50,000 ($67,500). The system, which is controlled from the bridge, comes with two 1,000-watt floodlights and a siren. Both are activated if anything comes in contact with the fence.
Since the pirates have pushed into the Indian Ocean, the problem has become acute for India. In the aftermath of 120 Indian sailors being held for ransom by pirates following the seizure of nine small ships off Somalia, India’s shipping industry is asking for a new strategy to safeguard its vessels. With no weapons on board and no surveillance, small, slow-moving boats called dhows have been among the most susceptible to attacks. “[Dhow] piracy is becoming a major problem. We need a new strategy to tackle it,” said Capt. Harish Khatri, India’s deputy director general of the National Shipping Board, an advisory body to the Shipping Ministry, at a recent conference in Mumbai.
“While pirates do not usually seek ransom from dhow owners, they are attractive vessels for use as mother ships to launch further attacks on merchant vessels,” says an Indian navy spokesman. No merchant ship under the escort of an Indian warship has been hijacked so far, and more than 15 attacks have been prevented by the Indian navy, an official tells DTI.
While the navy is active in dealing with pirates, its hands are tied. From October 2008 to December 2009, it arrested pirates in three incidents, but due to a lack of jurisdiction in international waters, the navy released them. “We have now decided not to take pirates into custody,” the official says. “Keeping them for 15 days onboard is a drain on our rations.”
Meanwhile, the Indian navy has kept a ship in the Maldives and is installing 10 radars across the atolls to assist the country in building a maritime surveillance system. India has also donated the patrol ship Topaz to the Seychelles. With their energy interests coinciding in the Gulf of Aden, India and China are working together to combat pirates through information sharing. “The situation has geopolitical overtones to it, as every nation wants a presence in the Indian Ocean, including China,” says Ranjit Rai of India’s Maritime Foundation.
The Indian navy has an elite antipiracy marine commando group that has thwarted 17 pirate attacks since the force was created in late 2008. Recently, the navy replaced a ship on antipiracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden with one that has an armed helicopter and a commando team. It is the 16th Indian ship deployed since October 2008. During this period, the navy has safely escorted more than 930 merchant ships with over 7,780 Indian crewmembers.
With Neelam Mathews in New Delhi.