Whether to Protect the Sea or Protect the Ships?

The capture by pirates of another super tanker, the Greek-owner MV Maran Centurus, approximately 800 nm off the coast of Somalia was reported this week by the BBC. The BBC report quotes Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group think-tank Rashid Abdi as saying “the world's navies has made little difference to the problem of piracy. So I don't think the solution is in building the naval deployment there, or increasing the naval deployment.”

The commander of the EU Naval Counter Piracy Force, Rear-Admiral Peter Hudson, is also voicing the opinion that naval options are unproductive (original on-line source no longer available): "The news of a few days ago of a 300,000-ton tanker being seized is illustrative of the problems in protecting and policing an area of the world's oceans that amounts to an area of about 1 million square miles."  The article quotes Hudson as saying, “the EU force will never fully secure such a large area. The EU Naval Force's strategy in the smaller Gulf of Aden is to lengthen the amount of time it takes pirates to get on board so that a warship or helicopter can be dispatched to the scene.”

The obvious problem here is one that has been repeated previously many times in the practice of the protection of trade.  The idea that the ‘sea must be controlled’ instead of ‘the ships must be protected’ has led to many misguided efforts at such things as ‘sea control’ or ‘defended lanes’ and ‘patrol boxes’.  During the Second World War attempts at ‘offensive interception patrols’ in the Bay of Biscay by both aircraft and surface warships proved to highly cost intensive and very ineffective.  Meanwhile, the ships themselves lacked for escorts, and the losses continued.  The analysis of these failures was not registered, evidently, as the Cold War saw many similar plans resurrected but never put to the acid test.

Now the same thing is happening, although the threat is not akin to the one from the historical examples cited.  However, the principle is exactly the same.  Until close and continuous escort is provided for the shipping in the recognized danger area the losses will continue.  Arguments against convoying will obviously arise, just as they always have in the past.  The basic problem is that patrolling activities or stationing boxes will never be reactive enough to address the problem.

The IMO has the authority to institute an international danger area and to order merchant shipping to accept direction from military authority, which the IMO can designate.  Such protection can be provided by armed parties put onboard, by the direction of shipping around known danger areas, and by the close or distant escort of shipping.  Using evasive routing and distant escort techniques is entirely reliant upon accurate intelligence of the enemy’s location, strength and intentions.  As the recent history shows, such actionable intelligence is sadly lacking.  Until it does become available, the only effect answer is the same as it has always been: convoying.