A strong voice demands change in anti-piracy operations

The Hong Kong Shipowners’ Association (HKSOA) has released what is described as “a furious statement” condemning the current organizational construct and tactical practices employed by naval forces to prevent piratical activities off the Horn of Africa.  They accuse the international community of “tolerating piracy instead of eliminating attacks” and “sending out the message that piracy carries little risk for generous reward.”  The HKSOA has demanded “a more robust approach from the international community.”

One analyst, from Tactical Defense Concepts (Maritime), reports “This is a stance that will resonate across the shipping industry that is becoming increasingly frustrated with pirates who seem able to operate with impunity. Military patrols in the Gulf of Aden have prevented many attacks but the pirates have simply moved far out to sea.” Patrols, vice escort, seems to be the basis of their objection to the current plans.

The advent of ‘group transit’ tactics (convoying by any other name) by some of the naval contingents in the region is a very welcome development.  Cdr. Trim’s post reports that they are being undertaken by “nations like China, India, and Japan.”   Not being members of the various naval coalitions operating under the task force construct likely compels these nations to accept one of the only tasks open to them.  There has always been a resistance to escort operations, vice independent patrols, amongst navies.

Convoying has always been viewed as a lower order of naval work than patrolling.  Canadian author Ken Macpherson characterized accurately the general perception of convoy work before the Second World War among professional destroyermen in the Canadian navy: “The 1939-45 war was to change [Canadian plans for offensive ‘hunting’ patrols by groups of destroyers against enemy surface raiders] and see most of them, like thoroughbreds in harness, cast in the plodding role of watchdog to trade convoys.”  (Macpherson, The River Class Destroyers, p.15).  There has never been (to this point) an effective alternative to group transit when the enemy holds so many operational and tactical advantages as they do now.  The escort system must extend to the limits of the danger area, so far as it is known.  In this case, it is somewhat limited.  In other cases, it has been much more extensive.

The idea of navies engaging in a global system of trade protection has repeatedly been rejected by naval leaders.  Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond felt strongly that there was just such a requirement. But, he had already been declared something of a heretic for his unconventional views on the size and missions for capital ships during the inter-war period and he was dismissed summarily when, quoting President Franklin Roosevelt, Richmond advocated for “a navy not only to protect our shores and our possessions, but our merchant ships in time of war, no matter where they go” (Richmond, Seapower in the Modern World, pp, 56, 223. Emphasis in original text).

There were many areas of the world’s oceans where convoying was not instituted during the last war.  One such was the west coast of Canada where the threat was viewed an on-going low level menace from Japanese submarines with the potential for a sporadic medium-level problem due to a Japanese surge operation.   The director of plans, Captain (later Vice Admiral) Harry Dewolf, conducted a staff estimate to assess the threat and examine possible courses of action. Not surprisingly, Dewolf recommended that convoying not be instituted, that air and surface local patrols be mounted only in the focal areas near ports and straits, and that evasive routing and air patrols in more distant areas were enough to provide a “reasonable degree of protection.” The danger to shipping was perceived to be too slight to merit institution of a system that would reduce the carrying capacity of shipping by 35 percent and instigate a plethora of other logistical problems.  The decision to convoy is a very difficult one and is not to be undertaken lightly, whether dealing with a conventional military threat or something else.

The question now devolves to a question of the perception of threat and the actual risk involved.  The perception of the Hong Kong Shipoweners’ Association appears to be quite different from that of the planners responsible for organizing the anti-piracy operation.  If the analyst from TDC Maritime is correct, and this perception “resonates across the shipping industry,” there will likely be some naval planners digging into the history books as they look for other options.