Background and Update on NATO Counter Piracy Operations off Somalia

I have read all the posts about piracy and find them very interesting…but somewhat misinformed in certain areas. I am also somewhat disappointed that there is an absence of information about NATO’s contribution to combating piracy off the coast of Somalia. I am presently the second in command of the N3 (naval operations) department within the Maritime Component Commander Northwood, United Kingdom. I have been in this position for six months, and throughout this time have only worked the piracy issue. I offer the following information with respect to NATO Counter Piracy Operations off the coast of Somalia.

NATOs first deployment to the region was early 2009, when NATO was deploying to Australia to conduct an out of area deployment. However, due to the exponential rise in piracy the ships were diverted and began operations in the Gulf of Aden to combat the pirates. The initial operation was called Operation Allied Protector, which has since morphed into Operation Ocean Shield (which was approved by the North Atlantic Council August 2009). Since this time, ships from SNMG1 and SNMG2 have been rotating into the Gulf of Aden every four months, and will continue to do so into the indefinite future. Now to address some of the piracy posts on Broadsides.

First the UNSCRs that deals with Somalia. UNSR 1897 is a merging of authorizations given in UNSCR 1846 and 1851. In practical terms the most important aspects of the UNSCRs is that it allows naval forces to enter the Territorial Waters (TTW) of Somalia. This means that the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia is giving up a portion of its sovereignty to allow the international community to police its waters. Why is this important for NATO? One of the posts here mentions the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor. This eastbound/westbound highway on the seas stretches about 550 nautical miles. Within this corridor, naval units from NATO, European Naval Force, and Coalition Maritime Force station there units to allow for the safe transit of the many merchant vessels that transit the corridor each day. To the south of the corridor, along the coast of Somalia in a region called Puntland, where the pirates originate from. As mentioned above, with the ability to enter the TTWs of Somalia, the naval forces are preventing the pirates from departing their strongholds. Combine this ability with patrolling the corridor, Maritime Patrol Aircraft flying over the area, and the actions of the Puntland authorities, we have seen a significant reduction of pirated attacks within the GOA. Until the recent hijacks of the two vessels end Dec 09 and early Jan 10, there were no successful hijacks in over four months in the Gulf of Aden. If you compare this to only one year ago, this is a significant achievement.

Second, one post mentions the arming of merchant vessels that transit the Gulf of Aden and Somali Basin. One would think that this would be an acceptable solution to piracy. I totally agree with this assessment. However, the merchant community and owners feel differently. When a CEO of a shipping company was visiting our headquarters to provide his experience with the ransom process I asked him that question. His response was that this would raise the level of violence between the merchant crews and pirates. Additionally, the cost of hiring firms that could effectively conduct this business model was considered prohibitive. Combine this with flag state issues, flag states of convenience, entering countries with armed teams onboard and you can see how complicated this issue becomes. For the most part, the shipping owners and companies don’t want to start arming their crews to combat pirates. Without armed teams onboard, the only way to defeat the pirates is by following Best Management Practices (BMP). Uk Hydrographic chart Q6099 explains the BMPs in detail if you are interested. So, why are ships still being pirated? Well, you would think that all owners and merchant captains would take these Best Management Practices to heart and employ them with vigor. About 80 percent of the ships are following these BMPs…but there is another 20 percent that are not. There are still vessels that are pirated within the 80 percent, but for the most part it is those vessels that are not taking any precautions to stop the pirates. Of course it is a combination of following BMPs, alerting naval forces of attacks, and how fast the warships can respond. In the Gulf of Aden, warships are stationed to respond within 15 minutes of an attack. The window is between 15-30 minutes to arrive on scene to stop a pirate attack with helo or warship. This has been accomplished on many occasions over the past few months.

Another post mentions that there will be significant risk to naval boarding teams due to the arming of merchant vessels, miscommunication due to language, poor weapon handling etc. This position is inaccurate due to the fact that the naval vessels in the region are not visiting these merchant vessels. The merchant traffic is the ones that need protecting. So why would we visit? The naval boarding teams are spending their entire time finding and boarding small vessels used for piracy, and DHOWS that are often used as mother ships. There have been many inspections suspected and actual pirate vessels. Often as the warship approaches ladders and weapons are thrown overboard. Many weapons, cell phones and GPS have been confiscated, and useful intelligence has been gathered. Of course, these inspections lead one to ask the question about the “Catch and Release Policy” that NATO exercises. I will address this in the next section.

Many of the posts mention the problems with legal arrangements and inadequate Rules of Engagement (ROE). It is no secret that NATO doesn’t have legal arrangements in the area, to allow NATO ships to embark detainees and deliver them for justice at the local magistrate. On a more careful inspection of this topic, one must ask “is it really a limiting factor” that will cause the failure of NATOs mission? Based on the success that NATO has had in the Gulf of Aden I would suggest no! More to the point, what overall impact will it really have to prosecute and jail a 20 year old Somali youth that is only trying to improve his lot in live? Wouldn’t it make more sense to actively seek out those that plan, finance, and provide logistics for pirate operations? Additionally, those organizations and countries that have entered into arrangements with Kenya and Seychelle Islands quickly understand that the devil is in the details. Those that are detained and brought before a judge in Kenya must do so within a limited timeframe. This become very problematic when you detain in the Gulf of Aden and must transport to Kenya. This long transit significantly impacts the ability of that warship to patrol in the IRTC, and conduct other operations to stop acts of piracy. Also, the limited number of prosecutors and judges means that cases are often not heard for months. In fact we have a post commanding officer that travels to Kenya on a regular basis to participate in the court process…months and months after the actual detainment and handing over to Kenyan officials. So, suffice to say that having legal arrangements to detain and prosecute is not the panacea that many of the posts mention. I would postulate that many of the organizations that are presently taking detainees will stop this process due to the problems mentioned above. Finally, the subject of ROE. I won’t go into the details due to security concerns but suffice to say that NATO has robust and excellent ROE. The mission has seen great successes over the past five months in the Gulf of Aden and contrary to a few posts NATO ROE in no way hampers or restricts the commander’s ability to conduct his mission.

A few posts mention that the IRTC is not an appropriate method to ensure the safety of the merchant traffic in the area. In fact, there are many convoys or group transits that take place every day. Nations like Russia, China, India, and Japan are conducting these types of operations daily. Those that are not part of the group transits can proceed via the IRTC and combined with their Best Management Practices is a very safe method to transit the Gulf of Aden. A more difficulty problem is the Somali Basin. The majority of the successful pirate attacks have taken place in this massive area of sea. One can easily place the entire eastern seaboard of the United States in this area as a comparison of its size. The pirates that operate in this area are very different from those that ply the waters of the Gulf of Aden. They operate in open boats out to a range in excess of 900 nautical miles, for weeks at a time. Combine this tactic with those merchant vessels not registering with naval authorities (United Kingdom Maritime Trade Organization in Dubai, NATO Shipping Centre in Northwood, or Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa in EUNAVFORCE in Northwood) to allow them to receive information about pirate areas of concern in the Somali Basin, and not practicing Best Management Practices and you can see why there has been a significant rise in vessels pirated in this larger area.

Finally, I would like to close this post with some information about SHADE. This stands for Shared Awareness and Deconfliction. This is a group of likeminded organizations and countries that are committed to ending piracy off the coast of Somalia. This group meets in Bahrain monthly and ensures that there is continued success in the IRTC. NATO, EU, CMF and countries such as China, Russia, Japan, and India meet at the tactical level and work together. As a Canadian Naval Officer working for NATO I often have lunch with Russian and Chinese officers to discuss how to improve the situation in the Gulf of Aden. I would suggest that the recent agreement by China to become more actively engaged in the IRTC is historic.