The weakness of Defended Lanes exposed by an ‘audacious pirate attack’

In my post on 7 December, entitled “Whether to Protect the Sea or Protect the Ships,” I argued that efforts to create defended lanes are a “misguided effort at sea control” and that history has shown repeatedly that they are based on a flawed operational concept.  I did not realize at that time that it would take only one month for the Somali pirates to expose this fact.

World Sentinel reported that the British-flagged chemical tanker MV St. James Park had left southern Spain, bound for Thailand, and was hijacked on New Year’s Day in the International Recommended Transit Corridor, a ‘patrol zone’ through the Gulf of Aden. The corridor is promulgated by the USN Liaison Office (MARLO) in Bahrain.  You can find more information on the corridor here.  The International Maritime Bureau “Live Piracy Report” produces maps depicting the location of attacks.

The report in World Sentinel makes it clear that there was no escort for St. James Park because, in the words of Commander John Harper, spokesman for the EU's anti-piracy flotilla, “St James Park opted to act independently and unfortunately there was no naval ship close enough to offer assistance in time.”  The object of a defended lane tactic is to provide sufficient presence in a specific area so that the level of force deters the aggressor from acting against the transiting ships.  There are two problems with this plan.

First – the Somali pirates are not at all deterred by presence of the naval anti-piracy force, nor are they concerned with their potential actions even if they should happen to be present.  The ‘catch-and-release’ policy means that even uneducated Somali pirates can figure out the risk-reward equation.

Second – the anti-piracy naval forces can never be reactive enough when in such close proximity to land.  The pirates use high-speed and very manoeuvrable small craft for these dash-and-grab raids.  In such circumstances, the naval vessel must be in the immediate vicinity of the target ship in order to be sufficiently reactive.

In case the conceptual point of distinction here is lost, I will spell it out clearly: a naval vessel that is compelled to be in close proximity to a merchant vessel that requires protection is NOT ON PATROL.  This arrangement is known as CLOSE ESCORT and it is used in the protection of trade for a tactical system known as CONVOYING.  By definition, a convoy can consist of as little as one vessel under naval direction.  The degree of protection provided can range from simple routing instructions, to distant escort, and down to close escort.  The degree of the protection provided depends on the level of threat and the ability of the assigned forces to counter that threat.

In my earlier post, I cited the commander of the EU Naval Counter Piracy Force, Rear-Admiral Peter Hudson, who said: “The EU Naval Force’s strategy [sic: it is actually an Operating Concept] 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.”  This statement means that the naval forces are relying on a concept of ‘directed dispersion’ to place ships in the correct patrol locations (more likely patrol boxes) necessary to intercept pirate craft before they can seize a merchant ship.  They are attempting to use their limited number of escorts in an intelligent fashion to achieve the maximum benefit. They have narrowed down the area of the sea they wish to ‘control’ to the smallest amount possible by declaring the International Recommended Transit Corridor and focussing their patrols in this area, hoping for the maximum return on the investment of time, resources and energy.  Nevertheless, they are still engaged in patrolling, not escorting.

The losses will continue so long as the pirates hold the advantages of numbers, initiative, speed, reaction and manoeuvre over the naval anti-piracy forces.  Only once the naval force resorts to the concept of ‘concentration’ for local effectiveness will the situation change.  The warships and aircraft cannot be everywhere at all times.  In fact, they cannot even be most places for most of the time.  The key concept must become that they only need to be where the shipping is sailing and only at the times they are needed.  (This may need to be narrowed down further to where the most important shipping is through a critical vulnerability analysis.) The only way to do this effectively is to concentrate the shipping and provide an adequate level of escort.  Patrolling areas of ocean that are empty of both merchant ships and pirate craft is a complete waste of time.  This has always been the case in the past and it is the case again now.