Another escalation as the pirates grow bolder

AFP News Services have reported Somali pirates were able to capture the Bulgarian chemical tanker MV Panega (IMO number 8511586, 5,846 DWT, built in 1986) on Tuesday, 11 May.  The crew of 15, all of whom are Bulgarians, have been taken hostage.  The ship was enroute from the Red Sea to either Pakistan or India (there is some confusion on this point of the destination).

What makes this event different is that the ship was under the protection of the EU naval force in a convoy.  While the convoy size, organization and number of escort forces are not know, it underscores the points made earlier in this discussion:  the pirates are not deterred by a catch-and-release policy; they hold numerous advantages; and they have been escalating their use of weapons and tactics.  The article reports that the pirates employed “heavy artillery” when they hijacked a German chemical tanker on Saturday.

The naval forces in the area have also been escalating their use of force.  The same article reports: “Russian marines on Thursday stormed a hijacked Russian oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden in a daring early morning raid, killing one of the Somali pirates aboard and capturing another 10.”  The surviving pirates were later “set free” some 300 miles from shore in a boat that had no navigational equipment.  The article quotes a Russian defence source on Tuesday saying the pirates are “most probably dead after failing to reach the shore.”  This is not exactly the same approach to catch-and-release.

The protection of trade has always been a difficult endeavour.  Convoying is the most effective means but it has never been foolproof.  Most of the major sea battles in naval history stem from the need to protect a collected group of ships.  In the case of pirates, as with the case of lone naval merchant hunters, the ability to cut one or more ships out from a group has been accomplished many times.  The goal of protecting trade has never been to assure absolute, 100-percent security: the goal is to reduce the risk to acceptable levels. But, with escalation still taking place and naval authorities stating openly that this level of effort cannot be maintained, it is difficult to know what the ‘steady state’ will become.

MV Panega was typical of the small, slow ‘targets’ that maritime predators have feasted upon in other convoy scenarios.  But, in relative terms, it is a meagre meal.  This is poor consolation for the owners of the vessel, the shippers of the cargo, and the families of the mariners.  But, it is a historical truism that sea power works slowly through a process of strangulating exhaustion.  In this case, it will be a test to see who reaches that state first.

The tremendous advantages held by the pirates do not bode well for the other side: they have a safe base of operation; they have had enormous success; built up an almost mythical culture and cadre of loyal followers; and most importantly they are from such poor circumstances that even the more meagre gains of taking smaller ships will seem like a major victory to them.  Stamping this scourge out will be practically impossible within the current construct.  Watch for more signs of escalation and exhaustion as time progresses.