EU NAVFOR Admits Piracy Problem Far Greater Than Reported

This article from Ecoterra International was released on 27 January as part of their ongoing series entitled “Status of Seized Vessels and Crews in Somalia, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.”  The reports can be found on the Australian News website at this URL:, under the “Ecoterra” tab.   My thanks to CFPS Research Fellow Tim Dunne for bringing this article to my attention.

“Today, 27 January 2011, 23h00 UTC, at least 48 foreign vessels plus two barges are kept in Somali hands against the will of their owners, while at least 868 hostages or captives - including a South African yachting couple - suffer to be released.  But even [the commander of] European Union Naval Forces (EU NAVFOR), who counts only high-value, mostly British insured vessels, admitted now that on their rather understating account 723 hostages on 30 vessels are recorded as kept hostage, while the IMB spoke of 32 vessels and 746 hostages before the latest sea-jacking.  Having come under pressure, EU NAVFOR’s Operation ATALANTA felt compelled to publish now their list of those vessels , which EU NAVFOR admits had not been protected from pirates and were taken. EU NAVFOR also admitted for the first time that actually a larger number of vessels and crews is held hostage than those listed on their file.  Since EU NAVFOR’s inception at the end of 2008 the piracy has started in earnest and it has now completely escalated. Only knowledgeable analysts recognized the link.  Request the Somali Marine & Coastal Monitor from ECOTERRA Intl. for background info and see the situation map of the PIRACY COASTS OF SOMALIA.”

The sentence that is underlined in the text is highlighted to emphasize the central point made repeatedly under this discussion topic: naval practices that focus on the creation of protected areas or defended lanes are destined to fail, just as they have failed in every other historical attempt to apply these types of ‘Sea Control’ operations.  The main problem is that Sea Control is a concept.  It is not a practice.  The practical application of naval power for the conceptual purpose is achieved through a wide variety of activities, which are all situation dependant.  As the antagonist changes tactics, venue or intensity, so too must the protagonist.  If the conceptual answer to the problem is ‘Sea Control’ the next questions should be: where, for how long, against whom, and by what means?

The basic advantages of the Somali pirates remain unchanged, as I described them in my post on 7 January 2010, entitled “The weakness of Defended Lanes exposed by an ‘audacious pirate attack’”:

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.”

To this I would add another point: “Third – there will never be enough naval forces present to patrol the entire area.  Ever-expanding operations by the pirates have had the same effect that long-range U-boat attacks had in the Second World War: they found new hunting grounds where patrols did not exist; they forced the adoption of defensive measures that reduced the capacity of the entire cargo system; and they weakened the escort forces everywhere through a process of dilution.”

Protection of trade against marauders is always a slow war of attrition.  Small technical innovations will have operational effect over time, but they alone will not be decisive.  The procedural changes needed will only come after sound study and analysis, and only once traditional approaches have been demonstrated as failures.  Although the numbers of ships and crew held prisoner is mounting, the incidence of violence is escalating, and the costs of ransoms are increasing, it is doubtful that the tipping point is yet in sight.