Somali Pirates escalate their operations to a dangerous new level

Following the warning published in on Thursday 24 March that the trend in the use of violence by pirates would escalate into a small war, a major development occurred that has added new credibility to this alarm.  The Economic Times carried an article on 18 April, entitled “Somali pirates pose new challenge to India,” that reported seven Indian crewmembers from the captured ship MV Asphalt Venture had been withheld even after a ransom of $3.5M USD was paid for the release of the ship and her crew.

This is a first-ever development in the history of Somali piracy and represents a new escalation in their operational activities and a significant change in their methodology.  Hassan Farah, a spokesperson for the Somali pirates, is reported in the article to have said: “We will keep these Indians until the Indian (authorities) release our colleagues.”  Farah was referring to a group of over 100 Somali pirates that are in custody in India.  He further indicated that a council of warlords in Haradhere took this decision collectively.

Previously, ransom negotiations would eventually produce an agreement that resulted in confident expectations of the terms being honoured.  Recent reports of torture to hostages were a worrisome development that indicated this ‘business as usual approach’ was breaking down.  The largely ineffective naval operations to suppress piracy ran afoul of the problem of what to do with captured pirates, but the lack of progress on that account was never related to the potential of these kinds of hostage demands; only problems of logistical capacity to hold, bring to trial and incarcerate sufficient numbers of pirates.  The questionable assumption that incarceration would have a deterrent effect seems to have hit a new and more ominous stumbling block.

The pirate leaders view the Indian move to capture and hold pirates as a ‘Declaration of War’.  This view is reported in an article entitled “Somali pirates say they are at War with India,” which was published on 20 April by Modern Tokyo Times.  The author, Mr. B. Raman, Additional Secretary (ret.), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, and the current Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies, views the Somali moves as having both strategic and tactical consequences.  Strategically, the Indian counter-piracy strategy needs to be reviewed because of the ever-increasing range of Somali operations, which, Raman claims, now include “the targeting of Indian nationals, interests and Indian naval and other onshore establishments by the pirates.”  Apparently he takes the Somali ‘Declaration of War’ quite seriously.

Tactically, Raman wonders if “the Government of India and our Navy to agree to a swap deal for the release of the Indian hostages (which numbered 53 in five different ships at the time of writing) in return for the release by India of some of the Somali pirates.”  A large number of details will need to be considered before such a risky operation can be attempted, especially in light of the Somalis reneging on ransom agreements.

Operationally, however, no issues were raised in Mr. Raman’s statement.  This is odd.  The connection of strategy to tactics must run through the operational realm so that the activities of tactical units will work towards the achievement of strategic goals.  The problem is that the strategy of using naval forces in a conventional operational approach to anti-piracy operations has failed.  On 27 April, an article entitled “Piracy may force sailor boycott, Indian unions,” Indian maritime unions and shipping organisations warned “There is a strong possibility that a collective international boycott by the seafarers coming from the labour-supplying countries like the Philippines, India, Indonesia, Russia, Bangladesh, etc., is round the corner.”  While the situation worsens little is being done to change the approach towards assuring the security of merchant shipping and sailors.  Navies, content with their organization and force structure, place the achievement of strategic goals behind the defence of their institutional objectives.  The result has been a major operational failure to implement tactical activities that will help to achieve strategic goals.  The results grow progressively worse while the vitally important strategic link that enables the global economic system comes under strain from secondary effects that are not directly related to the actions of the pirates.

Eventually, either the political leadership or the maritime security forces (both, preferably) will realize that the deployment of armed teams onboard shipping of national interest is the only really effective means to prevent pirates from capturing ships and taking hostages.  Whether they are uniformed and under military command or commercial and licensed by a recognized regulatory authority, close protection is the only sure way to prevent pirates from seizing local control and holding it by threat of force.  The problem is that few navies are properly organized or equipped to undertake such a decentralized and dispersed type of security operation.

Control is an operational concept that is central to naval operational planning: if you can achieve it in a local area for a period of time, the aim of the operation can probably be achieved.  If it is disputed, trouble will occur but all is not lost.  If you do not have local control, the situation will grow steadily worse.  That is exactly what is happening.

The concept that the simple presence of a warship assures local sea control has been held up to a very harsh light and found to be full of holes. The ‘general purpose’ nature of modern warships is only relevant to their combat employment and they are unable to prevent or even reduce low-intensity criminal activities that are now being viewed by some as a form of warfare.  The broader spectrum of naval activity has long included efforts to suppress maritime crime and ensure the security of the global commons.  The Indian government is getting a harsh lesson about naval history.  It is likely the turn of the Indian Navy next.  Others should also be watching and learning.