Britain’s Foreign Affairs Committee Report critical of naval anti-piracy efforts

The Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) of the British parliament has published its tenth report, entitled “Piracy off the coast of Somalia.” You can read the report here.

The report notes that, while the establishment of the safety transit corridor has made the Gulf of Aden reasonably safe, their concentration of effort has really has only served to ‘displace’ pirates into the Indian Ocean, where the extent and intensity of their operations grow steadily: “We conclude that naval forces have so far been unable to make the oceans safe from Somali piracy. Recognising that a substantial increase in conventional naval and air assets is unlikely, we urge the Government to think of novel ways of detecting skiffs and thus improving response times to incidents in Indian Ocean, by exploring technologies such as micro satellite surveillance and/or lighter than air persistent wide area surveillance, such as that being developed by US forces for Afghanistan.”

The urging of the committee for navies to resort to “novel ways” to detect small pirate craft is key to the problem if conventional forces are to have any role in dealing with this issue at all. When quick response assets are in short supply the only hope of having them in ‘the right place at the right time’ is to have intelligence that allows timely direction to take preventative action. The reports stated intention of “reducing response times” misses the point that, once onboard, the pirates hold the upper hand. If conventional naval forces are to be effective, they must be able to intervene before the pirates make their move, not afterward. Intelligence of this sort also allows routing of potential victims away from danger areas, so that the sea once again becomes a ‘vast and empty expanse’ for the predators.

Maritime surveillance and intelligence generation was the topic of a workshop conducted at Dalhousie in October, entitled “Closing the Gap.” You can see all of the presentation materials on the CFPS Maritime Security Policy Program webpage here. A presentation by Mr. Guy Thomas, entitled “Ocean Surveillance From Space,” showed that the needed surveillance capabilities already exist and that what is required now is a processing and analysis capability to synthesize the data into useful intelligence.

The creation of a networked and integrated surveillance and intelligence-producing system is entirely consistent with the naval way of warfare. Networked systems are central to how maritime power works. The key problem is that naval commitment to applying these methods to a constabulary role is lacking. Assembling, processing, analysing and disseminating multi-source data is a major undertaking and it will not be cheap. As the government’s budgetary response to the economic downturn looms in Canada, the entire Canadian Forces is committed to protecting ‘core capabilities’ and divesting itself of things that are viewed as peripheral. The navy is no different in this regard. ‘Novelty’, in the current context, is not ‘central’ to the continued existence of the navy.

The Royal Navy is in the process of changing its force structure and capabilities away from a frigate-based patrol force into a carrier-destroyer-submarine battle force. This will reduce the number of responsive ships and aircraft for constabulary duties, such as anti-piracy patrols, and increase the strategic power projection capabilities of their naval forces. This is the outcome of their strategic assessment process that weighed risk and shaped organizational change.

The Government of Canada has chosen a status quo approach to the combat role of the Royal Canadian Navy with a one-for-one replacement plan of the existing destroyer and frigate fleet, but has added a major new capability component to the constabulary role of the navy with the Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ship. That the AOPS will be built first is a clear signal that the government has identified domestic security issues that the navy must recognize and address. So far, there is little commentary from the navy to show they have registered this fact. Sooner or later, the cultural affinity of the navy for its combat role will come into conflict with the government’s desire for it to assume more responsibility in dealing with a broader view of maritime security. It will likely boil down to an argument over which type of ship provides the capabilities that the country needs most. The problem with this is that the most urgent need is actually for useful information and the intellectual skills to put it into context.

The ship-centric approach to maritime surveillance and law enforcement will never produce the degree of presence and responsiveness needed to adequately police Canadian territorial waters and the economic zone, much less the broad expanse of international waters. Without a reliable and useful surveillance system that enables the timely placement of units where they are needed, anti-piracy, crime prevention and stopping illegal immigration will seem like a game of ‘whack a mole’ instead of serving as a real deterrent to illegal activities and an encouragement to the lawful use of the sea.