Coast Guard, Piracy in the IO, and the American EEZ

Over the last couple of years we have heard repeatedly that the area of the Indian Ocean (IO), where pirates operate is huge, too large to be patrolled effectively by the rather large international force already there. We might take the opportunity to point out that the total area is less than the size of the US Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) the Coast Guard is tasked to patrol.

17 thoughts on “Coast Guard, Piracy in the IO, and the American EEZ

  1. The question is how how much time is there between when a ship realizes it is under attack, makes a call and when the pirates have control of that ship, compared to the time required to get a ship or helo on scene. I would estimate a typical attack is over in about 45 minutes. How many ships would it require for all merchant ships to be within 45 minutes from a navy ship? Far more then what is currently there.

  2. Yes, if you continue to do the same thing and expect different results–you know what they say about that.

    Fact is there are more warships on anti-piracy patrol than there are “pirate action groups.” Looks like it would be relatively easy to put a tail on each if the various navies would cooperate. Then whenever an attack occurred there would be a warship nearby, not because they stayed with the merchant, but because it stayed with the pirate. Play man on man instead of zone defense.

    The pirates would threaten the hostages on board the motherships, but our policy should be if they acted on their threats, we immediately retake the mothership. Looks like the Indians have retaken three motherships without having the hostages killed.

  3. Chuck Hill,

    Thanks for your response.

    You could be right that a change of tactics might improve things in the HoA area.

    But….I think the best way to think about the problems is to see it as an insurgency. I wouldn’t say the coalition forces are doing the same thing I would instead say that thus far the pirates are inside our OODA loop, able to adapt at a rate at least equal to the rate of change of response.

    Also, what is being proposed would seem to be what could be called a strategy of attrition. The belief in the effectiveness of this strategy relies upon assumptions about the circumstances faced by of the pirates. In other words what percentage of pirates would we need to kill or capture in order to reduce this problem to an acceptable level and is it possible to kill or capture the required percentage? Do we need to capture one percent, ten or fifty percent? If the percentage required is higher then what can be accomplished then the strategy will not work. The current trend rates do not indicate that attrition will work.

    As far as the PAGs ( Pirate Action Group), I don’t have very much information on this but my hunch is that what matters in not the number of PAGs but the number of fishing vessels which are capable of becoming a PAG.

    • From everything I have seen, all the mother-ships were foreign vessels that were themselves captured at some point in the past. It appears that the pirates have become dependent on incorporating the vessels they take into their organization.

      Originally the pirates operated from small indigenous craft going directly from shore to attack vessels that were relatively near the Somali coast. Counters were developed to that strategy. Potential targets were escorted through the relatively small danger area and pirate boats leaving the Somali coast were intercepted, and their weapons and equipment confiscated and dumped at sea.

      So the pirates started using previously pirated vessels and they exploit the leverage of hostages on board to prevent them being boarded.

      What I’m advocating is an attrition strategy, but it isn’t attrition of pirates, it is attrition of potential mother-ships. When the number of potential mother-ships goes up the pirates business expands and the demands on the counter-piracy forces increase, but if we can start reducing the number of potential mother-ships the demands on the counter-piracy forces also become more manageable.

      The pirates pool of assets are increased by capture, but the pool is decreased by a number of factors:
      fuel exhaustion, mechanical breakdown, release for ransom, recapture by counter-piracy forces.

      If we stop them form capturing more vessels, the number in the hands of the pirates will start to fall. We can conceivably gain momentum and reverse the trend we have seen toward more piracy, and the problem will become more manageable.

  4. “In other words what percentage of pirates would we need to kill or capture in order to reduce this problem to an acceptable level and is it possible to kill or capture the required percentage?”

    Based on nineteenth century history of anti-piratical operations, the need was 100% or make it unprofitable for them to continue. However, the trial and execution of pirates in the U. S. under successive laws stemming to 1789 was not that effective. The most effective means was to cut off the shore-based operations. Even La Fitte moved out of Spanish Galveston when he realized his home base would be attacked by the U. S. Navy as it had done at Barataria Island.

    However, piracy did not end in the Caribbean for decades later. Some older pirates like Mitchell, who was a LaFitte lieutenant simply shifted lines of work to smuggling and slave importation. He was finally captured by the revenue cutter at Mobile in the 1840s not for smuggling but for his reputation.

    One way would be to recreate the “1000-ship fleet” concept that was supposed to handle these type situations. But it faded away too.

  5. Even if you deployed all the ships of all the navies of the world to the HOA, you would not be able to stop every piratical attack.

    As Bill points out above, the only successful way to eliminate piracy is to address it ashore.

    • People including some very prominent US Navy personnel, say “the only successful way to eliminate piracy is to address it ashore” as if that were the easy solution and now that it has been identified, it will be taken care of. It’s an easy excuse for failure at sea. Fact is no one is about to fix Somalia and no near term solution ashore is in sight, so the real question remains, what is the best way to mitigate the problem. We are not going to cure the disease, but perhaps we can treat the symptoms better than we have, and keep the effects under control.

      • Chuck – the “prominent US Navy personnel” are correct – the solution for Somalia piracy is ashore, just like it was for Commodore Stephen Decatur 200 years ago. Claiming that this is an “easy excuse for failure at sea” is an uninformed opinion. What the US Navy and other NATO and non-Nato partner nations have accomplished over the last three years is impressive by anyone’s measure.

        Yes, GAO loves to criticize the USG response to piracy, but they are even more uninformed.

      • Not being a prominent U. S. Navy person (or a prominent Coast Guard person either), my perspective is purely historical. After all, nearly the whole purpose of the U. S. Navy was enforce a blockade on the Confederate pirates (privateers) including the blockade runners. That plan was not as successful as has been claimed. There were large holes in it as in any blockade. The runs from those ports ended only when they were occupied.

        I cannot say that any such occupation would successful nor just what the ramifications would be in the long term. However, the piracy will not stop until someone is ashore. The same thing could happen again as Libya slips into anarchy. If and when the current regime crumbles, the matter of who will be in charge may resemble Somalia and much for the same reasons. The shores of Tripoli, that were never reached, may be as difficult in the future.

      • The piracy problem is growing. There may be good reasons why efforts to contain the problem have been a failure, but it is a failure never the less. Let’s call things as they are, not as we would like to paint them. Saying the problem is ashore, even if it is, does not mean we can’t do better at sea. I see no willingness on the part of the international community to invest the kind of effort it would take to fix the problem ashore which goes far beyond the piracy problem. Until that happens we have to deal with the problem at sea.

        Saying that there is no reason to change your tactics or ROE because the real solution is on shore is not helpful.

      • Every reputable analysis that has been conducted of the HOA situation – most recently, the UN Lang Report — acknowledges that the root cause of Somali piracy is ashore, not at sea.

        I’m not saying there is no reason to change tactics or ROE. I am saying it is patently false to label our efforts at sea “an easy excuse for failure.”

  6. Like Bill I think the capture percentage is close to 100% but that is an assumption on my part, but there are lots of folks around assuming a lower percentage seemingly without realizing it.

    Another possible outcome I’ve not seen mentioned is, if the insurgency framework is in fact an accurate one and if our efforts to control piracy are causing harm to the local fishermen then in some cases our anti-piracy efforts may become counter-productive at some point.

  7. Even though we boarded and search some fishermen two to three times a day, the “harm” to them in Vietnam was minimal. Some did not mind. It was just a way of life and they did find us useful at times. When approached for medical aid it was given. Engine problems or sinking the assistance was there. One of the things they did not mind was the protection against VC tax collectors. (We arrested two women one day that we suspected of being VC tax collectors but intelligence told us they were fish buyers).

    It all depended on how the job was done. One of the complaints we received was we required the trawlers to haul back their nets before we boarded. This was changed to where we boarded them while underway. It improved relationships and offered the ability for the fishermen to get off the water before curfew and reduced the chances of accidental shooting on suspected enemy craft.

    I was not a corpsman but like the rest of the crew we provided first aid. I do not recall how many fish hooks we removed from ears, hands and feet. We did it because it was the right thing to do and it built a better system of informants.

    Some of the fishermen are victims of the pirates too. I have not read how many of the pirate boats were stolen from other fishermen. However, this was common in the 19th century and there is no reason to assume it is not today.

    • One of the things I have seen is that some of the first foreign vessels to be armed were European Tuna boats that contributed to the problem in the first place. Somali waters were overfished and there was no one to police them. Perhaps if the anti-piracy patrols also excluded foreign fishing vessels from the Somali EEZ, then the Somali fishermen might have an alternative to piracy.

      • The overfishing excuse for piracy is a tired old canard that is no longer viable, if it ever was.

  8. As I read this, I wonder what ever happened to the piracy problem in the Straits of Malacca. This was where all the attention was up and until HOA gathered all the press. Did the littoral nations gain control of the situation? How did they accomplish this? What are the lessons learned that can be applied to the IO? Or, does it continue and we are just more aware of IO because of the press? Prior to departing on a CARAT deployment in 2004, I read a book called Dangerous Waters by John S Burnett discussing the particular problems with the Straits. Any published work show up yet on the IO piracy?

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