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To counter piracy, large-scale coordinated effort required

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by German Navy Vice Admiral (retd.) Lutz Feldt
Each payment of a ransom has been, and remains, a further brick in the wall of recruitment and the successful accomplishment of attacks on international shipping. To counter this development, a large-scale and coordinated effort is required.

The European Commission decided in 2008 to analyse possible and known threats to Europe and its population as part of an extensive programme. The results of these analyses are to provide the required information to deduce the necessary consequences to develop programmes and projects to counter the threats in the medium and long term. The fields of interest which are being analysed are the fight against drugs, illegal small arms proliferation, threats by nuclear, biological and chemical agents, as well as the safeguarding of particularly threatened sea areas.

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These fields of interest are overlapping to some extent, however, it is also necessary to carry out the analyses and the evaluation separately in order to, subsequently, gather what belongs together at the bottom line. The fact that the decision to analyse the imperiled sea territories would receive such a dramatic topicality, at least to the originators, was not clear one year ago – although piracy already was a major global threat at that time.

The assignment placed the focus on the sea lanes from the Strait of Malacca and Singapore across the Indian Ocean to the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb. Both sea areas find themselves in the spotlight for good reasons and the daily threat to crews and their ships, unfortunately, have gained notoriety. When dealing with this threat, one quickly discovered that, next to these two key sea areas, there are other places in the world in which the threat to sailors and their ships is just as urgent. However, due to selective perceptions, these threats are currently not in the spotlight. They include the Gulf of Guinea, the South China Sea and, still, the Caribbean.

The reason for European involvement in the improvement of maritime security is based upon the awareness that approximately 90 per cent of global trade is carried out at sea. Therefore, Europe and Germany (the latter being a particularly export-oriented nation) strongly depend on the security of this vital transit. Europe is a strongly maritime-oriented continent surrounded by the seas and always having depended upon them. Maritime Europe is a fact. Therefore, countries in distant regions perceive it to be adequate and right that we, as a key user of these sea lanes, contribute to the security of the latter. This also includes Asian nations, which have already been involved in these security matters for quite a long time.

Pushed by increasing pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden since 2005, the International Maritime Organisation, a sub-organisation of the United Nations responsible for all maritime matters, has tried with a number of conferences to induce the countries of the West Indies, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea to take joint action. Within this ‘pending case’ the Security Council of the United Nations has then highlighted the urgency to act by means of numerous resolutions. These resolutions were laid out on immediate action for the re-establishment of the security of vital sea lanes. The primary cause for piracy at the Horn of Africa is the lack of any governmental authority in Somalia and an unstable situation in Yemen. Consequently, NATO and the European Union have simultaneously planned and initiated operations of naval forces.

At first, one of the fundamental tasks of the European naval operation “ATALANTA” was to escort the shipments for the World Food Programme heading to Mogadishu to support the population of Somalia. This has remained one of the tasks and it can be observed that, at least as far as it concerns the maritime part, the logistics chain in now secured. Nevertheless, the mission of the naval forces of operation ATALANTA is far more comprehensive and the Security Council has provided a stalwart mandate to implement the law at sea which has been adopted by the NATO and the EU operations. However, it remains a fact which is considered to be critical: its operative approach is a reactive, and an offensive fight against piracy is not intended, although this would be endorsed by the mandate. Therefore, the question rightly is how will the current approach stop the highly professional, flexible and brutal pirates. Yet, considerations and an already-issued mandate of a military operation on shore have to be viewed critically. The fact shouldn’t be ignored that, ultimately, the aim is to enable self-dependent action by the governments in Somalia as well as in Yemen.

Piracy obviously has many causes and pirates are recruited from entirely different social and cultural origins. The most manifest cause for the increase of piracy in this sea area is the collapse of any governmental authority, which in the first place enables any sort of criminal activity on shore or at sea to this extent. Due to the inaction of all aggrieved parties, just as on shore, the methods of these activities at sea have dramatically increased in the course of the years. Even when considering the fact that piracy, contraband trade, flows of refugees as well as drug traffic and the transport of small arms of all calibres has a long tradition in this part of the world and has been generally tolerated, the current extent and the open-ended question of who pulls the strings is very distressing.

But also illegal fishing within the country’s economic zone and territory, repeatedly emphasised by the Somali side, is part of the issue. In this context, the question of the credibility of the European operation comes up: as long as the European fishing industry participates in illegal fishing, this does not contribute to improving trust in the region. Also, the illegal ocean dumping of pollutants of all kings, as a consequence of the power vacuum, is repeatedly being cited, however, so far this has not been proven. Hence, the motives are complex, but in the end the crime pays off and, at least hitherto, the risk is minimal.

However, the questions about the idleness of the adjacent states and the international community remain open. Since 2002, an international task force has been deployed to this sea area. Since then, the German Navy and parts of the Joint Support Service (Streitkräftebasis) have successfully operated against the terrorist threat, including during several tours under German command.

The terrorists’ liberty of action and the use of former training camps in Somalia has been successfully confined and prevented. A significant side effect has been the limitation of the increase of contraband, drug trafficking and piracy. However, when the parliament did not include the fight against drug trafficking into the mandate for reasons of political opportunity, and every criminal became aware that the mere presence of international forces would not affect their criminal acts, the latter dramatically increased. This has been clearly proven by the statistics of the International Maritime Bureau and the Piracy Reporting Centres in Kuala Lumpur.

In addition, until about one year ago, the loss of goods through piracy had been considered statistically insignificant and the concerned associations did not see any need for action regarding the governments. The ship owners and charterers could have seen that this purely economic assessment was and remains wrong by using the example of the Strait of Malacca and of Singapore. However, this would have required a different thinking and course of action in line with better communications. The knowledge of the threat was available. The possibilities and capabilities to encounter the negative development equally existed – namely in the affected sea area. What was missing was the request for a corresponding mandate by the ship owners and charterers as well as the will of the politicians to issue such a mandate. In this particular case, as in other cases, the point that no requirement for risk provisioning has been expressed by the military side within the Ministry of Defence has to be made in favour of the responsible politicians.

Each payment of a ransom has been, and remains, a further brick in the wall of recruitment and the successful accomplishment of attacks on international shipping. To counter this development, a large-scale and coordinated effort is required. Currently, the EU and NATO each deploy a task force to the threatening sea area which, furthermore, is patrolled by two US-led task forces. Nationally led task forces with a limited period of operation have also contributed to the international effort. Russia, China, Japan, India, Iran, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia have been, or still are, present with maritime patrol aircraft and ships.

It distinguishes all nations that they are willing to cooperate and that the necessary coordination works successfully. The pragmatic approaches in the mission area, the common international basic understanding of navies and the awareness of pursuing a common purpose prove to be of value. The number of ships and aircraft in the area of operation varies and the mere number of units reveals little about their effectiveness in terms of the common objective. However, it is also important to take a look at a globe or at an atlas to bring to mind the enormity of the geographical area.

At this point, some notes on the capabilities and the legal basic parameters. An interested layperson may ask why such large vessels are used to encounter pirates operating on such small boats. The big advantage for the pirates is and remains that they operate off a home shore, that they can chose the location and the time of their attack and that they are “normal” fishers and sailors as long as they do not attack - a fact which they use for their own protection. Their superior knowledge of the Gulf of Aden, the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb as well as of the seas off the entire Somali coast, which now the German Navy has also acquired, supports the mission accomplishment.

Operating in these waters since February 2002, the units are able to make a reliable risk assessment of the intensive shipping traffic of the old dhows that are used for trade and fishing in the area and have modern engines as well as all means of communication at their disposal. To provide security to international shipping, the naval forces – generally consisting of frigates, cruisers or, in the case of the US, the well-suited dock landing ships (LSDs) – offer all necessary capabilities but, in particular, provide required long-endurance at sea due to their size.

A protection by means of the so-called convoy system in pre-planned routes is the adequate approach with the available number of forces. However, the use of armed ship-based helicopters is one of the key capabilities for this task. These helicopters have always been a significant capability of the frigates and an integrated key element of the crew. Nevertheless, the effective fight against piracy and long-range protection, in particular, requires maritime patrol aircraft (MPA). If they have the excellent intelligence and surveillance as well as a data transfer capabilities, such as the P-3C Orions of the German Navy, they play a significant role, especially for the surveillance and warning before attacks occur. In the case of a reactive mandate, these capabilities are of particular importance and their number plays a key role for the success of the effort.

Next to these military capabilities, the essential questions for the legal framework and the legal status of the participating forces remain. These are complicated questions. Much is arguable and the bindingness of the international marine law is very variable due to conventions which have not been ratified by all nations. The German Navy has a very clear-cut legal situation for its contribution to Operation ATALANTA based on article 24. However, this does not include other operations and tasks and requires urgent clarification.

There is another aspect within the matter of the legal situation and of security which has to be considered. It is the issue of civil security providers and the repeatedly debated arming of crews. Operation ATALANTA offers captains of merchant vessels to embark trained soldiers, armed or unarmed.

Even the Yemeni Coast Guard, altogether too small and not sufficiently equipped and trained to control its own territorial waters, offers small security teams to be embarked on merchant vessels. However, this is something different than the service of civil security companies.

At any rate, the danger of escalation and the related risk has to be opposed to the expected increased security. Pirates want to press money, they take hostages and they capture ships and their cargo. They have also fired at shops and wounded crew members. All this is bad enough. Resistance and civil security providers are an incalculable risk for the lives of the crew and, from my point of view, are no solution to this threat situation.

The last question that remains is that of the link to international terrorism. This question can only be answered by the intelligence services. Considering the methods of the attacks it appears to be quite definite that the pirates are the executors and the actual initiators and persons pulling the strings remain on the shore. Who they are is difficult to say. But if, as we assume, they are part of the clans of Somalia the solution has to be searched for and found together with them of, at least, with parts of them. This is the civil part of the problem solving process und is as urgent as the military part.

The European Union (in particular France, the United Kingdom and Italy) as well as the United States work on this matter. Yet, many tasks still lie ahead. But the responsibility for maritime security remains in the hands of the governments of the respective regions. All foreign assistance is only welcome to the extent as it is recognised as a basic principle. In this respect the process of opinion formation and coordination of the respective nations is a prerequisite for the assistance by third parties. In Southeast Asia this process has been successful, at the Horn of Africa is still is in the early stages.

Concluding, I would like to draft the following theses:

1. The use of naval forces to provide maritime security is necessary and will be successful at sea, however, without achieving an absolute security of international shipping.

2. The issued mandate of Operation ATALANTA is too reactive. Therefore, the outcome of this is a significantly longer duration of the operation.

3. Each national and regional initiative to assume responsibility within the own territorial waters and beyond must be supported politically and in practice. In this context “in practice” includes assistance for training and equipment.

4. Each nation which deploys ships and aircraft for the fight against piracy has to model its national law in a way to provide the capacity to arrest and sentence pirates. This is also demanded by the United Nations.
The different operations and the ships of single nations in the sea area have to be coordinated in order to have a maintainable effort and result. The next step should be a cooperation. Thereby, the operation offers the opportunity of collaboration beyond the existing alliances and coalitions. This will soon be required elsewhere.

5. Ship owners have to reassess their crew structures. Simple tasks, such as the look-out, permanent security patrols on the top deck and improved information on the respective situation in the sea area, significantly reduce the risk of a successful attack. I advise against the arming of the crew and the use of civil security personnel.

6. It is all about taking the initiative. This can only be achieved in a well-coordinated cooperation between the responsible parties of the region, the United Nations, the European Union and the North-Atlantic defence community as well as the ship owners.

7. The example of Southeast Asia, the local cooperation of the nations in the region, in the field of navigation as well as of external security, proves that there are solutions to this problem. This could serve as a role model.

Translated by, Nicolas von Kospoth

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