What to do About Piracy?

We’re powerless?

Somali pirates struck again yesterday, seizing an Iranian cargo ship holding 30,000 tonnes of grain, as the world’s governments and navies pronounced themselves powerless against this new threat to global trade.

Admiral Michael Mullen, the US military chief, pronounced himself stunned by the pirates’ reach after their capture of the supertanker Sirius Star and its $100 million (£70 million) cargo. Commanders from the US Fifth Fleet and from Nato warships in the area said that they would not intervene to retake the vessel.

Well, the reason we have a Navy is to keep the sea lanes open – if Admiral Mullen doesn’t understand this, then we need to replace him with an Admiral who understands the basic concepts behind Naval organization. To fight pirates and others who threaten the free passage of peaceful vessels is the primary task of the United States Navy.

So, what do we do?

From what I’ve been able to determine, piracy outside of territorial waters (and, in some cases, within it) can be attacked by any interested nation. In other words, there are no jurisdictional boundaries regarding piracy. If a pirate seized a ship of the coast of California, a Pakistani flagged warship could intercept it and punish the pirates under Pakistani law…and, of course, if a pirate captured a ship off the Pakistani coast, a US flagged warship could do likewise and punish under US law. So, the US Navy could go after these pirates and bring them to justice.

The pirates do what they do because large profits can be made and, of course, it is highly likely that the ship owners will rather pay the ransom than risk damage to their very valuable property. Trouble is, failure to act forcefully against piracy will just encourage more and more of it until the trade routes of the world are clogged with pirates essentially demanding high tolls to allow the mere passage of vessels. Can’t allow that to eventuate – on the other hand, we don’t want our Navy just endlessly chasing pirates around the backwaters of the world.

Solution: Grant letters of marque to American citizens to become a sort of auxiliary Navy, under ultimate US command, but operating outside the normal parameters of Naval organization and chain of command. The staffing would be former sailors and special forces troops. The ships would be reconditioned Spruance class destroyers (plenty of them in mothballs and with a bit of work they’d easily outmatch anything the pirates could come up with). They would patrol those backwaters, with access to US military intel and either intercept pirates on their way to a crime, or take back ships seized by pirates. The pay could be just about anything (we’d have no problem staffing up the ships – first off because they’d need far smaller crews than a regular US warship and, secondly, because there are lots of old sailors and special forces who are no longer up to snuff for the cutting edge, current military…but are more than sufficient for anti-piracy actions, especially as they would ultimately be backstopped by the regular Navy and special forces) – and when a ship is retaken from pirates, the prize for the crew would be 50% of the ransom the pirates were asking, distributed amongst those who participated in the rescue (this might require re-establishing what used to be called “prize courts”).

As these forces would be outside the normal rules of engagement for regular military and naval forces there would be none of the thorny issues about whether or not they have a right to a jury trial – and deals could be struck with interested parties in the areas of piracy for rescue crews to deposit captured pirates for a bit of rough and ready justice. Bottom line, we’d gain the ability to go after piracy without directly involving the US government, at minimal cost and with a great disincentive to piracy as once a few of the pirates are killed during rescues and/or swiftly dealt with once turned over to some national authority the pirates will start to get the picture.