Tackling piracy in the Gulf of Aden

The need to counter piracy has resulted in unprecedented levels of international naval and diplomatic cooperation

A sailor in the Ops Room of HMS Cornwall, keeping an electronic eye on the waters

Lieutenant Nick Lucas RN offers a Chamber of Shipping perspective on tackling the latest manifestation of an age-old maritime hazard

Photo: Crown Copyright

Piracy has long been a problem in the Gulf of Aden, but since 2005 the shipping community noted with increasing alarm the number of pirate attacks and ship hijackings taking place east of Suez. By the end of 2008 one hundred ships had been attacked, of which forty were captured and held, with their crews, for ransom. In November 2008 the high-profile hijacking of the tanker Sirius Star, fully laden with a cargo of two million barrels of crude oil valued at $100 million, some 450 nautical miles off the eastern coast of Somalia, drew the world’s attention to fact that piracy had spread far out to sea and threatened key international trade routes. Even the most modern, the largest and the most valuable vessels were no longer safe. Some 51 days later the Sirius Star and her crew of twenty-five, including two Britons, were released unharmed in return for a ransom payment of $3 million.

Piracy past and present

Piracy is far from a new phenomenon. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, merchant vessels of many nations plundered one another in a bid to exert national dominance over trade routes and increase their wealth. In recent decades piracy has persisted in many parts of the world, from Southeast Asia to South America and the Caribbean. The piracy problem in Somalia, however, has been on a quite different scale, involving the hijacking of ships and cargoes and the capture of large crews.

So why has piracy off Somalia recently become such big business? Each year more than 33,000 ships transit the Gulf of Aden and through waters traditionally fished and frequented by many Yeminis and Somalis. In such restricted and crowded waters, long known for smuggling and other illicit trades, we can surmise that potential pirates watching from within Somalia – in the absence of any effective government onshore or law-enforcement presence at sea – saw this uninterrupted procession of valuable merchant ships as ‘easy pickings’.

Operation Atalanta

The Chamber of Shipping has always worked very closely with the Royal Navy through the Shipping Defence Advisory Committee, which was established in 1937 to provide civil and military liaison on issues concerning the defence of shipping. It has been this committee which has coordinated UK industry input to the Somali piracy problem. The committee’s principal aim has been to ensure the safety of seafarers and to work with all relevant government departments to encourage a prompt national response.

In late 2008 it was realised that the most effective response was likely to be delivered by the formation of the European Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) and the launch of Operation Atalanta, and this was finalised in December 2008. Operation Atalanta has proved to be a model international operation. Under the direction of the Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa (MSC HOA), and based in the UK under the command of the Royal Navy’s Commander UK Maritime Forces, it has both coordinated and led a complex and very broad international response. The conduct of the counter-piracy Operation Atalanta has resulted in unprecedented levels of international naval and diplomatic co-operation.

Group transits

Among the first actions of MSC HOA was to establish a transit corridor and group transit system. With a limited number of warships available, this was considered the most effective method of offering merchant vessels maximum protection during the highest-risk part of their transit while accommodating merchant ships steaming at different passage speeds. The concept of ‘group transits’ differs from the traditional convoy system (which restricts the speed of the convoy to that of the slowest ship) in that the transiting merchant vessels are given staggered start times and then monitored through the corridor. Ships are timed to arrive and pass together through the area of highest risk in the company of escorting warships. Maritime patrol aircraft (MPAs) are also invaluable assets and surveillance tools, but the numbers deployed are very small, as they are expensive both to operate and to maintain. Even for an MPA the Somali basin provides a formidable sea area of more than 600,000 square miles to patrol.

Operation Atalanta was given three specific counter-piracy tasks by the European Union:

  1. to protect United Nations World Food Programme deliveries into ports in the south of Somalia
  2. to protect international and other merchant shipping trading in and through the area
  3. to deter pirate operations and attacks

Although the operational force can consist of more than a dozen warships at peak times, this total number is made up of ships assigned to different duties and task forces operating in the area. At any one time one ship is required to provide the World Food Programme deliveries in the south, and so at times continuous surveillance of all ships in the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) off the north coast, which is 480 miles long, can prove difficult to maintain. Because of this, and much to the frustration of military commanders, pirate attacks on merchant shipping have continued to take place, and a proportion of these – although decreasing – continue to be successful.

Positive signs

There have been positive signs of late that the ongoing naval effort, combined with monsoonal weather creating rough sea conditions in the Gulf of Aden, is at last leading to a permanent reduction in the number of attacks. Merchant ships themselves, with the benefit of industry-produced best management practices, are also proving more resilient to pirate attack.

A long-term solution?

The persistent threat of attack by armed pirates on unarmed merchant ships has led to a long-running debate over whether merchant ships should be taking even greater steps to protect themselves, leading ultimately to the suggestion that ships should be armed. The starting position in this debate is that the vast majority of merchant vessels do not carry weapons of any sort, and seafarers, we argue, are no more qualified or indeed willing to bear arms than might lorry drivers on our motorways. While the arming of a ship might appear to provide a simple deterrent, and a solution to the problem, the carriage of firearms on board ship creates a number of serious operational, safety, legal and indemnity problems which are very difficult to quantify, let alone resolve.

Furthermore, it is thought that arming the ships would most likely lead to an escalation in the use of force. A seafarer returning fire would encourage a more targeted and aggressive response by the attackers, and any exchange of fire is likely also to encourage reprisals should the ship fall into pirate control. Evidence to date indicates that Somali pirates observe a fairly strict ‘pirate code’. Only three deaths amongst captured seafarers have been reported during 2008 and 2009, which suggests that the ‘code’ protects the lives of hostages. There is also reluctance on the part of pirates to diminish their chances of a full pay-out or provoke greater military reprisals, and neither does industry wish to risk upsetting this fragile status quo.

Piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the Horn of Africa has highlighted the extent to which the UK and other nations depend upon trade by sea. A secure maritime environment is a prerequisite for this trade to take place. Where political or legal problems ashore give rise to lawlessness upon the sea, it falls to governments and their navies to ensure that a safe trading environment is maintained and that we, as citizens and consumers, can continue to enjoy increasing economic prosperity. This must continue to be the policy approach of the UK and its EU partners until stability is restored to Somali institutions and the country can once again govern itself and control its waters.