All about Pirates!

Summary:  Pirates are the latest craze to furrow brows in the geopolitical community, provoking much heavy breathing and laborious prose.  Here are some posts to sort through the noise. This is the first in a series; links to the other chapters appear at the end.


  1. How big is the impact so far?  See  “Quick Math For Anti-Piracy Operations“, Yankee Sailor, Information Dissemination, 10 December 2008
  2. A description of the problem:  “The Maritime Dimension of International Security“, Peter Chalk, RAND,  June 2008 — Terrorism, Piracy, and Challenges for the United States
  3. What naval force is required to successfully defeat pirates?  See CNN Newsroom, 9:00 EST, interview with Vice Admiral Gortney of the US Navy, 8 December 2008.
  4. RAND’s expert says it is a big, complex and expensive problem:  “Expert: Navy doesn’t need war on piracy“, Navy Times, 10 December 2008 T
  5. This illustrates the absurdity of our naval forces, ready to fight past foes (Japan), future foes (Mars), but not current foes:   “Reductio Ad Absurdum, Navy Style“, Chuck Spinney, Defense and the National Interest, 10 December 2008.

All of the above are correct, but miss a vital element of the problem.  Today piracy is a high profit, low-risk endeavor, as we use the “catch and release” program for pirates:  

6.  “U.S. Admiral: Ships Must Do More To Combat Piracy“, JJ Sutherland, Morning Edition, National Public Radio, 20 November 2008 — Excerpt:

“There is no reason not to be a pirate. The vessel I’m trying to pirate, they’re not going to shoot at me. I’m going to get my money. If I get arrested – they won’t arrest me, because there’s no place to try me,” Gortney says.

Also see this excerpt from the CNN broadcast (#3 above):

NIC ROBERTSON (CNN correspondent): The pirates are allowed to escape. Partly NATO officers say because it’s not their mission to catch them.

A more effective solution than “catch and release”

There is another way, the traditional method of dealing with pirates:  when caught, hang them immediately.  Authority to do even in international waters is in the Constitution.  Article I, section 8 says

Congress shall have power … To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations.

These problems result from glitches in our minds, of which others take advantage.  We can hardly blame them for our timidity and stupidity.

Excerpts from these sources

1.  As always with maritime affairs, the place to start is Information Dissemination:  “Quick Math For Anti-Piracy Operations“, Yankee Sailor, 10 December 2008 — Bold emphasis added.  Excerpt:

Observing the first phase of Operation Atalanta, I’ve run through some of the numbers to get a feel for the economic price taxpayers in the EU will be incurring to stem the tide of piracy in the Horn of Africa. Here’s what I came up with:

Each group of ships involved will spend approximately 120 days on station and another 15 days transiting to and from the region. With 10 frigates, three smaller combatants, one support ship and a small staff involved, I estimate there are about 1750 sailors in the force. Picking an average cost rate of $40k per year in pay and another $10 per day in food, the personnel costs run approximately $28.4 million for each phase, or $85.1 million for the entire year-long operation.

Then, looking at fuel costs, a group this size will run through around 1,400 barrels of fuel per day while transiting and perhaps 800 barrels per day on station, which at $125 per barrel yields a cost of $14.6 million per phase and $43.9 million for the entire operation.

So, not even considering maintenance, ordnance, flight operations, logistics and port and canal costs, the starting point to estimate the cost of the whole operation should be around $129 million. Other costs associated with a heightened operational tempo could increase the cost by another $20 million or more.

As of the first part of October this year, pirates have collected an estimated $30 million in ransoms in 2008.

2.  A description of the problem:  “The Maritime Dimension of International Security“, Peter Chalk, RAND,  June 2008 — Terrorism, Piracy, and Challenges for the United States — Abstract:

The vast size and highly unregulated nature of the world’s waterways have made the maritime environment an attractive theater for perpetrators of transnational violence. Both piracy and sea-borne terrorism have become more common since 2000 due to the global proliferation of small arms as well as growing vulnerabilities in maritime shipping, surveillance, and coastal and port-side security. In addition to massive increases in maritime traffic, pirates have profited from increasingly congested maritime chokepoints, the lingering effects of the Asian financial crisis, and weakened judicial and governmental structures.

Some analysts also fear that terrorists may soon exploit the carefully calibrated freight trading system to trigger a global economic crisis, or use the container supply chain to transport weapons of mass destruction. While speculation about an emerging tactical nexus between piracy and terrorism is complicating the maritime threat picture, credible evidence to support this presumed convergence has yet to emerge. Since 2002, the United States – one of the world’s principal maritime trading states – has spearheaded several important initiatives to improve global and regional maritime security. Although an important contribution, the author urges policymakers to consider four additional measures to better safeguard the world’s oceans:

  1. helping to further expand the post-9/11 maritime security regime;
  2. conducting regular and rigorous threat assessments;
  3. assisting with redefining mandates of existing multilateral security and defense arrangements; and
  4. encouraging the commercial maritime industry to make greater use of enabling communication and defensive technologies and accept a greater degree of transparency in its corporate structures.

3.  What naval force is required to successfully defeat pirates? CNN Newsroom, 9:00 EST, interview with Vice Admiral Bill Gortney of the US Navy, 8 December 2008 – This is 21st century journalism of the highest standard, posting the transcripts.  Bold emphasis added.  Excerpt:

COLLINS: We want to let you know, we have a rare opportunity to talk a little bit more about this. We’re going to be speaking with Vice Admiral Bill Gortney. He is of course the commander of U.S. Naval Forces for central command. He can give us a little bit more information about the latest on the piracy story.

Quickly now, the story that we’ve been telling you for several weeks here on CNN, more about piracy happening in the Gulf of Aden. We just saw an incredible report by our international correspondent Nic Robertson. Also we want to take a moment now to bring the commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Vice Admiral Bill Gortney is on the line with me now to talk more about this.  Admiral Gortney, if we could, talk to us about the current situation right now. We’ve been speaking for quite some time about what a vast area this is and how difficult it is to get to these pirates.

GORTNEY: Well, yes, ma’am. It’s an international problem that demands an international solution. The scope of the problem is really extensive. Just the maritime piece of it is over 1.5 million square miles. But if we want to counter the piracy we need to work on four — there’s four interrelated elements. 

  • One is the International Naval Protection at Sea. That The Navies of the World.
  • It’s improved defensive efforts by the shipping industry, and
  •  international legal framework for resolving the piracy cases. Take a pirate. How do we adjudicate them?
  • And finally, removing the safe haven in Somalia.

And we’re not going to successful unless we address all four of those elements in harmony. None will be successful by itself.

COLLINS: Yes. And so, that’s the trick obviously and as we’ve witnessed, because it’s obviously, it continues to happen. How do you work together with the rest of the world, the rest of the navies on this?

GORTNEY: Well, right now, we have an average of about 14 coalition and non-coalition warships that are patrolling the 1.1 million square miles.  That’s clearly inadequate given the time. If we were just going to control the single shipping lane, north of Somalia, it would take over 61 ships to do that.  But we’re working with the — coordinating our efforts to be the most effective in that. And we’re also working with the shipping industry, identifying the best practices — using lookouts, speed maneuver and some non-kinetic measures. And they’re turning out to be the most important and effective measure out there to detour or to make an attack unsuccessful.

COLLINS: Yes. And talk to me a little bit if you could about the priority that this is being given. Because, clearly, we still have two wars going on. And I know that there is quite a bit of continuously planning by way of the Navy and where the ships are position with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan. Where does this particular problem fit in?

GORTNEY: Well, I would say it fits in pretty high globally. Because since we established the Maritime Security Patrol Air back on the 22 August, when it was just our coalition ships and the nations of the coalition that were out here to also fight OIF and OEF, since then, we have been joined by many nations to include Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, South Korea will probably be sending a vessel.  These are all nations — NATO has come with a maritime force and has been out here for the last — last couple of months working World Food Program, escort piracy efforts. The EU is coming with a flotilla of ships here in the middle of the month. So I see this very high just because of the international response from the nations of the world, sending their Navy to assist in this problem.

COLLINS: Certainly. And obviously, I guess, one of the things that people are concerned about, if you fast forward, and if the problem isn’t deterred is what happens if, in fact, we see a cruise ship or luxury liners that are ultimately attacked? We’ve seen it once.

GORTNEY: We have. The bigger cruise ships, though, operate at a speed and have a height above the water that the pirates aren’t going to make a successful attack on. We find the slower vessels, the ones with what we call low-free board are the ones that the pirates have shifted their tactics and those are the ones that are at the highest risk.

COLLINS: Well, we certainly do appreciate your time and wish you all the success in the Gulf of Aden that we possibly can here. Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, he’s the commander of the U.S. fifth fleet. Thanks again for your time.

Note:  the Navy Times (following story, #4) comments on Admiral Gortney’s analysis:  “If the U.S. Navy alone had to provide a force that size, it would take every destroyer and cruiser in the fleet, plus three frigates.”

4.  RAND’s expert says it is a big, complex and expensive problem:  “Expert: Navy doesn’t need war on piracy“, Navy Times, 10 December 2008 — His report is #2 above.  Excerpt:

The U.S. Navy and its international allies should take care they don’t start a “war on piracy,” as the U.S. declared “wars” on terror and drugs, a top maritime security analyst said Tuesday.

Piracy will never be completely eliminated, Rand Corp. researcher Peter Chalk said, but it can be managed and defended against to the point that it becomes just another cost of international commerce. What’s more, the international system can probably withstand a great deal more attacks and hijackings beyond the recent spike off Somalia, he said, given the scale of global trade.

Although Chalk cautioned that there are few reliable figures when it comes to the costs of piracy, he said a rough estimate is that global piracy costs the world about $16 billion per year, although he noted that figure is a conservative guess because many pirate attacks aren’t reported. The total yearly value of international maritime trade is more than $7.8 trillion, making the losses to piracy comparatively minor.

As with other piracy experts, Chalk said the lawlessness off Somalia’s coast was a symptom of its anarchy on land. The absence of authorities gives pirates the ability to hijack ships and take them to ports where no police will try to free them. Also, pirate payoffs give locals a stake in helping the attacks continue. Short of invading the coastal towns that serve as pirate havens, experts have said, there is no way to strike at more than the symptoms of piracy.

Chalk also echoed other experts with his view that the U.S. and European naval patrols off Somalia could never stop all the attacks over hundreds of square miles, nor even serve as a deterrent for pirates who have proven to be wily, inventive operators. As such, the European Union’s new anti-piracy patrol, with four ships, won’t have much of an effect, Chalk said.

Note:  Yankee Sailor (see #1 above) comments on the Chalk’s estimate that “global piracy costs the world about $16 billion per year” — “That was sourced to an industry group and seems enormously inflated to me.”

5.  This illustrates the absurdity of our naval forces, ready to fight past foes (Japan), future foes (Mars), but not current foes:   “Reductio Ad Absurdum, Navy Style“, Chuck Spinney, Defense and the National Interest, 10 December 2008 — Excerpt:

In January, it is my understanding that the Pentagon will request a budget of about $581 billion for its core budget, i.e., not including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Department of the Navy’s share of this budget should be something on the order of $150-160 billion a year, yet Admiral Gortney is telling us that securing the Horn of Africa from a gang of rag tag Somali pirates will take every cruiser and destroyer in the Navy plus 3 or its Frigates.

This means the Navy would not enough surface warships left over to configure the normal defense screen for even one carrier battle group. Since the United States is spending about as much on defense as the rest of the world combined, Gortney’s confession raises a basic question about about the Pentagon’s competence to do its job.

For those of you who are interested in understanding the reasons why this ridiculous state of affairs is an inevitable product of business as usual in the Pentagon and why a bailout for the Pentagon is guaranteed to worsen this state of affairs, I recommend you download or purchase America’s Defense Meltdown — this book pretty well covers the waterfront of the problems that have put all of our military forces into variations of the Navy’s reductio ad absurdum.

6.  Today piracy is a high profit, low-risk endeavor, as we use the “catch and release” program for pirates:  “U.S. Admiral: Ships Must Do More To Combat Piracy“, JJ Sutherland, Morning Edition, National Public Radio, 20 November 2008 — Excerpt:

For its part, the Navy does patrol the waters and has tried to set up safe sea lanes. But spotting the pirates isn’t easy. It’s not like they fly the Jolly Roger; when they’re in sight, they act just like fishermen. It’s only when the navies aren’t around that they turn rogue.  And there is a huge incentive to do so. At least 18 vessels are now being held for ransom. That ransom most often is paid, usually in the millions of dollars – not bad money for a Somali fisherman.

“There is no reason not to be a pirate. The vessel I’m trying to pirate, they’re not going to shoot at me. I’m going to get my money. If I get arrested – they won’t arrest me, because there’s no place to try me,” Gortney says.

That’s another problem. Some pirates have been taken prisoner, but it is only recently that anyone has agreed to try them. Kenya is going to put some pirates captured by the British on trial, but no one knows how that case will turn out. Most of the time, pirates are just released. Somalia is essentially ungoverned, so there is no rule of law.

For more information from the FM site

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including the Naval warfare and strategy reference page.

Posts on the FM site about pirates:

  1. All about Pirates!, 12 December 2008
  2. More about pirates: why we no longer “hang them high”, 5 January 2009
  3. A Piracy SitRep, 12 May 2009
  4. What is this “justice” that war-loving Americans speak of?, 31 December 2009
  5. More about those pirate demons in Somalia, 2 January 2009
  6. The real pirates sailing the seas, in whom we have no interest and from which we will suffer massive damage, 4 January 2010
  7. New research about pirates!, 3 March 2010

13 thoughts on “All about Pirates!”

  1. This issue has the flavor of another cooked up excuse for NATO or US-led military presence in Africa. I have read that the actual, humble beginnings of the pirate phenomenon were local fisherman resisting Japanese and other nationals’ invasion of their territorial waters. REsistance seems to have morphed, or virused, into, a separate profitable criminal enterprise, but let’s treat it as a simple police matter, not blow up into a new front for the GWOT.

  2. I disagree with Seneca on this point, nobody has said a word about terrorism and nobody, to the best of my knowledge, is calling this a new front in the war on terrorism. As a matter of fact, the pirates are mostly based out of northern ports which are not, to the best of my knowledge, under either the Islamic Fundamentalist control or the so-called official government control. These are simply local businessmen that have found a new and more profitable way of doing business.

    NATO has been doing everything it can to avoid taking responsibility for this mess, which is proving more expensive than if they did actually take control. The current random patrol system with a small number of vessels gives the home front the impression you are doing something without actually doing anything because the odds of a successful interception are so low because of the vast amount of territory and the busy shipping lanes.

    All we’d need to do is institute a convoy system in the area and take responsibility for recapturing and/or sinking stolen vessels. The shipowners would howl about scheduling and insurance issues for a while and it would be very hard on the captive crewmembers but it would quickly solve the problem by forcing the pirates to attack defended targets and moving their risk/reward ratio towards unacceptable.

    The biggest issue is that we’d encounter is that the convoy system would have to remain until Somalia gets a reasonably effective government and that could take a very LONG time, which is very likely the reason nobody has taken charge before now.
    Fabius Maximus replies: One point of disagreement.

    “NATO has been doing everything it can to avoid taking responsibility for this mess, which is proving more expensive than if they did actually take control.”

    See reference #1 by Yankee Sailor at Information Dissemination. He calculations have the opposite conclusion. If we just look at marginal costs — since the navy will have those ships and people doing something — the incremental costs are larger by a massive multiple.

  3. Here is a plan. We give DARPA 25 billion dollars to resurrect Stephen Decatur and Reuben James. Then for a modest sum (500 million) we get Northrup Grumman to recreate the schooner USS Enterprise (think of it as a wooden sailing ship with harpoon missiles) and we send Decatur and James to clean the nest of pirates out.

  4. The naval operations around the Horn of Africa is slowly becoming a joke about the ineptitude of modern military forces when they face 4GW. But it is also a story about profound confusion regarding modern conflicts (is piracy war?). The Danish warship “Absalon” actually captured nine pirates, but since no one knew what to do with them they promptly released them. Afterward they captured another group of pirates and send them to Yemen, where they have disappeared. Now Danish human rights groups claim they have been killed by the government of Yemen, which would also make the Danish naval officers on the “Absalon” war-criminals. Nobody really knows what happened with them in Yemen.

    Denmark is certainly not alone. The German destroyer Emden spotted a pirate ship attacking a tanker. But since the Germans are only allowed to pursue terrorists at sea they let the pirates escape.

    My suggestion about what to do is quite basic: Instead of inventing some high-tech gadgets or something like that let the naval leaders take some history lessons. Let them read a couple of books about how states dealt with piracy in the past and then let them work out some modern solutions. Convoys, armed merchant ships, small patrol boats etc. I don’t buy the idea that there is no solution to this problem, since it has been solved before. Actually so effectively it was only a couple of years ago it was quite modern for some pundits to claim that terrorism could be eradicated just like piracy had been eradicated in the past. I think John Keegan made that claim.

  5. Well worth reading Max Boot’s Savage Wars of Peace. Not only covers the “Decatur days” but puts 4GW, “war amongst the people”/Rupert Smith, GWOT, piracy, guerilla warfare, COIN in interesting context – IMHO. We need some discipline on use of words WAR, war, warfare, conflict, pirates, terrorists, guerrillas, insurgents, jihadists!

  6. Ships filled with arms at opposite ends of the shipping lanes, lease 450lb containers of guns and ammo to security details aboard ships, get them there via circling C-130, get them off via balloon-hook, or helicopter, or speedboat, or whatever, just get them. Minor modifications to the ship, such as stable mortar platforms, claymore emplacements around the rim of the ship, and armor plating for under-deck could be made.

    Arm your 4-man security detail with four anti-materiel rifles, one 40mm mortar, four uzis, claymores, and a 40mm grenade launcher plus a good deal of CS-gas canisters. They can bring their own body armor, binoculars, and gas mask aboard ship in port.

    Fortify a strong point below decks, place the claymores around the rim of the ship aimed downwards, and keep one man on lookout at all times. The range of an RPG-7 is 900 meters, the range of a barrett .50 BMG anti-material rifle is well over 1200 in trained hands, the range of a 40mm mortar is a little over three km. Speedboats are spotted, the alarm is sounded, the boats are disabled with the anti-materiel rifles, and the mortar sinks them. If they get close enough to board, the claymores pointed down over the ship’s ladders can be activated. If they get aboard, CS gas and SMG fire while below decks will give the pirates a vision of hell they won’t soon forget.

    After the ship is out of the danger zone, the container can be re-loaded, losses can be reported, and the ship can sail into port unarmed. If there is an incident of any kind reported, the customs officials at the next port of call can fully search the ship to ensure that no arms are kept aboard.

    This is one of many potential simple solutions to the problem, commandos could probably come up with better ones. Get the people paid to guard these ships the equipment they need to crush idiots in lightly armed, slow ‘speedboats’ with RPG-7s.

  7. The big problem with armed guards on the ships is that it’s almost impossible to carry weapons through customs in most nations on the planet.

  8. It takes political will to allow the military to what is necessary to deal with pirates but since we don’t have that we are stuck with half way solutions which resolves nothing. The decadence of the west show’s at these times.

  9. Another thought occurred to me. Isn’t piracy a good issue to rally international cooperation? Even if the current efforts aren’t really needed the experiences gained between the nations involved might come in handy later. Plus some countries, like Russia, seem to be using the pirates as a way of giving their navies some real-world experience.

  10. FM: “See reference #1 by Yankee Sailor at Information Dissemination. He calculations have the opposite conclusion. If we just look at marginal costs — since the navy will have those ships and people doing something — the incremental costs are larger by a massive multiple.

    You’re right in terms of cash but I am right in terms of national prestige and deterence of future pirates.

  11. Actually I don’t understand Yankee Sailor’s numbers.

    (1) Navy personnel costs: well they are all paid anyway, whether or not they go and do something useful or sit around playing scrabble. Some Navy’s add an extra amount for ‘active duty’ assignments, but that is a fraction their total costs. Say we use 10%. That gives $8.5m per year.

    (2) Fuel: combat ships do not just sit around all year in the dock, they go out on exercises, showing the flag operations, etc, etc. Ok we will be generous, an increase of 50% in fuel usage. But oil costs have gone down, now they will probably rise again over the next few years, so lets compromise and average $80 = $14M, lets make it $20M.

    (3) OK higher tempo means more maintenance, but this can be mitigated by: (a) for a lot of time they are steaming around at a low cruising speed, (b) coordination with associated nations so that nearby maintenance facilities can be used.

    Lets add it up and triple it for maintenance: 3 x (8.5+20) = $85.5M

    On the other side of the ledger lets look at the costs:

    (4) Insurance prices (hey I work in this industry) usually lag claims experience, sometimes by quite a while. Rates go up relentlessly, rates will go up to catch up with costs. Get spooked too much and rates will then start to be priced by “expectations”, then they can go up a LOT.

    (5) Price of life and compensation. Fine to say $30M in ransom, but then some people will be killed plus compensation for emotional/etc stress. Plus salaries being paid while they are being held.

    (6) Freight ships cost money per month. Loans, etc means while they are not moving they are losing money. Ship owners will claim insurance on this, rasing rates even more, or if they can’t add to their charges.

    (7) Supplier/receiver costs. Suppliers don’t get their money for non-delivery, buyers don’t get their products, insurance/ banks (through letters of credit) will pay for this or suppliers/buyers will raise prices.

    Now, without a major exercise (hey I’ll do it for a fee) those costs are currently unknow, but <$85.5M? I doubt it, especially when the higher insurance costs start coming through.

    Me? I think it is a no-brainer to put some serious forces in there. Do we have to wait until there is a tragedy (such as a lot of sailors being killed) before there is action (ie the impact of politics, where money means nothing)?

    This analysis reminds me of the famous killer Ford car years ago, where it was calculated to be cheaper to pay out on killed people than fix it. Cold .. and wrong, the total costs were many multiples of the ‘calculated’ costs.

  12. Oh to add a historical note. The US Navy likes to think of itself as the modern Royal Navy of the 1800’s. Not even close, basically a joke in comparison.

    Can you imagine an out break of piracy in the (say) the mid 1800’s .. anywhere in the World. The Royal Navy would have shut it down so fast their heads would have spun, well hung actually.

    We are talking about a force that shut down the slave trade worldwide, which incidentally contrubuted to the US civil war. Starved of new slaves from Africa, one reason for the war was for them to expand, by land of course, southward .. creating whole new ‘slave nations’. The Federal Govt in those days was reluctant, frankly, mainly because it had its eyes elsewhere.

    Interestingly the UK backed the South, but as ‘real politik’, because they, quite rightly, worked out that a broken US would be easy meat for the British Emnpire at its height. Easy from them to block access to slaves from the south, destroying their economy, and with a weakend Northern US .. well that was what Canada was for.

    And that is a great subject for an ‘alternative history’ book.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: