Months or years from now, when Somali piracy is a distant memory, its most enduring legacy will not be the spike it produced in maritime crime, or millions of dollars in ransoms paid by shipping firms and insurance companies. Instead, the piracy along the East African coast will be recalled as the catalyst for the rising navies of India, China and the European Union to deploy far from their homeports, altering who and where they fight. The Somali imperative will also be remembered for bringing about the first instance of naval coordination among member nations under the UN auspices at a meeting in mid-January.
With more than 20,000 ships annually transiting the Gulf of Aden, gateway to the Suez Canal and the avenue for most maritime trade between East and West, Somali piracy affects virtually every nation. Estimates suggest between 7 to 12 percent of the world’s annual oil supply passes this stretch of water that spans more than 2 million square miles. The United States and traditional maritime powers have responded with naval forces. More remarkable, however, is that rising maritime powers, India and China in particular, join the effort, conducting sustained deployments away from home for the first time in modern history.
The transformative events that unfolded in 2008 included India deploying frigates and destroyers to thwart multiple piracy attacks. Beijing sent two destroyers and a logistics ship to the Gulf of Aden in December to protect the more than 1,200 Chinese merchant vessels that annually make the transit through the dangerous waters. In response to maritime piracy in the Horn of Africa, the European Union authorized its first major out-of-area maritime deployment, "Operation Atalanta," under the command of a British commodore. Collectively, all three – the EU, China and India – are using their naval forces in unprecedented action to address threats to international security far from their shores. Iran also made a deployment to fight piracy in East Africa, and even Japan is considering whether its constitution permits sending warships into the area.
The recent explosion of maritime piracy off the Somali coast has been simmering for 15 years, a result of crushing poverty and an ungoverned environment. Incredible sums of money paid through large ransoms emboldened more attacks. Recently, a ransom payment of $3 million secured the release of a hijacked Saudi supertanker that had been anchored at gunpoint since November 2008. Innovative use of technology, including global positioning systems and satellite phones, aid the pirates in tracking and selecting their targets. In the last quarter of 2008, a Ukrainian ship carrying 33 Russian armored tanks and other armaments and ammunition was seized, raising concern that pirates might target vessels holding even more sensitive cargo, such as radioactive material. Somali pirates attacked approximately 125 vessels last year, successfully boarding one-third of them. Estimates of their considerable haul from hijacking and ransom last year vary between $50 million and $300 million.
Four times in 2008, the UN Security Council adopted resolutions on piracy, each increasing the authority to act. As the attacks became more audacious, pressure mounted for states to take greater military action, and for international organizations to promote diplomacy and support efforts to prosecute the pirates. Warships from multiple nations have deployed to the Gulf, and Kenya and France are poised to start trials involving Somali pirates. Earlier this month, the US 5th Fleet organized a new international coalition against piracy, Combined Task Force 151. Based in Bahrain, more than 20 nations have been invited to participate. Last summer, the UN Security Council authorized armed force in hot pursuit inside Somalia’s territorial seas, and in December the Security Council adopted Resolution 1851, which authorized states to use armed force onshore to defeat Somali piracy. The Security Council’s efforts, coupled with warships and enhanced protective measures employed by ship’s crews, have had an impact, but the attacks continue.
Of the warships on station now in the Gulf, the Indian and Chinese forces are best known as "green water," or littoral, forces that operate close to shore and do not routinely operate in a "blue water" environment on the high seas. Before, these two navies only left their normal operating areas to conduct humanitarian assistance and escort missions, training exercises and routine port visits. This is India’s and China’s first extended transcontinental naval operational deployment.
Conducting patrols on the high seas, away from shore-based aviation and communications, creates new logistics challenges, including navigation through the exclusive economic zone of coastal states; conducting visit, board, search and seizure operations in unfamiliar areas; and exercising ship and crew sustainability. It’s probable that the new rising naval powers will develop new doctrine, policy, tactics, techniques and procedures to master extended deployments, and those skills will transfer to future missions. New ship and weapons platforms may not be far behind either.
Another challenge is ensuring effective communication on the high seas. Effective high seas missions require, among other things, robust communication capabilities, coordination among warships and an ability to identify, classify and, if necessary, respond to maritime threats. The new naval powers of China and India will gain experience in independent as well as coalition operations and coordination, including exercising communications as well as bridge-to-bridge radio, satellite telephone, Internet, radar, sonar and electro-optical sensors. The ships also use the Automatic Identification System, a VHF-based system that, while short in range, provides data on nearby merchant ships, including identification, position, course and speed. As more warships converge to the Horn, there’s an increased imperative for all operating forces to have a common operating picture.
Security Council Resolution 1851 also called for an international contact group to develop better communication and coordination. On January 14, 2009, about 24 nations and 5 international organizations are slated to meet at the UN in New York to address how to best coordinate counter-piracy. Continued support will be necessary to sustain the efforts of this US-organized contact group beyond the January meeting.
Although the warships taking part in Operation Atalanta are deployed from Western European states accustomed to naval frigate operations, this is the first time the countries are integrating into a maritime force under EU command. As the EU works through command and control issues they will invariably develop protocols based on the lessons learned from the deployment. Operation Atalanta tangibly exhibits to member states of the EU and the rest of the world that Europe is capable of projecting unified power across vast distances. The strength, interoperability and adaptability of the EU maritime operation will persist beyond the current piracy crisis, influencing how Europe approaches future global naval missions.
The nations of China and India, and the member states of the EU, now join traditional maritime powers – the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Russia – as naval forces with worldwide reach. Whether this expansion of blue water capability will be a positive force, and not a source of friction, largely depends on the ability of this diverse group to coordinate and share the increasingly crowded littorals.
Brian Wilson and James Kraska are senior Navy officers and lawyers, and both formerly served as oceans policy advisers in the Pentagon. The views presented are those of the authors and do not represent the official policy or position of the
US Department of Defense. Rights: © 2009 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.