The Convoy Solution to Combating Piracy

What to do about the pirates? This question endures, of course, even in the aftermath of the successful rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips from the Maersk Alabama.

Through 2007 there were only about 15 successful pirate attacks a year in the waters off Somalia; the number grew to at least several dozen in 2008, and now appears to have reached the rate of 15 a month.

The pirates now operate up to several hundred miles offshore, using mother ships before releasing motorboats to conduct actual attacks, and the affected area of ocean is estimated to be at least 1 million square miles, or several times the size of the state of Texas.

Insurance costs for ships have increased to $20,000 or more a voyage, and these numbers affect up to 20,000 voyages a year in and through the Gulf of Aden, a major shipping corridor for trade involving Europe and Asia. About 15 to 20 naval vessels from the United States, other NATO nations, Russia, China, Japan and even Iran now collaborate on any given day in patrolling the affected waterways, mostly in the northern region around the Gulf of Aden.

However, much more needs to be done. The core of a new policy requires several elements, including a convoy escort system not unlike what the Allies used to win the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II.

In this situation, the mission would be far easier and less risky—but would still require more effort and resources than we presently devote to the problem.

At present, despite our recent gains against the pirates in a couple of instances, southern shipping routes toward the East African coast remain unprotected. And ships in the Gulf of Aden are still too vulnerable.

Before long, terrorists are likely to take note of the opportunity to seize Western hostages through similar acts of piracy—and their willingness to release any such hostages unharmed is open to serious doubt.

By nipping this problem in the bud, we can deter future acts of commercial piracy and prevent the nightmare scenario of an American crew in the hands of an Osama bin Laden devotee.

The right policy has three specific elements::

(1) We need to deal with pirates more firmly. That means being willing to detain and try them, rather than release them back on African shores. It also means being willing to shoot at them as they approach commercial ships, once a reasonable keep-out zone is penetrated. A United Nations Security Council resolution should explicitly authorize this.

(2) We need to beef up our naval picket in the Gulf of Aden. The number of ships there is clearly not adequate to the challenge. Because distances are modest and traffic is heavy, maintaining such a naval picket is probably the most efficient approach. Where possible, vessels should be equipped with unmanned aerial vehicles, some possibly armed, to improve coverage and enhance our rapidity of response.

(3) Along the Somali coast, on the approach to Mombassa, Kenya, we should establish World War II-style convoys. Here, in contrast to the Gulf of Aden, sea traffic is light and distances are long. So convoys make the most sense.

This is an altogether doable mission, far less daunting than protecting the tens of thousands of ships facing German submarine wolf packs as well as other forms of attack during the Battle of the Atlantic 65 years ago.

What would it take to establish and maintain convoys along major shipping routes off Somalia? In rough numbers, we estimate that up to 5,000 vessels a year or 100 a week head to and from East African ports along the Somali coast. It would thus make sense that convoys headed to Africa could be formed every two days.

That might occur in two places: (1) in the Gulf of Aden for convoys headed southwestward toward Mombassa and points below and (2), in Kenyan waters for the voyage in the other direction. On average, counting everything, there would therefore be about seven convoys a week or one a day on average. A convoy command center on land might also be established in Kenya to coordinate this multiship and multinational effort.

A convoy might average 15 commercial ships. Deploying two naval vessels with each one of them, equipped with unmanned aerial vehicles and also fast patrol vessels, would provide the ability to respond quickly (within minutes by air, a half-hour at most by sea) to any violation of a declared keep-out zone that would extend several miles from the line of commercial ships.

In addition, potential pirate ships that ignored warnings (issued by UAVs or patrol boats) could be fired upon by the armed UAVs in self defense.

This type of system would require about seven teams of armed convoys, assuming a three-day voyage per convoy, plus time for recuperation and maintenance for crews. So the international community would need 15 ships for the East Africa route, and perhaps another 10 to strengthen the operation in the Gulf of Aden.

Thankfully, our Navy is not as overtaxed as other military services in the current wars, so adding five to 10 more American vessels to the operation should be feasible. Over the longer term, this is an added scenario in favor of smaller-ship technologies for the U.S. armed forces.

One is the so-called Stiletto, a boat of considerable dimensions but modest weight and cost that captures its own wake and thereby can maintain high speeds at modest cost. It is a $10 million vessel, even counting UAVs (armed or unarmed) operated off its decks.

Such programs would be a good use of some short-term economic stimulus dollars, even as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates wisely seeks to rein in Pentagon spending over the longer term.

With luck and decisiveness, the pirate threat will prove primarily a short-term nuisance – and will in fact have given the Obama administration an early opportunity to prove the value of its brand of multilateralist but tough-minded foreign policy.