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Counter-Piracy Operations: CTF-151

Counter-Piracy Operations are going to change radically in a short while according to Vice Admiral William Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.  He talked about the recent formation of CTF-151 which will eventually have ships from 14 nations committed to eradicating the piracy problem in the Gulf of Aden.  Said Gortney:

We knew that the problem of piracy started ashore. And it's because there is not a rule of law. There isn't a governance. There isn't economic stability.  There isn't a court system that will hold these criminals responsible for their actions. And so the ultimate solution is ashore proper.

  So we had to focus on prevention efforts at sea. And we developed a campaign plan. We created, working with the International Maritime Organization, the Maritime Security Patrol Area, a place to channel the shipping, so that we can concentrate naval activity, to make our naval activity more effective, because we knew we would be ineffective alone. And we went off on three lines of influence.   

The first one was to bring more navies into it, international navies, to bring more of the international community to help solve this international problem and to bring more navies into it.   

The second one was to work with the shipping industry on best practices to, what can they do to prevent pirates from successfully getting onboard their vessel?

And the third line of influence was to work through the interagency process to find a way to solve what we call the persons under control: When we capture a pirate, where do we take him? Where do we hold him? Where -- what court system tries him and holds him? If they're found guilty, hold them accountable for their actions.

They've done well in the first two areas.  International navies are volunteering to take an active role in counter-piracy missions, some within the mandate of CTF-151 and some, like the Russians and Chinese, outside that mandate.  But according to Adm. Gortney, those outside the CTF are cooperating with the CTF's mission.  Both the Russians and Chinese have limited their role to escorting their nation's flagged ships through the region.  But they coordinate with the CTF as they fulfill their mission.

The third point Adm. Gortney lists is the problem which has allowed the piracy in the area to persist.  Presently there is no one to hold the pirates accountable for their actions.  But that's about to change soon.  The State Department's close to finalizing an agreement with one of the nations in the region to which captured pirates can be taken and put on trial for piracy.  Right now the coalition force operates under a "disrupt, deter but do not capture" order.  Once this nation signs on to take the pirates into custody and apply the law to them, Adm. Gortney says his orders will change to "disrupt, deter and capture."

The entire point, of course is to "disincentivize" piracy.  That's a nice way of saying they want to make piracy more painful than fishing.  Right now there is no disincentive, or what little there is remains vastly outweighed by the potential rewards.  So Somali fishermen have become pirates.  The average payoff today is $1.5 million to 2 million a ship.  CTF-151's mission, in reality, is prevent successful hijackings, capture the pirates and help the rest rediscover their love for fishing.  When enough head out to hijack a ship and don't come home,  but end up dead or in prison for a long, long time, Gortney figures fishing will start looking a lot better again.

About 24,000 ships transit the region each year.  The chances of being hijacked is only 0.13%.  So while it is a problem, it's not one that is crippling the already shaky global economy. But it is a major nuisance.  Right now there are 11 pirated ships with 210 hostages still waiting for ransoms to be paid.

Unsurprisingly, the pirates are lazy.  They look for and approach only what they consider easy targets. 

When it comes to the merchant vessel itself, if the vessel is maneuvering at speed, a speed over 15 knots, and has a high freeboard from the deck down to the water, pirates won't even attempt to get onboard, because it's just too hard a target to get onboard.     

So they go after what we call the low and slow vessels, 13-14 knots or slower with a low freeboard. And then that allows these very small boats -- I mean, these boats are no bigger, are smaller than this platform that I'm standing on here today.

And so if they're not able to maneuver, they slow down. And it makes it a lot easier for the pirates to get onboard, by putting grappling hooks up or putting one of those ladders up onboard. And that's usually the case.

Now, the shipping industry has been very good for those vessels. We've seen vessels be very successful putting barbed wire around the low parts of the vessel, slippery foam on it.     

We had a vessel the other day, a couple weeks ago, that they just locked themselves in the bridge. And the pirates got onboard but they couldn't get inside the bridge. And then the master inside, safely inside, inside his bridge, called for the coalition. The coalition showed up with a helicopter. Now the pirates knew they had to get off the vessel. And they got off the vessel.

Human nature remains true, even among pirates.  Vessels which take a few precautions get bypassed for those which don't.

In summary, look for some changes in the counter-piracy effort in the coming weeks as the USN and CTF-151 go on the offensive against the pirates plaguing the Gulf of Aden.