opinion from the late,

great, golden state...

CRO Main Page

by J. F. Kelly, Jr. | Coronado Americans are reading with evident amusement of the pirate attacks in the waters around the Horn of Africa. The crews and the owners of the ships seized by the modern day buccaneers are not, however, in the least amused. More than forty vessels have been seized thus far this year. About half of them are still being held for ransom at this writing, along with about 300 crew members. The value of the cargoes seized amounts to billions of dollars. Arrrgh! Most of the seizures have occurred along the coast of Somalia which borders on the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean on Africa’s east coast. The coastal inlets and harbors of Somalia provide the pirates with sanctuaries and places to hold the captured ships, crews and booty. Lately the raiders have grown bolder, venturing farther out to sea. Their vessels, weapons and equipment have grown increasingly sophisticated, financed by the ransoms paid by the owners, which, of course, encourages more piracy. Prizes thus far include a Ukrainian ship loaded with weapons and a Saudi Arabian supertanker three times larger than our largest aircraft carriers, carrying oil originally destined for America. Insurers are becoming understandably reluctant to insure ships and cargoes and crews are becoming similarly reluctant to sail in pirate-infested waters. These are, after all, not your fun-loving Pirates of the Caribbean of Disneyland fame. The owners of the ships could take more aggressive actions to defend their ships but seem reluctant to do so citing problems with arming civilian vessels and crews and turning them essentially into combatants. The pirates are well-armed with grenade launchers and automatic weapons. Still, there is much more they could do to defend themselves using available technology. You might well ask why we tolerate such nonsense on the high seas in this enlightened age. To answer that, we must first define “we” and “enlightened”. “We” would presumably refer to some international force, say a naval task group acting under the flag of the United Nations. Forget about it. The United Nations couldn’t organize a bake sale, let alone a naval operation and if it tried, political correctness and the spirit of inclusion would probably dictate that it be placed under the command of a nation with no navy of its own. Desperate ship owners have asked NATO to blockade the Somali coast. NATO declined the invitation. That leaves the United States, the only nation with a big league navy, although at fewer than 280 ships and shrinking, it is a shadow of its former self, as a logical choice to restore order on the high seas and safeguard the vital sea lanes. It can be argued, however, that the U.S. doesn’t really have a dog in this fight. Although we are heavily dependant on seaborne commerce for vital imports, very few merchant ships sail under the U.S. flag because of regulatory burdens and the high cost of American crews and American-built ships. Most merchant ships are registered in countries like Panama and Liberia which don’t have seagoing navies to protect their flag carriers. The U. S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet has a combined task force with representation from various countries including Britain, France, the Netherlands, Canada and Pakistan but it has a huge area to patrol and the rules of engagement are far from clear. Which brings us to the part about living in an enlightened age. In the good old days, seafaring nations maintained navies to protect its merchant fleets. Navy ships would hunt down pirates and sink or capture their ships. Those pirates that survived might be hung from a yardarm or invited to walk the plank. Pirate lairs were bombarded and burned. Life was so simple. Justice at sea was swift and certain, unhampered by liberal compassion and concern for the rights of terrorists. In our enlightened, genteel age, justice is anything but swift or certain and there is little agreement over whose system of justice applies. Don’t look to international law to resolve things. There isn’t much agreement there, either. A ship sailing under a nation’s flag on the high seas is a sovereign part of that country. An attack upon it is act of war. A country providing refuge to the attackers is answerable. That would be Somalia. Problem is, Somalia, another failed former colonial possession, does not have a functioning government. Then there is the question of what to do with captured pirates in this enlightened age. They mustn’t be harshly treated, disrespected or humiliated while awaiting trial somewhere. But where? Should they be returned to Somalia to resume their lucrative careers or to a place like Saudi Arabia to be subjected to the tender mercies of Sharia law? The Indian Navy provided one way of dealing with the pirates. They blew their ship, which turned out to be a captured Thai vessel, out of the water. The U.S. Navy, overextended as it is, could make short work of the pirates as we did with the Barbary pirates of earlier times, when U.S. Marines fought our country’s battles “to the shores of Tripoli”. That, of course, was back in the days when no one really worried much about bringing pirates or other terrorists to justice. These were military operations, not law enforcement actions. Justice was administered in military settings, not civilian courts. So in spite of all our might and power, we seem powerless to deal with an ancient scourge. In the continuing battles against this and other forms of terrorism, we will be increasingly victimized by the restraints we ourselves place on our own power.  CRO copyright 2008 J.F. Kelly, Jr. J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California.

Leave a Reply