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by J. F. Kelly, Jr. | Coronado An overused media commentary during the standoff between the U.S. Navy and the Somali pirates holding Captain Richard Phillips, master of the container ship Maersk Alabama, in one of his vessel’s lifeboats, was that it demonstrated the limits of the world’s mightiest Navy. It did nothing of the sort, as subsequent events demonstrated. Rather, it demonstrated the versatility of naval forces and the wisdom of leaving decisions regarding the timing and application of force to the on-scene commander, once the use of force has been authorized by higher authority. Another popular misconception unfortunately shared by some in the military and in the highest levels of government is that piracy is a criminal act perpetrated by lawless thugs who must be captured and “brought to justice.” They caution against relying on military solutions and argue that only by engaging in nation building in Somalia can the piracy issue be solved. The youthful pirates are desperate to make a living. It is, they believe, primarily a law enforcement issue. Here we go again. What law enforcement agency, with the possible exception of the over-extended U.S. Coast Guard, has the expertise to deal with law enforcement on the high seas? The FBI? The argument that the protection of U.S. flag vessels in international waters or while engaged in innocent passage is not a valid mission for the U.S. Navy, over-extended or not, is a flawed argument. It is, in fact, a counterproductive argument for a smaller navy. The magnitude of the piracy problem demonstrates, rather, that we have insufficient numbers of ships. The fleet is at its lowest numerical level since the Great Depression. As capable as these ships are, they can only be in one place at a time. Obviously, larger, more aggressive naval forces are not the only solution to this scourge. The standoff also demonstrated the stubborn refusal of the companies operating merchant ships to allow the crews to defend themselves and their ships against piracy on the high seas. The pirates are heavily armed with automatic weapons and grenade launchers. They clamber aboard from high-speed skiffs tended by a mother craft using grappling hooks. A well-armed crew, however, using automatic weapons, including mounted 50-cal. machine guns and other available technology such as sound concentration devices and laser weapons could repel or discourage the boarders, at some risk, of course. But life is full of risks and sooner or later, action is required to protect and property and prevent hostage taking. The arguments against arming the crews and equipping their ships with defensive weapons as was done during WW II are familiar but, in my view, unpersuasive. They include the argument that the pirates only want the ransom money and that the ships, cargoes and crews are usually returned unharmed. The school bully only wanted your lunch money, too. The Mexican drug cartels only want to make a living, too. Why provoke them? Shipping companies and their insurers have thus far acted as if these acts of piracy were mere inconveniences and a cost of doing business. Other arguments cite the fact that merchant crews are not combatants and their unions object to arming them. Fine. Hire security detachments. Others cite restrictions imposed by other countries against allowing ships with armed crews into their ports. Still others warn of the danger of firearms igniting volatile cargoes. There are risks associated with armed solutions, of course. If the shippers and insurers aren’t willing to take some risk, they can just continue to pay the ransoms and hope for the best. Here’s the reality. Pirates will grow bolder as long as the ransoms are paid. They will demand more profit to compensate for the increased risk. There are alternatives to firearms. Sound concentration devices and laser weapons could disable pirates before they board. There are other defensive measures they could take to prevent boarding but they require some degree of assertiveness. Navies can’t be everywhere at once and the Somali coast is almost as long as the west coast of the United States. The attack on the Maersk Alabama was a game-changer. It was the first pirate attack on a U.S. flag ship since the Barbarry Coast days. The United States does not pay ransoms to pirates. A ship flying the U.S. flag is a piece of sovereign territory and an attack on it is an act of war, not merely a criminal act as a giggling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it recently. Since lawless Somalia, a failed state without a functioning government, obviously can’t control the pirates, the U.S. has every right to  order a naval quarantine of Somali ports and pirate sanctuaries as we did on the Barbary Coast long ago at a time when we were actually willing to assert our rights and freedom to navigate the seas. Sadly, that courage and resolve has been replaced by a willingness to compromise, even where our vital interests are at stake, and to avoid force at all cost, a condition that has always preceded the decline of the world’s great powers. CRO copyright 2009 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.

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