Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Piracy: The new warfare

Robert Fox

The world’s navies have far superior weaponry, but the pirates off Somalia have the advantage of stealth and surprise. AFP

CAPTAIN Richard Phillips and the crew members of the Maersk Alabama are on their way home to a heroes’ reception following their liberation from Somali pirates on Easter Sunday. Capt Phillips gave himself up as a hostage to get the crew released. In turn, he was rescued by Navy Seal snipers from the destroyer USS Bainbridge who shot three pirates dead under cover of darkness.

The use of lethal force had been sanctioned by President Barack Obama, who thinks the problem of piracy is likely to grow. The decisive action by the United States Navy, however, seems to have had little deterrent effect — three freighters and two Egyptian coasters have been grabbed in the Gulf of Aden and Somali Basin since Capt Phillips was liberated.

In all, some 12 ships and 230 crew members are being held hostage by pirates. Said one pirate: “From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill (the hostages).”

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said: “We will be spending a lot of time over the next few weeks trying to figure out what in the world to do about this problem.” Piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Somali Basin is about the only growth industry in a region of shattered nations and economies. Because it is one of few moneyspinners, it is attracting some of the best brains.

The pirates seem to know how to foil some of the best navies currently operating in the area. The joint patrols by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union and individual nations, including Russia and China, have had some effect, but the pirates have responded by raising their game. They now work hundreds of miles out in the ocean where they operate from mother ships, using wooden skiffs for reconnaissance patrols. The boats are made of wood and do not show up on radar.

In this, they show one of the key elements of “asymmetric tactics” in warfare. They are operating below the “threshold of sophistication” of the best-equipped military forces. They work outside the scope of modern weapons systems.

Navies of the world, including the US Navy and the Royal Navy, have to change their operational thinking to solve the piracy problem. The big navies will need to build many, many fast patrol ships to cover vulnerable choke points such as the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and even parts of the Mediterranean.

Britain’s new First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope said he saw piracy as part of the burgeoning threat from organized crime entities that now can operate outside formal states. They are acquiring access to new technologies, including remotely-triggered mines and crewless remote-controlled submarines and suicide boats. The navies of Nato and the EU must be prepared to meet this, he says.

Current orthodoxy sees piracy as a product or symptom of failed or rogue states. The inference from President Obama’s statements is that the world must fix the problem at its source — by fixing Somalia’s anarchy.

Strategist Robert D Kaplan argues in the New York Times: “Somalia is a failed state and has the longest coastline in mainland Africa, so piracy flourishes nearby. The 20th-century French historian Fernand Braudel called piracy a ‘secondary form of war’, that, like insurgencies on land, tends to increase in the lulls between conflicts among great states or empires.”

This seems to miss the mark. The insurgencies, pirate and crime conflicts are the wars of our times. It’s the states and empires that have changed, and with them the notions of military power and the standards and effectiveness of international law. The pirates, insurgents and Mafiosi run their own parallel power systems enforced by the bullet and bomb. While life is cheap inside these communities, the entities seem to be pretty durable.

That is why the pirates of Somalia — or the South China Sea and, perhaps in the future, the Mediterranean — are a real, living threat. They are something our security strategies should be aimed at, rather than the hypothetical new cold wars with which governments seem currently preoccupied.
The Guardian

From TODAY, World – Friday, 17-April-2009


Post a Comment