The latest hijacking of the newly commissioned Saudi Aramco mega-tanker, the Sirius Star, 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya, in the Indian Ocean has raised the issue of piracy to a new level.
The tanker’s displacement is 3 times that of a U.S. aircraft carrier. Piracy hijackings in maritime choke points have gone on for years. The Straits of Malacca in Southeast Asia had been a favorite pirate area until brought under acceptable control by the countries in the area, led by Singapore. With no functioning government, pirate attacks along the southeastern coast of Somali have long been a problem.
What’s different is that the Somali pirates have expanded their area of operations into the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea and now the Indian Ocean (I.O.). The ability of the pirates to intercept this mega-tanker so far out in the I.O. suggests they were able to obtain either track information from an outside source or they were electronically able to intercept the ship’s Automatic Identification System (AIS). The AIS system is driven by Radio Frequencies (RD) that can be intercepted and tracked by any ship with an RF intercept capability.
The Gulf of Aden has become the most dangerous transit route for maritime ships in the world. As a result, it has interrupted traditional maritime routes causing interest rates to jump and has significantly raised the operating costs to ship operators.
For example, many ships instead of using the direct route through the Suez Canal now divert their ships around South African’s Cape of Good Hope. This adds at least $800,000 to their costs for additional fuel, labor plus the seven days added transit time.
The oil industry relies heavily on shipping lanes through the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. Very large crude carriers such as the hijacked Sirius Star must take the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope because they are too big to transit the Suez Canal.
Increasing piracy is also affecting other industries. Container ships, general cargo ships, bulk carriers including smaller feeder container ships are all affected and at the end of the day, you the consumer will pay for the added costs. The largest nongovernmental organization in the world, the United Nations Humanitarian World Food Program, which is based in Rome, Italy, heavily relies on the maritime transit route through the Gulf of Aden. The principal ports for distributing humanitarian food for the refugees and under privileged on the east coast of Africa and inland are Djibouti, Port Sudan and Mombasa, Kenya.
Mombasa is the key port because of its more modern waterfront and warehouse facilities. The United States is the largest donor with more than $2 billion in aid it provides the World Food Program through USAAID. Approximately four to five ships sail each month from U.S. ports in support of the World Food Program. It would be a catastrophe were one of these ships carrying World Food Aid hijacked. The food would be lost and could not be replaced.
There is also a creditability issue if we, our allies and regional countries fail to bring the piracy threat under control. It’s similar to our failure to address early on the threat of state-sponsored terrorism that we are still living with today. The immediate steps that should be taken include:
— Ships operators should increase the security of their ships by providing professional armed security personnel aboard.
— There are a number of nonlethal actions a ship can take when facing a hijack threat. U.S. 5th Fleet and/or the International Maritime Organization should provide ship operators a list of these nonlethal actions.
— The current ship Automatic Identification System (AIS) is vulnerable to intercept and should be replaced by a new Long-Range Identification and Tracking of Ships (LRIT) system as set forth in Safety Of Life At Sea (SOLAS) V/19-1. Ships with LRIT can only be tracked by satellites by Flag States, coastal states or states under the new LRIT treaty.
— Expand on the current U.S. 5th Fleet, CTF150 transit protection efforts by conducting “rolling transit convoys” through the high threat areas using preselected transit routes.
Regional countries should commit to not allowing Somali crewed vessels into port for provisioning or other type of support while the piracy threat continues unless it is an emergency situation.
Plans need to be developed to recapture a hijacked vessel before it reaches its Somali anchorage. The U.S. Navy had developed an elite Seal Team Six CT force with specialties that including retaking hijacked ships, aircraft, oil platforms, et al. Those fundamental capabilities still exit. A unit with these capabilities needs to be pre-positioned in-theater. U.S. elite forces could be supplemented by commando forces from regional countries as available. Standing by, watching a hijacked vessel sail away should not be an acceptable option.
James Lyons, U.S. Navy retired admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations, and deputy chief of naval operations, where he was principal adviser on all Joint Chiefs of Staff matters.