- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Sunday's rescue of the skipper of the Maersk Alabama, Richard Phillips, from Somali pirates brought home an old story. Pirates have been around since at least the days of the Roman Republic. Whether in the Caribbean or off the North African coasts, piracy has a rich and often exaggerated history romanticized and popularized by Hollywood. But for sailors plying the ocean in and around the Malaca Straits and the Horn of Africa, pirates have been a serious matter.

What appears to have been a highly professional dispatch of three Somali thugs and the capture of a fourth was hailed as a major win for the Obama administration. For those who advocate hitting these pirates hard ashore, as the Leathernecks did in 1804, or at sea, this incident provided more evidence for strong action. However, as the U.S. Navy noted, the rescue of brave Capt. Phillips could provoke a greater response by Somali pirates, who number in the thousands.

So what should be done to take on this long-standing scourge of the high seas and coastal waters?

First, and with deference to the some 6 1/2 dozen pirate attacks this year and the 200 or so hostages, it must be said that Somali piracy represents a predictable rise in criminal activity and not a national security danger or crisis. Second, there are sensible solutions that need not cost a great deal of money or require huge naval and maritime enforcement fleets deployed to the Red Sea or Horn of Africa. Third, attacking pirates ashore with cruise missiles and air strikes would be akin to hitting mobsters and criminals in inner cities with air power. That will not work.

Solutions to this criminal epidemic are not complicated. A system of maritime notification and traffic control not dissimilar to the governance of international airspace is essential. Ironically, the location of virtually every commercial aircraft across the globe is known, plotted and exchanged. Why cannot a similar system of which there are many available be extended to the maritime domain? As pilots report real-time dangers such as weather that are passed quickly to other aircraft, ships can file on sightings of possible pirate activity so other vessels can steer away.

The U.S. Navy has invented the notion of maritime partnerships in which both warships and commercial vessels would routinely exchange information pertaining to safe navigation. These partnerships can be one basis for developing what is called “situational awareness,” meaning, in non-jargon terms, warnings and information. In this way, the equivalent of a maritime traffic safety and control system can be put in place.

Shipping companies have found it more convenient and, they say, less costly to pay ransom rather than protect their ships. Questions about crew proficiency in small arms have discouraged merchant ships from carrying defensive weapons. And there are valid concerns about escalating violence and danger, as suggested by the Navy, if shootouts occur.

Yet, how do we protect government civilian employees who venture into harm's way whether in Iraq or Afghanistan? We hire professionals to handle it. Yes, there have been excesses, such as Blackwater in Iraq. However, if protecting merchant ships from pirates is important, why not hire professional bodyguards and put them aboard ships? Surely the costs cannot be greater than the ransom paid.

A larger danger, however, could arise from piracy. If al Qaeda decides the oceans provide the means to turn ships into the equivalent of the civilian airliners made into bombers on Sept, 11. 2001, it might take but one attack to shut down a major port or impose huge damage. The prospect of a 200,000- or 300,000-deadweight-ton supertanker or container ship hurtling at 30 knots into a major port and then ramming into major structures such as New York City's Battery or the George Washington Bridge is a real nightmare scenario.

And if that ship were carrying 20,000 or 30,000 tons of liquid gas or another product, such as grain, that could be turned into an explosive, the result could have the force of the nuclear weapons that demolished Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That would be an attack that surely would surpass Sept. 11 by any reckoning.

Al Qaeda may pass on this piracy option. Obviously, ships hijacked in the Indian Ocean would be a long way from tempting terrorist targets in Europe or America. But that does not mean piracy could not happen closer to home.

Somali pirates are a problem, and to a small number of ships, they are a real threat. In dealing with them, however, we can put in place the means to contain the much larger danger of al Qaeda becoming the 21st-century equivalent of Barbary pirates on steroids.

Harlan Ullman is a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and former swift boat and destroyer skipper. His last book was “America's Promise Restored: Preventing Culture, Crusade and Partisanship from Wrecking Our Nation.”

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