WASHINGTON (AP) - Pentagon planners are examining what the U.S. military can do at sea and on land in response to a dangerous spike in international piracy off the Somali coast. A look at some of the options:
Q: The Navy sent a warship to help the American hostage last week, and then sent two more as the situation grew more tense. Will the Navy keep sending more ships?
A: Pentagon leaders are considering whether to add Navy ships to the patrol force in the Gulf of Aden and the wider Horn of Africa. There are additional ships stationed relatively nearby, in Bahrain. The problem is that no matter how many more ships the Navy sends, there will never be enough to provide blanket protection for U.S. commercial ships, let alone the rest of the more than 30,000 ships that use that busy sea shipping lane. “We are dealing with 400 square miles of ocean, and we hardly have enough ships in the whole Navy to be able to patrol that size area,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this week.
Q: Could the Navy run more limited escorts?
A: Yes. Navy ships could escort selected U.S.-flagged or other ships, based on ownership, crew composition, the value or destination of the cargo or the likelihood that the ship would be an attractive target for pirates. The Navy could also escort several ships at once, in convoys. These options could be done in concert with other countries already patrolling the Gulf of Aden area. Private security contractors could also provide armed ships as escorts. But shipping companies often dislike the idea of escorts since time is money in the sea cargo business and escorts would force ships to follow a set schedule that might not be cost-efficient.
Q: If the Navy can’t protect every ship, what else could it do?
A: Sending armed military personnel as guards aboard some ships is one option. Another is limited blockades of Somali shore towns where pirates operate. Blockades could be an effective way to cut into the pirates’ lucrative and well-established network on shore without sending Marines or other U.S. military personnel into Somalia. Blockades are also risky, however, because pirates might be tempted to shoot at or provoke Navy warships, drawing sailors into a firefight for relatively little gain. It may be hard for U.S. sailors to tell apart pirate boats from legitimate fishing or other craft. Also, moored or slow-moving U.S. warships could become targets for more serious assaults, such as the 2000 terror attack that killed 17 U.S. sailors and almost sank the USS Cole as it waited in port in Yemen.
Q: Wasn’t the Navy already patrolling near the Somalia coastline before the Maersk Alabama was attacked?
A: Yes. The United States is a major contributor to an international anti-piracy patrol called Task Force 151. The task force is part of a contingent of some two dozen warships from a number of countries, including the European Union, China and Russia, that patrol the area.
Q: What about aircraft? Or submarines?
A: Helicopters and airplanes were at the ready during the Maersk Alabama standoff, and the Navy has been gathering information about the pirates through P-3 patrol aircraft and unmanned drones. Increased use of drones and other surveillance tools is one option. Another air option is using airborne assaults on pirate vessels and on-land lairs. Submarines might also be used to collect information about pirate movements.
Q: What about a land assault?
A: The United States and international partners have limited authority to hunt pirates on land. That “hot pursuit” authority comes under a United Nations resolution passed in the waning weeks of the Bush administration in 2008. The most likely scenarios would include limited airstrikes on known pirate command centers, or special operations ground assaults aimed at killing or capturing pirate leaders.
Q: The United States is already fighting two wars. Does that mean there aren’t enough forces or equipment left over to fight pirates?
A: Not really. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are primarily fought by the Army, Marines and Air Force. The Navy, which has little involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, has taken the lead against pirates. The Marine Corps is the main point of overlap. Marines are deployed as part of Task Force 151 and could be used for a land assault in Somalia or boarding of pirate vessels at sea. Marines will also be in the vanguard of the expansion of U.S. forces in Afghanistan this year.