Piracy in the waters around the Horn of Africa continues to be a vexing problem for the United States and the U.S. Navy.
In recent weeks, the focus has begun to shift away from naval measures to finding a Somalia-based solution, such as building up the local coast guard. This is a commendable initiative but amounts to kicking the can, as no one believes it is feasible in the near term.
In the meantime, American sailors continue to be placed in harm’s way every day with insufficient protection. Last year, 111 ships were attacked or hijacked off the Horn of Africa. We exceeded that figure in the first five months of 2009.
The U.S. Navy, along with the European Union, NATO and assistance from other countries, has done a remarkable job mounting a truly international anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden. However, this is not a solution for all U.S.-flagged ships. A number of U.S. merchant ships, mostly carrying cargoes of American aid, are required to travel outside the transit lanes patrolled by the international maritime presence. To ensure that aid reaches their destinations in Somalia and Kenya, the ships have to make port on the East African coast, which requires them to travel through the pirate danger zone.
While the U.S. Navy cannot, of course, provide an individual escort for every ship, it could provide a small security detail consisting of armed personnel who would board a ship only for the high-risk transit and then disembark. A few well-armed teams aboard a few ships could accomplish this mission.
The danger to American lives is real, as shown by the April kidnapping of Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama and the subsequent attempt to board the Liberty Sun.
Protecting U.S. commerce and lives on the high seas is a core Navy mission and is embedded in the original DNA of America’s Navy. In 1796, President Washington called for the development of a standing “naval force” to protect America’s “active external commerce.” In 1804, President Jefferson dispatched U.S. Navy combatants to defeat the Barbary pirates along the northern coast of Africa rather than submit to depredations committed on the U.S.-flag merchant fleet and American citizens. There also is a precedent for assigning armed U.S. Navy security teams to merchant ships — the Naval Armed Guard manned Liberty and Victory ships in World War II to protect them against another scourge — Nazi submarines.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, declared this month, “We have a duty to protect the ships that proudly fly America’s flag — and our nation’s military is our partner in fulfilling that duty.”
At multiple hearings, witnesses asserted the dire need to protect our U.S.-flag merchant fleet in the danger zone. Pentagon officials have claimed the Navy would need to protect more than 30,000 ship passages annually through a 2.5-million-square-mile area. This is not so. According to testimony by the transportation undersecretary and U.S. Maritime Administration, there is on average only one U.S.-flagged ship in the high-risk region on any given day.
In its recently issued anti-piracy guidelines, the U.S. Coast Guard requires vessels to submit plans for combating terrorism and piracy. However, those guidelines, allowing ships to carry arms onboard, still have to go through an arduous legislative process. As piracy continues to escalate in 2009, Congress needs to act swiftly to clarify legislation allowing U.S.-flag merchant ships and their American crews to arm their ships.
Until this legislation is passed and security teams are trained and activated, the U.S. government must do its part to protect American citizens aboard U.S.-flagged merchant vessels on high-risk transits.
John B. Perkins III is a retired vice admiral in the U.S. Navy.