Americans woke up on 19 March to broadcasts that “pirates” had attacked U.S. Navy warships. More specifically, two U.S. Navy small boats launched from the cruiser USS Cape St. George and destroyer USS Gonzales had been fired upon by pirates – who then began firing on the two warships as well. After the engagement, in which no U.S. military member was hurt, one pirate was dead and 12 pirates – five of them wounded – had been captured. To most Americans, the term “pirates” has come to mean rogues roving the internet for online booty.

However, real – i.e., oceangoing – pirates are still operating with impunity in various unprotected Mullen: “It is a global threat to security because of its deepening ties to international criminal networks … and disruption of vital commerce.” waters, and have been prowling the world’s oceans for the past several decades. Last November, for example, pirates fired rocket-propelled grenades at the Bahamas-flagged cruise ship Seaborne Spirit – which countered the attack by combining its Long-Range Acoustic Device onboard self-defense system (which uses sound to deter an enemy) with the ship’s speed to keep the pirates at bay. The two attacks – against the cruise ship and the Navy warships – were only the latest examples of what has been a growing trend. 

“Last year,” the British Guardian newspaper reported in its 19 January 2006 edition, “there was a dramatic escalation in the number of pirate raids off the 1,880-mile Somali coast, from two in 2004 to 35.” Meanwhile, Weekly Piracy Reports issued by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) have documented numerous hijackings of relief supplies, as well as armed boardings by modern-day pirates – who use tactics as aggressive and ruthless as those employed by Al Qaeda terrorists. As one way to counter the growing threat, warships from Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and the United States have been conducting joint security operations in the Gulf of Oman and along the east coast of Africa. This international group of ships – which make up what is officially designated as Task Force 150 – is responsible for patrolling more than 2.4 million miles of ocean, and 6,000 miles of the coastlines bordering 12 countries in that region, to counter illegal movements of weaponry, people, and materials in international waters. 

Circular and Sensors; Systems and Simulators 

Until recently, piracy has received relatively little attention, except within the world’s maritime and insurance industries. However, experts estimate that this ancient maritime crime is once again thriving, and may already cost as much as $16 billion annually – a total that would climb much higher if a successful attack is made on a cruise ship. Writing in the January 2006 issue of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael G. Mullen said that piracy “can no longer be viewed as someone else’s problem. It is a global threat to security because of its deepening ties to international criminal networks, smuggling of hazardous cargoes, and disruption of vital commerce.”   

Several anti-piracy steps are being taken by commercial shipping companies, including the installation of multiple defensive systems and the use of remotely operated sensors on merchant vessels. In addition, anti-piracy simulators are being used to train merchant crews, and new operational tactics are being developed that also will help counter 21st-century pirates.  Finally, piracy circulars distributed by the International Maritime Organization now provide guidance to governments, ship owners, ship operators, and ships’ crews not only on the prevention of piracy but also on suppression techniques and the countermeasures tactics and equipment systems that are now available. Further steps toward ending the scourge of modern piracy include the encouragement of a focused proactive effort by all maritime stakeholders and updating the definition of the term piracy to more closely align it to today’s threats and the linking of terrorism policies to piracy, including piracy as spelled out in the United Nations Convention of the Law of The Sea.

Christopher Doane

Christopher Doane and Dr. Joseph DiRenzo III are retired Coast Guard officers and visiting fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College. Both of them have written extensively on maritime security issues. Any opinions expressed in the preceding article represent their own views and are not necessarily the official views of the U.S. Coast Guard.

David Moskoff

Captain David Moskoff, USMS, is a maritime transportation professor and DTRA (Defense Threat Reduction Agency) representative at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

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