Some people say that there is nothing an admiral likes better than a few scurvy pirates to chase around. Take it from an admiral: not really.
Unfortunately, the Somali pirates have become far more than a nuisance, and they are introducing billions of dollars worth of discontinuity into the global shipping grid and international defence budgets.
Indeed, I'm preparing for meetings in London with the International Maritime Organization, so I've been thinking quite a bit about the NATO mission against piracy lately.
Here are some of the numbers that reflect the problem (statistics provided by IMO):
• Pirate attacks off eastern Africa in 2008: 111
• Pirate attacks off eastern Africa in 2009: 218
• Pirate attacks off eastern Africa in 2010: 219
• Pirate attacks off eastern Africa until July 2011: 163
• Cost to shipping industry in lost time, re-routing, ransoms, insurance, security equipment: $6.4 billion
• Cost to nations for patrol ships, aircraft, legal costs: $2 billion
• Prosecutions and piracy deterrent organizations: $50 million
• Cost to regional economies: $1.25 billion
• Lives lost to pirates: 63 (2006-2011)
• Current number of ships held hostage for ransom: 13 (updated Aug. 30, 2011)
• Current number of mariners held hostage for ransom: 322 (updated Aug. 30, 2011)
• Longest distance from African coast of an attack: 1,460 nautical miles
• Square miles of pirate infested waters: 1.2 million
Today, there is a global coalition of over 20 nations involved in patrolling the waters of the Indian Ocean, North Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman, and South Red Sea. On any given day, there are more than 25 ships and aircraft, with thousands of mariners and airmen involved in the policing efforts.
In addition to NATO's Operation Ocean Shield, which consists usually of 2-4 ships from the Alliance's Standing Maritime Groups and associated aircraft, the European Union operates the most robust presence, with 4-6 ships and aircraft. The United States leads a loose coalition operating out of the Gulf as well. There are also many nations deploying ships unilaterally to the region, which have included India, Russia, China, South Korea, Iran, Malaysia, Australia, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, Singapore, Ukraine, Yemen and Japan.
All these nations cooperate together operationally and coordinate their efforts during the monthly meetings of the SHADE (Shared Awareness and Deconfliction) group, held in Bahrain. This meeting provides a platform for coordination of activities between the maritime industry and NATO (Operation Ocean Shield), EU (Operation ATALANTA), the US-led Coalition Maritime Force, and individual nations with maritime assets in the region.
Clearly, we are not going to solve the problem of piracy at sea. We can only treat the symptoms there. To get a sense of the pirate activity ashore, I recommend a novel by Elmore Leonard, "Djibouti," and the newly released non-fiction study by Jay Bahadur, "The Pirates of Somalia."
Both give a real flavor of the depth of the problem.
Unfortunately, we are starting to see interest in the pirate business model from terrorist organizations, of which there is no shortage in the Horn of Africa, notably Al-Shabab. They see the activity as a potential funding stream as well as a possible venue for spectacular attacks.
The good news is that this is one issue the entire international community generally agrees upon and is working together to solve. The bad news is that it is a complex problem that will not be solved at sea alone. It will require work by the shipping industry (armed embarked teams, convoy participation, sharing information) as well as judicial and development agencies (legal mechanisms to overcome "catch and release," incarceration plan) in concert with international security actors.
In the end, this is yet another area that will require international, interagency, and private-public cooperation to solve.
ADM James Stavridis
Supreme Allied Commander, Europe
Commander, US European Command
NATO Shipping Centre (includes PDF downloadable version of Best Management Practices 4): http://www.shipping.nato.int/Pages/default.aspx
NATO Self Protection Measures Video http://www.shipping.nato.int/Pages/SelfProtectionVideo.aspx