-Mutatis Mutandis.-

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about military history came from Victor Davis Hanson who taught me that war is like water: its chemical properties have remained unchanged throughout the ages. Dr. Hanson taught us about the Roman notion of mutatis mutandis; the idea that, taking account for time and space, things remain the same. The emotions a young Athenian felt griping his shield before clashing with the Persians on the plains of Marathon are no different than what a young Marine feels on a combat patrol just before contact with the Taliban in the valleys of Marjah. Fear, the desire to prove one’s mettle before the enemy, and will to not let down the man by your side has always dominated the moral element of war’s design.

What has changed with both war and water is the speed of its distribution. Death in the Marne, for example, came faster (and in enormously greater numbers) than death in Plataea. And Dr. Hanson’s truth remains, war is war. And though the delta of war’s bleak calculus has been the speed with which death is produced, the constant has always been that the ultimate reality of war – that it is sanctioned murder, delicately and inelegantly tied to the dark human condition – has not. So long as men are men, so long as politics and diplomacy fail, so long as greed and evil and opposite and opposing value systems exist there will be as much a need in the post-modern age to field rifle platoons as there was in the pre-Modern age to field Hellenic war parties or Roman legions. Water is water. War is war.

Piracy is an ancient extension of this essential historical principle. It will continue to be so long as there is disparity in wealth among men in this world, criminals with nothing to lose, littoral regions with little or no rule of law, and so on. Though we have a tendency to glorify it in our Western literature, film, and lore, piracy is what it has always been: a criminal act of violence, theft, terror, murder, intimidation, and terror on the seas. That it occurs today daily in the waters of the Arabian and North Arabian Gulfs, the Somali Basin, the Indian Ocean and the China Sea (and centuries ago off the Barbary coast, in the Caribbean and off what is now our own country’s shores) is no surprise. The fact that it happens almost anywhere in the world that there is the prospect for someone to make gain from a weak target is a natural extension of this simple truth: war is like water. And Hobbes was right.

There is a way to end piracy in Somalia but it has little to do with counter-piracy operations at sea. It requires a political appetite we just don’t have. And so we must continue to deter piracy from the sea. This is an approach we cannot sustain in the longest term, but it is an approach that we must continue to advance in the near and long terms. In the near term, the word must get out that pirates will be aggressively hunted, then killed or captured and prosecuted, if nothing else to make them think twice. And while such deterrence poses significant challenges, we must continue to drive on with gusto.

– How do we define piracy? –

The Department of Defense defines piracy as an “illegal act of violence, depredation, or detention in or over international waters committed for private ends by the crew or passengers of a private ship or aircraft against another ship or aircraft or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft.”

There’s a fundamental criminal element to piracy that daily disrupts and threatens our nation’s financial and diplomatic interests abroad. And there’s a much more frightening characteristic that could very well develop that would extend piracy’s scope from the criminal world into the realm of terrorism. Such a reality means our national security would be at stake here is well.

– Why’d it all start? –

The current piracy epidemic stems from Somalia’s socio-economic combustion that began with the fall of the Barre Regime in 1991 and the departure of the United Nations’ patrols from its coastal waters in 1995. International fishing vessels took advantage of the power vacuum created when what little regulation and enforcement vanished. They moved in and dominated the vast fishing grounds off Somalia’s coast. Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Korean and other international super-harvesters shamelessly exploited Somalia’s waters, destroying local fishermen’s nets and boats – their very livelihood.

With no government, and no legal recourse, the fishermen formed militias and sailed out to meet the vessels with force. It was the classical sort of mess: post-modern industry with no regulation practices bad business among a hungry pre-modern people with no government. Disaster.

By decade’s end, these fishermen-militias organized and began calling themselves “coast guards.” They started collecting fees as retribution for the intruders’ spoils and made them purchase “fishing licenses.” Their efforts influenced areas in-sight of the coast and their targets were dhows and other coastal traffic of opportunity. Profits at sea rose in concert with the increased lawlessness across the country. When the Ethiopians withdrew from the south, warlords established dominance at once in southern Somalia and the central Mudug region. They immediately recognized the potential for profit from their fishermen’s revolution and moved to exploit them. Now the displaced fishermen’s raison d’être was replaced by a mob-style culture of crime, centered on the desire to extort quick wealth by means of brute force, intimidation and murder. Contemporary Somalian piracy was born.

– Who are these pirates, where are they from and what’s the impact? –

There are 8 million people in Somalia. Nearly 95% of them belong to just 6 clans, and ¾ of them belong to either the Darood, Hawiye, Dir and Issak clans. All clans and sub-clans maintain their own armies and shadow administrations. There are no long-standing alliances among these clans, but loose coalitions are established and maintained when it suits them and are structured along the lines of the dark human devotions: tribal history, vengeance, greed and demand for scarce resources. This is the foundation of the Somalian pirate identity.

The U.S. and coalition navies swarm that great expanse of ocean surrounding Africa’s northeastern Horn where two Somali clans – the Darood and the Hawiye – dominate and operate with relative impunity in Puntland and the ungoverned areas north of Mogadishu. All along Somalia’s coast they, and sub-clans like them, have established a thriving underworld of pirate camps brimming with experienced seaborne criminals.

In a place where the average Somalian makes about $2 USD a day and one in every two receives food aid, the appeal of piracy – the most lucrative business in Somalia – is immense. In these pirate enclaves it’s beginning to look like what would happen if Capone’s Chicago circa 1925 met Escobar’s Medellin circa 1985, without the Feds or DEA to stand in the way of thugs making fortunes. By all accounts piracy is not only acceptable by local Somali standards, it’s fashionable. Pirates cruise the streets in luxury cars to a bizarre sort of hero worship by the masses; they hold court alongside the masterminds and gangsters of other crime syndicates and host decadent parties with exotic drugs and top-shelf alcohol in waterfront palaces. They even start legitimate businesses of their own. They are celebrities.

The first organized piracy ring in Somalia was started in Harradera. In 2004 the Harradera cartel expended their hunt for ransoms beyond the near-coastal waters and into an over-the-horizon effort targeting larger ships, with bigger payoffs. In 2005 they determined they could extract immense payoffs from commercial merchant ships and by 2006 began capturing larger “motherships” to give them the legs they needed to capture the big prizes – merchant cargo vessels with no security and large insurance umbrellas. Motherships became platforms to launch small skiffs and extended their attack range hundreds of miles off the coast. They also formalized their tactics, rehearsed their attacks and executed relatively complex take downs. In some cases the target ship was identified by scouts before the ship even left its home port. Between 2005 – 2007 there were 60 total attacks, including 24 hijackings and a total ransom of $7 million USD. In 2008 there was a 113% increase in attacks and a 614% increase in ransom collected to $50 million USD. In 2009 there was a total of 198 attacks and each single ransom averaged $2 million USD. Business has been good.

-What are the challenges?-

Countering pirates at sea is a lot like fighting drugs on the highways. While it does have a deterrent effect in the near term, (and even positive effects in the long term) it does little to stop the problem in the longest term. As coalition efforts continue, attacks shift from this basin to that sea in counter-balance with patrolling efforts. If a pirate is caught, he’s typically set free. And if he is captured, most countries (like Kenya) have been unwilling to accept the burden of prosecuting them.

The international community has formed impressive coalitions like JTF 151, the European Union’s CTF 465, and NATO’s TF 508. It’s a robust patrol effort, but the extent to which these individual patrols are effective depend largely on the freedom of maneuver that ship is allowed by its own higher authority. The Dutch warship TROMP, for example, conducted more than 80 opposed boardings in 60 days, with impressive results. But they were also actively patrolling known pirate lanes and given tremendous freedom of movement and orders that expressly authorized their hunts. Such conditions are rare among the counter-piracy task forces.

Even if patrols increase both in duration and number, and hunting conditions are optimized, our own Admiralty warns that, with Somalia’s 1500 nautical mile coastline and an objective area that extends from Oman and east from Kenya covering more than 1,000,510 square nautical miles, we cannot sustain such a Herculean endeavor against the pirates over time.

And while patrols and engagements with the pirates continue, a unique and complicated nexus is forming among our Fleets, the Departments of Justice, State, Commerce and our intelligence activities. The recent cases of pirate attacks against the MV Maersk, USS Nicholas, USS Ashland and the related pirates now in our custody who face prosecution by the US Attorney’s Office in New York City and Norfolk, for example, highlight the legal challenges of counter-piracy work. And across the spectrum of warfighting – from intelligence gathering to execution – the challenges are many.

At the tactical level the principle issue is that the target vessel almost immediately becomes a crime scene and the operators must transition from assaulters to evidence collectors. At the operational level friction arises around command and control, transfers of authority, turn-over of suspects, management of property and related though largely unfamiliar domestic evidentiary procedures; to say nothing of the complications that arise when dealing with a largely messy coalition of scores of foreign navies each operating with its own agenda, tactics and marching orders.

At the strategic level, the problem is the most difficult: how to police the open sea, respond to crimes already committed, deter crimes not yet but soon to be committed, and address the fact that piracy is a natural next step for Al Qaedists, regional terrorist networks like Al Shabaab, and other terrorist organizations world-wide as a means to profit and move illicit goods and materials with relative impunity all to facilitate future acts of terrorism. All this while accounting for political matters I hear about and understand intellectually but can’t seem to explain.

– The way forward –

Overcoming these challenges, at least at the tactical and operational level, are genuinely possible; if given the opportunity units like the PELARG 15th MEU, who are uniquely trained and capable to conduct counter-piracy operations, will drastically influence the battlespace.

At the national-level there are three dimensions to our success in counter-piracy – success in the near term, success in the long term and success in the longest term. Success in the near term requires the US and coalition Navies continue aggressive counter-piracy patrols despite the challenges. Quality warships like the USS Dubuque, reinforced by the USS Pelilu, and the USS Pearl Harbor, are manned by the most capable seamen and surface warfare officers in the world. They take station highly trained, armed with helicopters, fast small watercraft and an assault element capable of taking down any size ship in short order. They must be given the freedom of movement to actively locate and destroy the pirates, and their motherships while simultaneously being prepared to recapture a seized vessel. This MEU maintains a unique and incredible offensive skill set capable of turning a corner in what should escalate to an all out war on pirates on the high seas. If nothing else, the pirates must be aggressively hunted, and killed or captured.

Success in the long term requires a union of increased signint and humint collections effort, commercial best industry practices, continued joint maritime dominance and increased regional security initiatives. Private industry has been aggressively involved in the piracy debate and rightly and predictably interested in protecting their ships, cargo and crew. Discussions among the Departments of Defense, Commerce, Transportation, and maritime insurance and shipping companies have made significant progress in identifying innovative methods to combat piracy. One such example has been the use of private contractors (Embedded Security Teams) who provide physical security while underway. ESTs are gaining popularity despite initial resistance and have validated their capabilities in numerous real world scenarios. Regional security initiatives are increasing and should continue to increase, to include multi-national training, the continued employment of joint task forces but with more aggressive and unified taskings, and a means to share, real time, any ship in the coalition’s piracy after-actions, lessons learned and intelligence. Success across these spectrums will produce long term results.

Success in the longest term is thorny. Success here depends on the active advancement of progress made in the long term while addressing the reality of things: piracy is never defeated at sea. We’d also have to address the reality that the calculus drastically changes if terrorist organizations infiltrate and co-opt the Somalian piracy trade just as regional warlords did from their own fishermen. We’d not only have to ensure maritime dominance, increase joint intelligence efforts (while fighting two other land wars requiring the same resources), improve best industry practices and regional security initiatives but also have to launch an aggressive and systematic campaign to destroy known terrorist camps all along the coast and be prepared to continue to strike ground targets as they reappear.

What’s more, and here’s the hard part, if we want the Somali piracy problem to disappear for good in the longest term, we’d then need to invest in Somalian infrastructure, security, in their government and economy. We would have to eliminate not only the reasons why fishermen turned to piracy in the first place, but also treat it then as an additional front in our war on terrorism and attempt to stabilize the region for good. And given our current two-front war, past experiences on the ground in Somalia, the state of our own economy, and hundreds of other really good reasons, that option is not at all appetizing, politically or otherwise, for anyone really. Not today. And so it seems we must focus on success in the near and long terms, which means we must embrace the first reality that Somalian pirates will continue to plunder and second that we must sail out to meet them and fight back. And perhaps even engage them at their camps ashore. If we don’t, this piracy reality will continue. Because piracy is like water. Mutatis mutandis.

Posted by Alexander Martin in Foreign Policy, History, Marine Corps, Maritime Security, Navy

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  • Old Air Force Sarge

    Absolutely brilliant post Mr Martin. Well written with excellent background material. This explains the problems of piracy better than anything I’ve seen. This should, I hope, spark some excellent debate on the topic. Well done Sir!

  • Derrick

    Someone wrote an article about a possible short term solution which I think is the most pragmatic and economical:

    If I recall correctly, it involves making convoy points and escorting ships through pirate waters. If the other international navies participating in the anti-piracy operations take turns with the US in convoy duty, more money could be saved.

    In the article posted today, there is mention of terrorists interacting with pirates. What exactly would terrorists do in conjunction with pirates?

  • Derrick, great point on the convoy points and escorts; not sure how supportable this is in the long term. I’ve also heard about a proposal to make giant lanes (like an ocean highway) that we could patrol…anyone outside those lanes would be on their own…not sure where that stands…have read strong things about Embedded Security Teams, though not sure what the lawyers have to say about it.

    As for the terrorist question, simple: money.

  • I’ve seen a substantial amount of material discussing piracy within the past month and this is well written. It provides background and new information for both people who are familiar with the situation, and people who aren’t.

  • A nice summary of the beginnings of this problem.

    At present anti-piracy operations are constrained by the fact the the ship’s crews are being used as hostages. This is the case with the mother ships and again once the pirates are aboard a ship. The only opportunity to capture pirates without endangering crews is in the short window between the mother vessel and the captured ship. The transition between hostage protected vessels is done using skiffs practically identical to the thousands of fishing skiffs in the area.

    Regarding suppression of piracy by aggressively hunting killing or capturing pirates, it seems to me that if this is in fact war, then it more closely resembles an insurgency then conventional warfare in which case the key is intelligence rather then firepower and an overly aggressive posture may do more harm then good.

    If the payoff for someone making $2 a day is in the millions what per cent interdiction rate will be required to effectively remove the incentive to seize ships? An opposed boarding of ships at sea is a risky endorser even with out the added risk of capture. It may be that we are unable to tip the calculus in our favor and we will only have succeeded in raising he level of violence. Harming innocent mariners and fisherman has a cost which cannot be easily measured.

  • Derrick

    Is there proof that funds obtained through piracy are being funneled to organizations declared by the State Dept as terrorist groups?

    I’m still of the mindset that the best way to control this problem is with convoy points. Different international navies can take turns on different legs of the trips, in order to spread the cost across several nations and save money for all. I sincerely doubt pirates would risk raiding an escorted cargo ship.


    The reality of Piracy is that as long as their are lawless areas or governments that passively or actively support the pirates, there will be Piracy. All the escorts in the world can not potect all the ships all the time. For instance, what would prevent a Somali pirate attack in the Atlantic or Pacific? Capture a large ship with enough range to get to Somalia and you’re golden. As long as there is a safe haven to harbor the ship (Somalia), a means to prevent losing a captured ship to military or law enforcement action (hostages), and a economic incentive for the insurance companies to pay (value of ship and cargo vastly more than ransom), you will have piracy. Why does it even need to be Somalis. Why can’t they outsource to other groups for a cut of the ransom? The key is a safe haven to hold the ship. Barbary Pirates were only stopped by France annexing most of North Africa. Malacca Pirates were stopped by the Tsunami wiping out the potential Pirates. As pointed out in the post, Piracy exists where the rule of law is either subverted or non-existant, and will continue to exist until you address those problems.

  • USNVO,

    well said.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    While the historical details are fascinating vis-a-vis the rise of Somoli pirates and the current thugocracy in Somolia, “The Reality of Piracy” hasn’t changed since the Romans, to wit:

    “Every payment to a pirate improves the pirate’s ships and weapons, increases the bribes they can pay for information, and emboldens them. Raising the price in blood and treasure to suppress them again.”

    Things keep getting uglier, and will continue to do so until escort of convoy and cutting out expeditions become commanplace and routinely effective, and the profits dry up thereby. Which was predictable, and predicted, i.e.:

    “Fifteen years ago they were stealing lines and brass fittings off the deck after moonset. Now they demand millions in ransom.

    Absent the will to pay for security (and at the moment it is absent in most cases) next year it will be bloodier and more costly to live with. And every year there after until the tipping point (likely in blood) is reached. The price for squeamishness and denial will be very high…

    The longer you do nothing the bolder and more rapacious pirates become. It all depends on how much of their criminal behavior one is willing to tolerate. A few modest suggestions” (redux)

    “Go ugly, soon (too late to be early). To wit:

    A show of (sufficient) force and defensive hardening should be enough to encourage pirates to seek easier prey. Gun tubs and manned crew served weapons should be fine, along with some over the side electric fencing (insulators prominently displayed, along signs with a skull and lightning bolts over fouled barbed wire in red). Smaller the ship, the fewer gun tubs, but 100% perimeter overwatch, guards in uniform.

    Then a distinctive light array (red strobe over red strobe?) to warn “armed guards on board, attempted piracy will be resisted with deadly force. Do not approach closer than 500 yards.” Distinctive day shape where best seen, design left to a Coast Guard Academy senior class project.

    ROE – At sea: RPG’s will be engaged on sight. AK’s will be engaged on sight. Grapnels in conjuction with small arms will be engaged on sight. Vessels within security zone (500 yds) with boarding ladders or weapons at the ready will be engaged on sight.

    Covert, armed borders attempting to embark at sea are as good as being fired upon if you have them on lowlight video.

    Have the entire perimeter on low light and daylight video. All the time.

    Seal the house at sea except for lifeboat route exits, one per boat, put an armed guard overwatch on each door and a chime which actuates n the bridge when door opened , camera coverage.

    Personnel costs? Hire Ghukas, be generous by Nepalese standards.
    In general, they don’t goof off and they don’t fool around, if supervised by their own folk or those they respect, like retired senior NCO’s with combat experience from elite infantry. They all speak, read and write english. Man for two watches, 4 privates (icluding one specialist sniper private or corporal per watch section)and a corporal of the guard for each watch. One sgt/armorer and a first sgt (the watch supervisors), one ship’s guard OinC. Superstitious? Add an guard officer of the watch for the night watches.

    Exercise the guard force at dusk and dawn. Every day. Security theater.

    Publish armed guard presence and basic shoot on sight portions of ROE in Notice to Mariners. Ships with other flags, especially those of convenience? Don’t care. International law? Follows established usage, like USCG best practices. Make the above a best practice, then put on the ugly american face (in the original meaning of the term, read the book), go visit the potential allies. Inform the IMO, be polite.

    Who is an potential ally? Any nation with a common interest.

    Or, convoy with corvettes. Helo capable, well armed corvettes.”

    So much for last year’s advice. Which likely will equally ignored this year and next.

    Fix Somolia? Not possible in my grandsons’ lifetimes, and not worth risking a hangnail on a Tennesee PFC (h/t: Bismarck).

    Even if the NCA was behaving….well, call it more to my way of thinking, and leave it at that.

    Meanwhile back in south central Asia…

  • UltimaRatioReg


    As usual, concise and supremely accurate. In other discussions elsewhere, I have tried to provide a synopsis of the issue and possible solutions, but alas, without your pointed eloquence.

    Might I swipe what you have stated above, giving you full credit? (Unlike stealing jokes, which I invariably claim to have made up…)

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Swipe away, and don’t blame any of your bad jokes on me. And read a good bio of Capn David Porter, USN, check out the later stages of his career (note his sons, in passing, and the effect of enthusiasts dictating warship armament upon his middle career… but I digress.)

    Nothing changes but the gear, which is where we started.

    PS: Don’t sweat the quotation marks, I was quoting an occasionally reliable source….Me, in the usni-blog.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    URR: Please correct the spelling of “Ghurkas” if you quote it. Brain-finger-keyboard ciruit had a breakdown in ground circuit, static on the line (red face, mumble).

  • Grandpa Bluewater –

    “The longer you do nothing the bolder and more rapacious pirates become. It all depends on how much of their criminal behavior one is willing to tolerate…”

    Indeed. This is the crux of it all…

  • This is not a problem of squeamishness or denial it is a problem of overworked and untrained crews and of owners not willing to pay for armed guards. From the owners point of view it is simply a matter of cost, evidently it is cheaper to buy insurance and take your chances then it is to hire armed guards. Ships with armed guards are not being successfully attacked. Ships being captured are, thus far, unarmed and in some cases unprepared.

  • Grandpa Bluewater


    Don’t disagree all that much on the crew and ship owner facets of this. Although the two, cost and denial, tend to reinforce.

    On the governmental and international regulatory side, and to a lesser degree among merchant ships’ officers, denial and squeamishness are very real.

    Second, minor, point. Unarmed IS unprepared. Denial and sqeamishness, again. A harsh judgement? Perhaps, but the waters off east Africa are part of a harsh, cruel world.

  • Chuck Hill

    Once upon a time, I think we said, “Millions for defense, not one penny for tribute.” (Rep. Robert Goodloe Harper, chairman of the committee on ways and means in Congress, on June 18, 1798)


    Another interesting aspect of modern day Piracy is the rise of flags of convenience. Since piracy is a violation of national law, not international law, the legal right to take action rests with the flag state. Since the Panamas, Maltas, and Liberias of the world have neither the desire nor the means to enforce their laws, there is very little someone else, say the USN, can do. The world of today is different than the 1800s. What US laws have been violated if a Panamanian flag ship is captured by pirates? Outside of attacks against US flag ships, we have no authority to enforce our laws outside the right to try the pirates if they ever are brought into the United States and to take action for collective self-defense. Frankly, the best policy may be to guarantee any US Flag ship they will not be delayed or harmed by pirates, and let the other countries of the world deal with their own ships.

  • Thomas Taylor

    “My aim, then, was to whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and make them fear and dread us. Fear is the beginning of wisdom.” – William Tecumseh Sherman

    Why don’t we just unilaterally institute the death penalty for piracy and support of piracy? I know, not nuanced enough for modern times.

  • James Friedman

    Whatever happened to the old policy that any pirate caught in the act was strung up from the nearest yardarm?

    Until the World Governments take firm, drastic we will continue to be plagued with pirates.

    Instead of rearding them with millions of dollars/pounds/euros/ruples retake the ships and hang the pirates. Once they realize that Piracy will no longer pay that should be the end of it.

    Go back to defensive arming of merchant ships.


  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Mr Friedman:

    I believe you mis-stated the “old policy”. Any pirate caught in the act was given a fair trial under “rocks and shoals”, the Captain reviewed and approved the sentence and THEN they hanged the guilty bastard (from the yardarm).

    There are certain forms that must be observed.

    Anything less would be uncivilised.

    The fleet’s yardarms stand ready to this day.

  • Adelbert

    This tells us in a round about way that the United States Navy has lost Sea control off the Horn and Somalia

  • David Kerr

    The Mossad could bail us out here. A few motherships and skiffs sunken with no media coverage, would, in a small part, repay the west for the billions of aid.

    The USN owes the West UUVs tracking motherships and broadcasting their position and base course and occasional P-3 flyovers to show them we know who and where they are.

  • USNVO,

    I totally agree with your statement: “The reality of Piracy is that as long as their (sic) are lawless areas or governments that passively or actively support the pirates, there will be Piracy.”

    But shouldn’t we also take into account the abysmal poverty in Somalia? I think this is as rich a breeding ground for piracy as the absence of a working government willing to enforce law and order.

  • John Carraway

    The short-term answer to piracy is obvious: use well-trained armed guards on any ship traveling through Somalian waters. It should be an industry-wide standard procedure. What’s so hard to fathom? Actually, all merchant ships should have Naval self-defense weapons installed anyway, including several searchlights for night action.