Yesterday the United States Naval Institute held their History Conference 2010 in Annapolis covering the subject of piracy. I think I can safely speak for all attendees that this conference exceeded all expectations. The event schedule almost tells the story of how the conference unfolded in terms of narrative, but it was the content quality, discussion and analysis that offered perspectives on how with piracy – everything we have seen we have seen before, and yet what we are seeing today is in itself unique.
The day began with Dr. Martin Murphy, who laid the foundation in a short history of piracy leading to a conclusion of parallels to Somalia today. Citing numerous statistics and highlighting historical examples, some going back thousands of years, Dr. Murphy explored causes and conclusions to historical episodes that concluded with details how cultural understanding played a role in solving historical piracy problems in various regions. My take away from Dr Murphy was how there is a clear link between the strategies, tactics, and techniques utilized in modern COIN doctrine that can be directly applied toward developing counter-piracy doctrine. The other take away was there is no political appetite among US policy makers to actually develop that doctrine though, as the cost of COIN doctrine is too high to be executed to low level criminal activity like piracy.
The first panel moderated by RADM Joseph F. Callo, USNR (Ret.) included Dr. Virginia W. Lunsford, Frederick C. Leiner, and LCDR Benjamin Armstrong, USN. The panel focused primarily on the history of piracy and where comparisons can be made to modern piracy. The panel repeatedly stressed that there are no direct comparisons, noting that because of the cultural differences one finds in each specific place piracy has historically existed it is very difficult to directly apply solutions utilized against piracy in one place to another. As a panel focused on history, this panel turned out to be one of the more enjoyable panels I have observed at a conference, as the stories (and in particular less well known stories of US Navy history) added theater I had not expected. In several ways, good questions offered the panel an opportunity to feed off one another in citing historical cases ranging from the Barbary Wars in the Mediterranean Sea to the West Indies squadrons and beyond.
I want to focus a second on some of the fine points of the panel. Dr Lunsford noted 6 factors that allow piracy to flourish, and argued that disruption to any of the factors can limit piracy.
- An available population of potential recruits
- A secure base of operations
- A sophisticated organization
- Some degree of outside support
- Cultural bonds that engender vibrant group solidarity
- Access to goods or materials
LCDR BJ Armstrong also offered some interesting thoughts. Focusing at the operational level, LCDR Armstrong discussed the three P’s in piracy: People, Platforms, and Partnership. I found it interesting how LCDR Armstrong noted that in previous eras of piracy, it was young officers who stepped up and took risks to significantly impact theaters, but this example was tempered by noting success and failures of young officers – noting that understanding the limits of risks are important. In discussing platforms it was noted how in the West Indies, the US Navy struggled to curb piracy until three gun schooners were utilized in the fight, allowing the US Navy to go closer in shore to influence operations at the coast more effectively than the larger Navy ships were capable of doing due to draft concerns. Partnership was also noteworthy in that it highlighted the quiet support of British for logistics and provisions when fighting the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean Sea. Partnership for forward operating bases used in fighting piracy is an American policy going back to the founding of the nation.
When a question was raised regarding the value of small Navy’s in fighting piracy, it was noteworthy the entire panel pointed to the historical example of the United States Navy prior to WWII as an example where small navy’s can make a significant contribution towards counter-piracy operations in Somalia today.
The second panel was moderated by LCDR Claude G. Berube, USNR, and consisted of Eric Wertheim, Robert Gauvin, and CAPT Mark Tempest, USNR (Ret.). This panel focused more on the history of modern piracy and the history of modern efforts in counter-piracy, with a focus primarily on the Strait of Malacca and Somalia. The issues raised by the panel primarily included the problems regarding what to do once counter-piracy measures are effective, and nations have pirates in custody. With so many nation states as a stakeholder in any given scenario, it led to interesting discussion. An example would be a Liberian flagged, Singapore owned vessel with a Ukrainian master, a crew consisting of members of multiple nationalities, an Indian union, and a British insurance company attacked by Somali pirates with the pirates captured by a Dutch warship and a trial to be conducted by Kenya under their requirements for evidence. In the end, it really is no wonder there are so many ‘catch and release.’
Then came Stephen M. Carmel, Senior Vice President of Maersk Line, Limited. If you have never heard Stephen Carmel speak, it is worth the price of admission to any conference. I will attempt to get a copy of the speech by Mr. Carmel and post it here on the blog, because it is a long list of statistics that leaves no doubt regarding the insignificance of modern piracy in the big economic picture. There was one thing that jumped out to me regarding his speech though – and it is something that needs to be very carefully considered.
The current methods of ransom payment for hijacked ships represents a suitable condition to the commercial industry for managing Somali piracy in its current form, where no one is being killed and property is being returned. This relationship appears to work as long as there are no links between piracy and terrorism in Somalia. In other words, it is in the interest of the $7+ trillion global commercial shipping industry for there to be no links between piracy and terrorism in Somalia. In a cynical world, al-Shabab has the largest global political lobby on the planet towards the ability to conduct piracy in the same non-lethal manner as other Somali clans. Just saying, something to consider.
The final panel of the day was moderated by CDR John P. Patch, USN (Ret.), and consisted of RADM Terence E. McKnight, USN (Ret.), Capt Zachary D. Martin, USMC, and Laurence Smallman of RAND. I sat at the table throughout the day with Mr. Smallman and CDR Patch, so I admit being partial to this panel as they had insightful commentary all afternoon for me. Mr. Smallman touched on but never extensively expanded on his theories of maritime disorder while on the panel, although I intend to mine the RAND database in the future to see if this concept is further developed for public analysis. Captain Martin was largely reserved in his opinions (as one would expect from an operator), but stressed as Marines often do on these types of piracy panels that the US Marine Corps brings a broad variety of capabilities outside the kinetic operational focus that usually gets all of the attention; highlighting that training operations in developing professional security forces regionally goes a long way towards developing sustainable counter-piracy operations in the region. This panel also carried further points raised by Stephen Carmel regarding the distinctions of anti-piracy, which are ship based measures taken to prevent the hijacking of a ship, and counter-piracy which is the activities by maritime forces at the operational and tactical level against pirates.
The panel and conference concluded on the point that the international community is nowhere near a solution to the root causes of modern piracy, but has made significant strides in both anti-piracy and counter-piracy containment in piracy regions globally. Piracy remains a globally managed maritime challenge, but the slogans that popped up following the conference tell the story in many ways. The international community has been ineffective in solving the problems of modern piracy, but at least they have been collectively ineffective in solving the problems of modern piracy together. It is like the old saying, none of us are as smart as all of us. When it comes to modern piracy, the takeaway from the conference on piracy for me was how none of us are as ineffective as all of us.