In the week following the 2010 USNI History Conference; Piracy on the High Seas, there are two points that have staying power for me. They help describe why we are having such a difficult time fixing a relatively basic function of a sea power with literally the entire written history of mankind to tap into for examples about how to solve it.

This isn’t a new problem even if you have a shortsighted view of history. Just sticking to “new media” – our friend EagleOne was blogg’n about piracy from the start – well before piracy was “cool.” Check out his archive and you can see the arch from SE Asia to the Horn of Africa and a few other garden spots in between.

The problem isn’t piracy itself; it is our inability to take decisive action to eliminate it. Once again, it boils down to solid, informed leadership – leadership that is allowing itself to be confused by two things – the same two things that are still bouncing around my nogg’n a week after the conference.

Peer Review vs. Prop-wash

The first problem was indirectly pointed out by LCDR B.J. Armstrong, USN via his opening statement during the first panel;

“Hey, I’m just an operator … ”

… at the assembled academics and recidivist Staff Weenies encircling him.

His opening reminded me of a very clear point; in piracy like many things, we are suffering from analysis paralysis. Academics, researchers, and historians are very important parts of the discussion, but when we give them too much weight – and minimize the opinion and the observations of the operator – then we get what we reward; talk and discussion – and the finer points of rejoinders to introspective quandaries. I call it The Darfur Effect.

In The Darfur Effect, we have a very serious and very difficult problem that all agree is very serious and very difficult. As any good academic, researcher, and historian will tell you – the best response to such things is to get grant money, organize symposiums, publish some papers, and even better get some time in front of a Congressional committee or a temporary assignment with an IO, NGO, or GO working on a White Paper on the subject.

That is all good and well – but if that is your primary focus, and you give most of the time, money, and power to that focus – nothing really is done. Like Darfur, after the clucking of tongues and interviews on PBS’s Frontline – few are saved and the problem isn’t solved. Well, in the case of Darfur where each new finds that there is a very limited and dwindling number of Darfuris to save, eventually there are few to none to save and the problem solves itself, in a fashion.

Piracy is different in one respect. Unchecked, it grows. Unlike the case of Darfur where the people there are trying to be eliminated faster than they can replace themselves – with piracy like all lawlessness – it grows when ignored. Mitigation or elimination requires decisive operations. Yes, we have anti-piracy operations, but are they really that effective? The proof that we are still talking about this after so many years shows that no, they are not effective.

Does anyone think that we have not talked enough about piracy? In more time than we took to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, we are still roughly talking about the same issues we were in 2005.

Ideas we have – good Direction and Guidance based on a sound Operational Concept derived from the best ideas we do not have.

DC-10s, Pintos, and Kismaayo

The best speech for its substance, subject, and delivery was at lunch by a non-military, non-historian, non-academic; the Senior Vice President of Maersk Line, Limited – Stephen M. Carmel.

He had no difficulty in getting people to stop chewing for a moment as he came of the blocks with his spines out and claws extended. He wasn’t hostile – but he gave a delivery in a manner that told you he knew that many people would not like what he had to say, many have never thought of things from his point of view – and something that warmed my heart – he had a BM1’s sense of not suffering fools lightly.

Mr. Carmel knows his business. Unlike most, he has to know his business – he has a firm understanding of sunk cost, opportunity cost, cost benefit, and comparative advantage. He actually has metrics that cannot – legally at least – be fudged or pushed into the next fiscal year. He doesn’t work in a career that is based on the conveyor belt mentality of promotion – he must perform or he will be replaced.

Such an environment can do much to clear the mind, and his presentation was focused and fact based. I won’t go into the double-ledger aspects of it all, but let me summarize it for you; piracy is a commercial non-issue for him and his company. They have, do, and will pay ransom when needed. They can mitigate piracy’s impact on their bottom line. If you need a justification for doing something about piracy – don’t use Maersk’s business needs as it.

From his area of responsibility, he has a point – but I don’t think he has the final answer either. When the green eyeshade becomes the green blinder, we often find ourselves in trouble. There were very sound business decisions made concerning the DC-10 and the Ford Pinto – but they were morally indefensible. I don’t think leaving hundreds of men languishing off some septic Somali port for hundreds of days is moral.

Though Carmel’s thoughts should be part of the discussion – it should be but a small part of a balanced view. Piracy is part of the general cancer of maritime disorder – a violent symptom along with its less directly dangerous pollution and industrial fishing sisters. Piracy is a barrier to freedom of the seas, and if left alone will grow and impact what was once an area where goods were free to flow to markets with minimal external interference.

It will grow along the same lines as the “broken window” theory of crime states that if not aggressively countered, crime will continue to grow and alter the larger culture in ways not fully understood – but never in a better way.

Those are the macro reasons – the micro ones are even more important. Hundreds of people are being held against their will as hostages by pirates. If those people were mostly Canadian, American, British, and German as opposed to South Asian and Philippino – does anyone here think that we would be sitting here talking about it being a non-issue? Really?

That is the moral reason. Sometimes, like with the anti-slavery operations by the British in the 19th Century – you do things because it is the right and moral thing to do, especially in those things that do not require a lot of blood or treasure to execute. Political and economic benefits will follow the moral – and if they don’t at least you can look yourself in the mirror in the morning.

In an age of moral equivalence and a bias against stating what is or is not acceptable, doing things because it is “the moral thing” to do is problematic perhaps – but ponder this: what makes you more uncomfortable – setting an acceptable price on another man’s freedom, or punishing those who decide to earn their living from crime and the enslavement of others?

Posted by CDRSalamander in Maritime Security, Navy, Piracy
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  • Your analysis of Mr. Carmel’s speech is essentially correct – the “merchant” in merchant marine spoke more loudly than the marine.

    His view that the bigger, faster ships (and perhaps, therefore, the “more important” ships?) are not at risk and that the current level of interruption of sea lanes is too economically trivial to worry over ignores the vital nature of Somalia’s geographic location, the disruption of the flow of goods to neighboring countries and the expanding sphere of Somali piracy from largely a coastal phenomenon to one threatening ships across a broad swath of the Indian Ocean.

    He ignores the 400+ sailors and the thousands of innocent Somalis and others held hostage to the pirate/criminal clan disruption of the flow of food and necessary for life materials to the region. After all, he argues, mere money can retrieve both a captured ship and its crew.

    If .5% chance of piracy is too low a business risk to worry over, what percent is the action point?

    I am reminded of a wealthy homeowner who lives in a “safe” neighborhood suggesting that crime in a poor area of town (that he hardly ever visits or always drives through at high speed) is not a problem since it rarely affects him and he is insured. The people in the afflicted neighborhood see the problem on different terms.

    That one of the Maersk ships was nearly taken by pirates while delivering food aid (intended for Somalia) is treated as an aberration barely worth a footnote is in itself worth noting.

    Now, I have argued that the U.S.’s vital sea lanes are not seriously threatened by the Somali pirates. That, however, does not mean that its vital nation interests are not affected. That other countries like India, Singapore, Japan, Russia, China, France, Turkey, Germany, Netherlands, Great Britain, Denmark, Spain, and more see the threat as sufficient to pony up ships, men and national treasure to thwart it speaks volumes about both their “moral” and business sense.

  • RickWilmes

    “His opening reminded me of a very clear point; in piracy like many things, we are suffering from analysis paralysis. Academics, researchers, and historians are very important parts of the discussion, but when we give them too much weight – and minimize the opinion and the observations of the operator – then we get what we reward; talk and discussion – and the finer points of rejoinders to introspective quandaries.”

    What you are describing is a false dichotomy which manifests itself in various forms like the moral vs. the practical(insert the mercatilist here) and theory vs. practice.  Ex. “It may work in theory but once you put it into practice it won’t work.”  

    Concerning looking at the history of piracy and what has worked and hasn’t worked. The following may be of interest.

  • Byron

    Dead on the money, CDR. Those were the exact reasons why I disagreed with Mr. Carmels remarks. I just wish I could say it as well as you did.

    Piracy is bad for everyone, everywhere. Period. Freaking. Dot.

  • Stuart

    Mr. Caramel’s take on the situation all comes down to a cost/benefit analysis. It all depends on what end of the equation you are on; if you are a sailor, your perspective and calculation is much different than if you are an executive, sitting in an air-conditioned office in New York or Amsterdam.

    You are spot on in your observations that we study things to death (paralysis of analysis) and that we grant these pirates moral equivalency. It is not those on the deck who present this problem, it is those at the top who are charged with providing leadership. I believe that this moral equivalency and hand-wringing indecisivenss is part and parcel of our PC, don’t judge anybody, everybody’s a winner society Excuses are made for all sorts of behavior, but it comes down to making choices. There is right and there is wrong and we must speak up loudly and punish that which is wrong and praise and reward that which is right.

  • Matt Yankee

    The moralist argument is misleading as there are real, practical benefits beyond just feeling good about being moral. For instance defending our reputation as the world’s superior fighting force…if leadership is weak than it doesn’t matter how cool and effecient our weaponry or our operators are. A willingness to use our tools in a quick and decisive manner provides us with a reputation that will deter others who might think we are incapable of swift moves outside the box (borders). Willingness to pull the trigger is just as important as having the best gun and ammo.

    The catch and release policy on the border and in Somali waters is retarded and shows lack of will which just ensures a never ending problem until we are forced into responding after something very bad happens usually to a fellow American.

  • leesea

    I knew there was something wrong with Camel’s remarks and you NAILED IT!. Right on Phibian. We’ll see who replies to my email?

  • Chuck Hill

    Amen. We should never have tucked our tail and left Somalia after “Black Hawk Down.” Made us look like a paper tiger–we should have gone back in force.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    The Home Office Guy doesn’t care about the Mariners whose blood, sweat, tears, and professional expertise are the things that make the money for the shipping firm. Because if he loses a few he could have saved and makes more money thereby the owner likes it.

    Bloody handed bastard. Widows, orphans, blood on the decks…not his problem. Won’t be until it affects the bottom line.

    Well, it will. Piracy tolerated is piracy emboldened, made stronger, and richer, while another layer of civilization peels away, slowly and locally at first, then farther and faster.

    Let it fester and grow. It will cost us all more and more to end it every decade we wait. More blood, more treasure. The guy is no different than the one who told Titanic’s Captain to go fast, then got in the first boat and pulled away half full. Respect him? Not likely. Not ever.

    Tax ’em heavy to pay for killing piracy and tell ’em to go to…Somolia. Cost of doing business. TS.

  • Matt Yankee

    Should also mention the piracy on our own waters…Falcon Lake where the Mexican investigator searching for the killers of David Hartley was found decapitated and this precipitated the closing of the case and abondonment of the search for his body.

    This particular horror will not be forgotten by Texans…ever. The Somali problem is a drop in the bucket compared to this one. The same underlying cause though…political leader’s cowardice and downright disdain for opinions that are not in line with their own.

  • Greg

    Grandpa has a point. Think of teenagers. They will push and push until the hammer comes down. And it always must, at some point. If you are “understanding” and tolerant the level of pain will be far beyond the level of a strict parent who draws the line early and enforces it. Emboldended? From their prospective it’s a lucrative business, and entrepreneurs will push it until the maritime world says “enough!” We’d all be better off if today was the day.

  • leesea

    just go look at Eagle1’s “pirate history” today. It has grown in numbers and spread in area due to lacksidasical response by the US and other navies until recently. Now it seems that EU NAVFOR is being more dynamic in IO?

    BTW I first saw an MSC ship threatened by pirates in 1985. It has not gone away just changed hot spots.


    From the economic standpoint of Maersk, Mr. Carmel is absolutely right. Piracy, in its present form in the Indian Ocean, is probably not only acceptable, but actually good for business. Since their ships on that route are largely faster and often fly a flag that has a navy to protect them, the threat of Piracy probably actually pushes some business to Maersk. Maersk is much like the individual in a safe neighborhood who actually benefits from higher housing prices because they live in a safe neighborhood. However, his analysis assumes that there is some minimal level of protection available, similiar to what is being provided. Withdrawl all support for the suppression of Piracy and they will be one of the first to scream for help.
    The real complicating factor in the whole issue is the flag of convenience states. Piracy is an domestic law crime, although all nations are obligated to act to surpress it. You don’t see any Panamanian, Maltese, or the other post office box flag states doing anything to surpress piracy. For instance, did the shipping company of recently released ships pay anything for the service? How many of the recently rescued “German” ships actually fly the German flag? When the USN fought the Barbary Pirates, we were protecting US flag ships and had the legal authority to do so. That is not so true today. Until you address the problem of what I call “flags of tax avoidance”, you won’t fix the problem. It is interesting that the EUs Operation Atalanta is chartered to protect World Food Program shipping and not protect EU shipping from Piracy. Why? Malta, one of the biggest tax havens for shipping companies is part of the EU and no one one, rightfully so in my opinion, wants to protect what is viewed as a bunch of tax cheats.
    My solution would be to guarantee that all US Flag ships will be protected from Piracy. A security detachment, similiar to the US Naval Guards, would probably be the easiest way, then let the rest of the world worry about the rest of the ships. People misunderstand the Barbary Wars. The end result was that “United States” ships were no longer captured, the Europeans largely kept paying until France took over North Africa.

  • Eagle1

    Malta has been providing anti-piracy forces


  • Eagle1
  • Steve Carmel

    Thanks very much for your analysis of my remarks – and I agree with you on many points. You are right on when you note that I believe business needs are not the right reason for a piracy mission. One of the central points of my remarks is that we need to be doing things for the right reason to have correct policy, and with piracy we are not since the reason offered is always a commercial one – that piracy off the Horn of Africa represents some sort of huge threat to international commerce. It does not, pure and simple. Therefore policy built around that reason will be wrong. Nor, as I note, are any direct US interests at risk that justify our involvement. No critic of my remarks has been able to provide one other than larger stability or reputational issues which are indirect, and, as I noted in my remarks, I agree with. As I note towards the end of my remarks, the piracy mission only makes sense as a part of a larger overall strategy for dealing with instability in that area which has its roots ashore, not at sea. And again as I noted in my remarks given the US’s stature as a global leader, we properly have a role to play here. The problem of course is that we are not playing that role. I note that critics of my remarks all seem to focus on what are essentially larger stability issues as reasons for US involvement in dealing with piracy, but don’t acknowledge that we don’t have any sort of coherent plan for the big picture. As I said in my remarks, people give lip service to the notion that piracy is a symptom, not the disease, but quickly conclude the disease is too complicated to deal with so we’ll ignore it or push it off into the future (which, by the way, is what in reality will allow it to get worse). Instead we’ll focus on putting a Band-Aid that is too small on the symptom and pretend for the camera’s that is going to help the patient. My point is that without a plan to treat the disease, the patient is essentially fending for himself while the doctor postures for news media. As I noted in my remarks, the low success rate of pirate attacks is primarily due to best pratices by merchant ships themselves. The piracy mission, on its own, makes no sense. In fact it might be a little dangerous for the Navy as a stand alone mission because without a larger plan for stability in the region pirates will keep coming – the activity of CTF 151 has clearly had zero deterrent effect and prosecuting them is a joke. Pirates will from time to time still succeed in what they are trying to do, and the Navy will look increasingly impotent.

  • SJFF

    Mr Carmel’s business equation does not factor in the increasing involvement from AQ.. His company only ends up on the plus-side of the equation as long as his ships and crew are returned safe after the ransom is paid. How do things change once the first employee ends up decapitated on YouTube?

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Funny you should mention that…..

  • Matt Yankee

    As far as real benefits to attacking the pirates in Somalia…
    -AQ could absolutely use these guys to their own ends…obtaining a ship with 200,000 barrels of oil would make quit a improvised weapon of mass destruction including on economy..
    -AQ could obtain a passenger liner and blast all kinds of horror around the globe on TV making havoc including for entire economy.
    -Regular pirates could accidentally make a mistake like starting a fire and sinking the ship with crew.
    -Oppurtunity cost for Navy having to devote multiple ships forever and ever.
    -China has an excuse to send ships into new territory
    -China or any competitor taking the initiative and going onshore before us and setting up permanent presence ashore in very good location for Indian Ocean and Med. competition.
    -Millions of dollars of ship line’s money going into the hands of possible terrorists but at least perpetuating and strengthening their skills and equipment.
    -When we show up in our ships and just watch that has the effect of emboldening them…like the border patrol with catch and release…the third world may lose all respect for us as a clear thinking adversary and grow much bolder…remember they have little to lose except for their lives and when they know that just isn’t going to happen they kick it up a notch or two.
    -Always being seen as being behind the curve instead of in front and defining the arch over many yrs on the same obvious problem.

    Worrying about fixing some infinately larger social problem in Somalia is beyond what we should be talking about. The third world should respect us and you don’t earn respect you take it some times. Make those pirates so scared to venture out they cut their crap…embolden them with undue respect and you lower the respect they give you.

    Lawyers are more of the root cause of our shyness these days as I see it…not capitalists. Mr. Carmel’s job is not to tell the US govt how to protect this country’s interests…it is to run his company successfully which is the American Dream.


    OK, one boarding team equates to how much of the expense of keeping the ship off the Horn of Africa versus how many Maltese flag ships, which give their owners incredible tax benefits, are sailing in these waters? Has Malta, Panama, Liberia, etc. or any other nation prosecuted pirates that attacked their ships? The US has prosecuted or is prosecuting all the Pirates caught attacking US Ships, all the ones we can legally prosecute, how many other flag states are doing the same?

  • Matt Yankee

    Is it beyond the realm of possibilities that one day with the millions of dollars they have won the pirates might afford to get their hands on a small helicopter and land right on the bridge of one of those supposedly impervious ships. I do believe a small helo could be shipped inside of a shipping container to Puntland or maybe to Aden and then flown out to a mother ship.

    With enough money and time anything can be done…and they do have both.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    To repeat myself, twenty years ago they were stealing brass fire nozzles and nylon mooring lines off the decks on moonless nights.
    Nothing was done, the Brits left the area some years ago, and “rightsizing” (as transparent a screwup in the making as has ever been seen, euphemisms have consequences)tripped off the current avalanche toward catastrophe the USN is still accelerating into.

    Now we have a pirate coast with a pirate class, Al Queda’s nose into the tent, and the Barbary pirates redux in the offing, without any european urge to empire. “No commercial significance” and “no national security effect” is like a snapshot of the slope of the curve at y=.01 X=-11.1. Only problem is the curve is a hyperbola concave up and to the left.

    The slope of the curve is meaningless if you don’t know the type and trend of the the curve. Analogous to riding a roller coaster blindfolded. Fasten your seat belt, it’s going to be a bumpy ride (h/t: Ms Bette Davis).

    Piracy is like a fire at sea. Best extinguished while still small.

    Wonder why focusing on this, last, and next quarter’s bottom line makes Executives so shortsighted. In the long run their complacency just makes everything worse.

    Current best practices (i.e, the MSC SOP, borrowed by the IMO, sorta) work well. Until the Pirates figure out how to counter them, which they will, eventually, not that I’m going to draw them a picture.

    Doubtless the NATO crowd is talking to their shipping executives.
    Which makes it suck to be a Lascar or a Philipino mariner. Or their widow, or their orphan.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    PS: The Maritime Unions are nowhere nearly as sanguine as the Home Office Guys. Check Cdr Salamanders back numbers.

  • Adrian Villanueva

    Piracy will continue unless firm and decisive actions are taken – like in the “Days of Ole”- Pirates are HUNG high at the yard arms of ships.

    Advill (An Ole Salt).