Task Force Indifferent

January 2011


Check out this map of piracy incidents from November 1, 2010 through January 10, 2011 (click to enlarge). It is worth noting that many security companies that provide security on commercial vessels disembark at Shalalah, Oman.

Someone explain to me how the Sea Sheperd Conservation Society is able to track down all of the Japanese whaler operations with three ships and a single helicopter, tail their ships effectively and leverage presence alone to shut down Japanese whaling operations.

But the most powerful Navies in the world can’t do the same thing to the motherships supporting piracy from Somalia? We are either not trying, or completely incompetent. There really are no other explanations.

Posted by galrahn in Maritime Security

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  • Curtis


  • Mittleschmerz

    It’s the difference between “one-on-one” and “zone” defense. The anti-piracy deciders have settled on zone, but only for a portion of the “court”.

    Once upon a time we did a “one-on-one” by stationing a combatant or two within a mile of the captured ships and kept those ships at anchor until they were released. In that time, no new attacks happened, ransoms dropped, and every single vessel was released.

    As soon as we stopped the one on one of the pirate ports and went to the zone defense used today, attacks sky rocketed, ransoms shot up, and the time in captivity went from a 45 day average with a six month max, to over a year.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Interesting post. Doesn’t exactly fill one with confidence in the “Thousand Ship Navy”…

  • Mitt speaks with big medicine.

    There is also unity of command, focus,a clear mission, and broad and flexible ROE.

    As we have outlined earlier – we have task forces with almost two dozen ships where only a half dozen are fully useful to the Commander. Most of the nation’s ships involved – just like most of the contributing nations in AFG – are there to show the flag and to get a check in the block, but are so saddled with caveats and restrictive ROE that they are more of an administrative burden than a help.

    With the exception of just a few nations – more often we have at sea an un-fun Fleet Week pass and review, and less of a Fleet on operations.

    When you spend more of your time on process than you do on performance – then you get the expected results.

    Good people are trying to work around this – hence the grab-bag of different TF from different organizations NATO/EU/150/151 etc – but until civilian leadership is willing to create a “Coalition of the Able and Select”, this won’t change. There isn’t the will for that though.

  • BLQ


    You don’t see any differences between the two situations?

  • Mittleschmerz

    “Coalition of the Able and Select” can easily be accomplished by task unit and mission assignments…we just have to want to.

    We need to keep in mind Steve Carmel’s comments with regards to piracy…we can “want” all we want, but until industry actually “wants” then there isn’t much reason to “do”…

  • Not really a surprise, is it? A lack of a coordinated anti-piracy effort, coupled with a relatively low volume of attacks/captures per 1000’s of ships transiting the area and the fact that the captured crews are mostly third world nationals (Filipino, etc) and there’s not much hue and cry to do more.

    A NATO commander recently has admitted the obvious – the “Somali Pirate Navy” with its increasing use of captured vessels as “mother ships” has the initiative in the Indian Ocean. See
    http://www.eaglespeak.us/2011/01/somali-pirates-nato-commander-admits.html: “”Pirates have gone high tech and few use speed boats. They have switched to usage of mother ships,” said Hijmans, who currently commands NATO’s Ocean Shield anti-piracy mission.

    “We cannot attack mother ships without proper planning since most of them have hostages on board,” said the Dutch navy commander.

    Hijmans also explained that pirates operating on large hijacked vessels were able to extend their area of operation when on the prowl and were no longer confined to their coastal hideouts during monsoon seasons.

    “The pirates can operate in the sea for long as they load the mother ships with enough food, fuel and militant weapons ready for a hijacking spree,” he said.”

    Everyone knows the ultimate answer lies ashore in Somalia, but no one wants to go bell that cat.

  • NavyDave

    I’m surprised we don’t have a maritime version of Blackwater (or maybe we do). Fact is, a private entity could be much more flexible and responsive. Maybe the cost to the shipping companies just isn’t great enough to justify the cost of preventing piracy?

  • Steve H

    Sea Shepard are pirates too. We should send the Navy after them.

  • traderjack

    sea shepard can track the whalers because the whalers are fairly passive. You track a pirate and you might get dead, or captured.

    See any difference?

  • Mittleschmerz – Carmen’s words loom large, but it is in the interest of industry not to disrupt the status quo. That alone says a lot about the ineffectiveness of naval forces to date.

    Traderjack – ‘dead or captured?’ We are talking about Navy ships here, not vigilantes. Any Navy ship concerned about the possibility of being captured by Somali pirates needs a new Captain.

    We continue to see tactical shifts by pirates. Lack of tactical shifts by western Navies is worthy of concern. Why invest in failing activities?

    Eagle1 – Just because motherships have hostages onboard doesn’t mean Navies should let motherships operate freely without disruption. Whoever came up with that policy is part of the problem, not the solution.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Three words. War by committee. Or, if you prefer, on the cheap. Or, about the money. Or, don’t hurt any one. Or, inadequate international law. Or, first kill lawyers.

    Hopeless. Will get worse.

  • Byron

    Why do we train SEALs to board and take over ships and then not use them to re-capture ships? Answer: lack of political will. I recommend we pull all our warships from this mission and use them someplace worthwhile; right now, we’re just peeing in the wind out there and getting a facefull of it.

  • Derrick

    What do the stars represent on the map included with the article?

    How many motherships do the pirates possess? Do we know their locations?

  • This is reminiscent of the active patrolling vs convoying debate of the two world wars. Commanders don’t want to be “tied down.”

    Unlike the ASW debate there is the third option the “one on one” as Galrahn says, but that is too easy, too boring, and unfortunately it would work.

    There are after all more patrolling ships than motherships.

  • Steve

    The traffic density in the N-E Indian Ocean is high – meaning there is lot of non-pirate vessels to be checked (at least to within within AIS range), to eliminate false alarms. Unless there is continuous tracking of vessels a simple radar plot of blips quicly loses identification coherence as vessels tracks cross.

    There are very few vessels in the deep Southern Ocean (probably some long liner fishing vessels) as well as the Whaling group. The latter could be radio DF’d by commercial receivers and recgonised on radar by its convoy like grouping.


    If you view the whole anti-piracy thing as an effort of appearing to do something for political purposes as opposed to actually trying to solve the problem, everything makes sense.

    Everyone recognizes, or should recognize by this time, that the only solution to a piracy problem is to remove the source of the pirates. It’s like swatting mosquitoes, you can swat them all day but until you destroy the source of the mosquitoes (I prefer a mosquito magnet but DDT or draining the swap works too), you can’t eliminate the problem and are doomed to swat forever.

    However, there in is the rub. None of the nations involved have been willing to do anything about the problem in Somolia (i.e. go ashore and eliminate the pirates) or eliminate the sanctuary (don’t pay ransom and immediately retake the ships regardless of effect on hostages).

    Historically, what has worked to suppress piracy was either to take over their bases where they could operate (French annexation of North Africa, Colonizing the Carribean and Malaysia, etc) or kill, or put the fear of death into, the Pirates (Roman solution to pirates, US solution to the Barbary pirates, Tsunami killing or displacing the majority of the Malaccan pirates, etc). Until there is political will to actually take effective action, nothing will be done.

    As pointed out by Eagle1, the biggest problem stems from the nature of the ships, sailors, and owners involved. Lets look at the latest hijacking (thanks to Eagle1 and BZ on your blog!).
    Greek owned ship, crewed by Phillipinos, flagged in Cyprus.

    1. Greek citizens are some of the largest shipowners in the world, but you rarely see the Greek Navy involved and/or willing to do anything. Of course, Greek law probably does not allow them to protect ships flagged in other countries. So they don’t do anything, beyond demand that someone else (mostly the US) do something.

    2. The Phillipines had, at least fairly recently, the largest number of their citizens being held by Somali pirates, and you can add 24 more to the total now. Seen any action by the Phillipines lately? Beyond demanding that someone else (mostly the US) do something that is?

    3. Cyprus, although one of the largest Flag States has virtually no Navy. On the plus side, they have at least provided a boarding team (yeah thats really in line with the cost of protecting their ships but it is better than Liberia, or others) for Operation Atalanta (whose mission is merely to protect World Food Program Ships, not counter piracy, since most of the EU nations with navies found it unpalatable to protect tax cheats flying the Cypriot flag). They keep pretty quite but I am sure they are privately trying to convince someone else (most likely the US) to do something about it.

    There you have the problem in a nutshell. Three countries with some claim to having cause for action, the owners of the ship, the nation of the hostages, and the Flag state. All are unwilling or unable to do anything, but all want some action by nations that really dosn’t have a dog in the fight (primarily the US but also a handlefull of other nations that have navies involved that are willing and able to take action) to solve their problem for them.

    The US has no cause for action:
    1. Not our ship
    2. Not our nationals
    3. Not our flag (would of course be same as 1. above for the US but not for all nations)
    4. Not even the legally weak arguement about our cargo
    Not a US problem!

    The problem is not so much a question of zone or man-to-man defense as it is of what you do after you get the ball back. In basketball, after you get the ball (either by turnover, rebound, or inbound pass after the offense scored) you try to go the other end of the court and score yourself (in other words, punish the other side with the objective of winning the game). In counter-Somali-piracy, zone or man, after the pirates score (get paid a ransom), we give them the ball back again so they can try again. There is no way to win this game! You need to change the rules you are playing under!


    Someone needs to figure out what to do after the pirates start franchising. Sanctuary is what distinguishes the Somali pirates from, say, the Malacca pirates (who steal valuables but not ships). Pretty soon the pirates will figure out that they could make a lot more money if they franchised. After a ship is taken by Malaccan pirates, or Niger delta pirates, or anyone else who wants a buck, what’s to keep them from sailing it to Somalia for a cut of the ransom? Somali pirates get more money for virtually no work and the other pirates get a bigger payday. We seem to be headed that way.

  • I think the one-on-one idea has a lot of merit. There are more naval vessels nominally involved than there are “pirate action groups” as they are so grandiosely referred to. The pirate vessels are being reported and their locations plotted.

    Once a pirate action group is located, put a tail on it and don’t let go. Keep ships stationed off the known operating bases and every time a pirate action group comes out, if it is a small boat board and disarm it. If it is a pirated ship with hostages on board, trail it. The pirates have shifted from small boats to ships because the waters close in are no longer productive. They need the larger vessels they pirate to expand their area of operations. In a way it is a pyramid scheme. Seizing a ship allows you to seize more ships. If you make it impossible use pirated ships to seize more ships the pirate fleet will shrink as the ships they have are ransomed and the problem will start to shrink.

    Otherwise, it is only a mater of time until they start opening pirate franchises like McDonald’s every where there is a lawless coast.

  • USNVO seems to have hit this one on the head. So long as issues of governance and sanctuary in Somalia exist, piracy off the Somali coast will exist. This is about more than just a refusal to go ashore militarily. Given the hostage problem and the fact that piracy is an enormous part of local economies along parts of the coast, going ashore would entail risks and casualties that would ultimately achieve only tactical results because without a viable indigenous civil authority to enforce the rule of law and without economic alternatives to piracy, the underlying factors that make gave rise to piracy here in the first place will persist.

    I would argue that nation-building in Somalia is not a business we want to be in. Encouraging, supporting and advising the African Union in managing Somalia is obviously imperfect, fraught with risk and failings and provides no near-term prospect for success. But it is a solution commiserate with the magnitude of the problem, with the broad spectrum of American operational demands worldwide and better than having American Marines and Soldiers dying in the streets of Mogadishu again.

    And if that is the long-term solution, then the question becomes effective and efficient management of the problem from the sea. There are obviously failings in the multi-national force and a lot of the criticism here is absolutely justified. I would only add the absurdity of fighting piracy with billion dollar Aegis-equipped warships and 15,000 ton LPDs and LSDs (but that’s another conversation). It isn’t going to solve the problem, but we’re not willing — nor should we be willing — to address the underlying issues that give rise to piracy here.

    This isn’t the Barbary Pirates and this isn’t the 19th century. The problem of piracy off the coast of Somalia quite frankly pales in comparison. Ask anyone in the commercial shipping industry about what concerns them. It isn’t piracy off the coast of Somalia. It’s profound issues with the underlying metrics of the industry — whole fleets of new merchant ships ordered during the last cyclic boom coming online, commodity prices and charter rates. Despite the coverage of pirate seizures (and Force Recon Marines kicking ass and taking names), the overall impact on the flow of global commerce is almost imperceptible when you look at it from a global, systemic perspective. Obviously no one should be subjected to captivity at the hands of Somali pirates. But this is ultimately an economic transaction for them — hostages aren’t getting tortured and killed.

    We need to get better at organizing and managing the problem. We need to rationalize the tools we bring to the table. But Somali pirates don’t have the sophistication, weaponry or scale to meaningfully disrupt global commerce — and as the threat evolves, the way we arm and defend merchantmen in the area can evolve to beat the threat. But we need to recognize that not only does the problem not warrant American blood being shed once again on Somalia soil, but the limited bandwidth American special operations forces and ground combat forces have left is in higher demand for better reasons elsewhere. Perhaps there is some room for more aggression with airpower (above trash fire, Somalia is completely permissive airspace) and limited special operations forces raids. But our objective should be economy of force, and doing everything possible to limit the efficacy of piracy in economic terms — make it as hard as possible to successfully seize a ship and thereby, from a Somali perspective, earn untold economic rewards. But do it from the sea, and keep the matter in strategic perspective: we’ve got better things to do.