Somali pirates may start using machine guns
by Justin Stares
The European Union's war against Somali pirates is set to escalate, writes Justin Stares. The simultaneous firing of all guns from one side of a ship is better associated with Horatio Nelson and the Napoleonic Wars but, within months, pirates will be firing broadsides from deck-mounted machine guns into freighters transiting the Indian Ocean.
This was the prediction of Lieutenant Col. Andy Price, on assignment from the Royal Navy and currently executive officer with EU NAVFOR, the European Union's anti-piracy force. Broadsides, he told a conference in Brussels, will be the result of a dangerous escalation in firepower. The rocket-propelled grenade has until now been the weapon of choice for the many Somalis, who try their luck against commercial vessels. Three years ago, when piracy was a nascent industry, a grenade launched from a shoulder-held rocket was enough to convince the ship's master that resistance to boarding was futile.
But ship owners soon got wise. First came low-tech self-protection techniques such as swinging buckets of sand, sticky foam, high pressure water hoses and dummies masquerading as lookouts. While faintly ridiculous, the techniques worked in the sense that pirates moved on to less prepared ships. Then came the latest, more sinister trend: mercenaries. Armed guards - as they prefer to be called - are in heavy demand today both within the region and in Europe. Off-duty military men can earn tens of thousands of dollars a month accompanying ships through the high risk zones off the coast of Somalia on what are, at the moment, low risk ventures. According to the maritime industry, not one ship carrying armed guards has been pirated so far.
Although, pirates have shown the ability to adapt in the past. When EU NAVFOR began blockading Somali ports in an attempt to prevent them from taking to sea, they simply brought hostages out with them - knowing that most navies will not attempt to retake a ship when lives are at risk. Pirates will adapt once again, Lt Col Price predicted, and when they come back next time their munitions will be larger. "Machine guns will be welded to the decks," the officer said. "We will be back to broadsides. They will be firing until you surrender." His audience of cruise industry professionals looked on in silent terror. Around 50 cruise ships pass through the Gulf of Aden every year.
Increasing violence is in part due to the fact that European navies participating in EU NAVFOR are held back by cautious rules of engagement. Suspected pirates in attack skiffs equipped with boarding ladders might in the past have had their hands and feet tied before being thrown back into the sea. Today, they have human rights and are therefore given safe passage back to the beaches of Somalia. It's not much of a deterrent.
Neither is the size of the EU NAVFOR force. Even when the EU's seven ships are added to the NATO force, the US-led Combined Task Force 151 and other navies operating in the region - India, China and Russia are all present - there are only around 20 ships covering an area of sea larger than mainland Europe. And in a sign of the low priority given to piracy, NATO has redeployed forces from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea to enforce sanctions against Colonel Gaddafi.
The EU NAVFOR policy is to somehow hold the line while the root cause of the problem - lawlessness in Somalia - is resolved. Given the bloody struggle for control of the capital Mogadishu, a quick resolution is unlikely. An industry representative said that this wait-and-see attitude was not good enough. Over the last four years, 62 seafarers have died as the direct result of piracy - according to the Save Our Seafarers campaign. Over 3,500 have been held hostage, many tortured.
There was a good chance that seafaring unions would ban their members from working on ships transiting the region, the conference heard. There would be a knock-on effect on European imports as vessels from the Far East were obliged to take the longer and more expensive route via the Cape of Good Hope. Piracy has been a low European priority because the victims, the seafarers, are mostly poor Asians. But if prices rise and the violence escalates, priorities could start to change.
Well, if we were to recognise Somaliland, then our navy could have a base at the port of Berbera. That would mean a land base on the Horn of Africa which would allow for operations close to the worst affected areas. Particularly in the light of troubles over the Gulf Yeman and Aden, now is the time to do so.
Gawain Towler - UKIP, London