Pentagon Looks Beyond Force To Counter Piracy
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Just hours after Captain Richard Phillips was rescued from Somali pirates last month, the Pentagon's top officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, instructed his staff to come up with some fresh ideas on the piracy problem.
We continue now with our series on piracy with a look at the U.S. and foreign military response. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman reports that Mullen's review is nearing completion and more military options are under consideration.
TOM BOWMAN: Mullen had just ordered his piracy review when he talked with NPR's Scott Simon.
SCOTT SIMON: Admiral, how much can the U.S. and other militaries of the world do?
Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff): Well, I think you've hit on something that's very important, Scott. It's not just a military solution.
BOWMAN: Mullen's answer is common one in the hallways of the Pentagon when talk turns to the difficulty of stopping piracy in an area that stretches from the Gulf of Aden to the coast of Somalia.
Admiral MULLEN: There's 16 nations with Navy ships in the vicinity right now, but it's over a million square miles of water. There are an awful lot of ships and the number of Navy ships that we have out there just can't cover the water, nor would increasing that number dramatically cover the water.
BOWMAN: A million square miles of water; that's roughly four times the size of Texas. And each year up to 25,000 ships traverse this area, everything from cargo ships to sailboats.
And how many warships are patrolling this vast stretch of ocean? Between 29 and 35 from the U.S. and other nations. That's according to British Royal Navy Commodore Tim Lowe, the top operations officer in the battle against pirates off East Africa.
So how many more warships are needed?
Commodore TIM LOWE (British Royal Navy): I the bottom line would be as many as we can realistically get into the area to support us. I doubt very much whether we're ever going to have enough.
BOWMAN: One of the U.S. Navy's key missions is to keep the sea lanes open around the world, and anti-piracy patrols are part of that. It's a big job for a Navy that now has fewer than 300 ships.
Pentagon sources tell NPR that one option under Admiral Mullen's piracy review is to send more U.S. Navy ships to patrol for pirates off Somalia, but probably not more than a handful. Other countries are being encouraged to send more ships as well.
Increasing the number of warships makes sense to Rick Norton, a retired Navy commander who teaches national security at the Naval War College.
Mr. RICK NORTON (U.S. Naval War College): You can do a lot with relatively low-end, inexpensive ships - corvettes, frigates - the types of ships that many navies in the world have.
BOWMAN: What would the frigates, corvettes, bring to the battle?
Mr. NORTON: Well, they would bring a helicopter deck, which increases the amount of activities and surveillance you can conduct. They bring modest-caliber guns that are more than enough to deal with the type of craft that pirates are using. And they are relatively fast enough to move about the waters and respond to action.
BOWMAN: What Norton calls increased surveillance is another option being raised in Mullen's review. More P-3 patrol planes, more drone aircraft that can cover a wide swath of ocean and coastline, sending back live video pictures of possible pirate activity or ships in distress.
Commodore LOWE: You can never have enough reconnaissance. You can never have enough surveillance.
BOWMAN: Again, Commodore Lowe, the day-to-day operations commander in the pirate fight off East Africa.
Commodore LOWE: What I need to see is enough capability there to be able to provide 24/7 coverage over the whole area. Now, to achieve that, again, we're in the realms of the impossible in terms of numbers.
BOWMAN: Pentagon sources say other options in Mullen's piracy review include placing U.S. Navy security teams aboard some of the commercial ships. A team includes a half dozen armed sailors or Marines. They could provide security along the more dangerous routes. Another option: convoys.
Mr. NORTON: You could set up convoy systems, you could set up traffic lanes, and you could patrol the traffic lanes and thereby reduce the amount of water you had to cover to prevent pirate attacks.
BOWMAN: Rick Norton of the Naval War College.
Mr. NORTON: A convey only brings you so far, and it would have - and there's a voluntary nature to convey. Ships would have to agree to be part of a convoy system. You probably couldn't force them to do that.
BOWMAN: Still another option calls for military attacks against pirate havens in Somalia, the camps where they live and plan their raids.
Attacking the camps might make sense, says retired Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff. He served as a top Navy commander in the region until 2008. Here he is speaking last month to the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Vice Admiral KEVIN COSGRIFF (U.S. Navy, Retired): I'm being very specific in suggesting the camps, which tend to be discreet locales along the beach in Somalia. Denying the means of piracy obviously would have an effect. Now, for clarity, this would be staying out of the village, stay away from populated areas. The raid is aimed at equipment, not people.
BOWMAN: Equipment like pirate boats and supplies, says Cosgriff.
A more risky proposal, he says, is for larger military operations, what he calls going ashore big.
Vice Admiral COSGRIFF: And it would involve broader scale and sustained operations to literally put the pirates out of business.
BOWMAN: By seizing pirates and property, says Cosgriff, along with Somali clan leaders and others who profit from piracy.
Vice Admiral COSGRIFF: And frankly, with the higher risk that such an activity would carry, I don't see much of an appetite for this just yet.
BOWMAN: He's not alone. Pentagon sources say Mullen's review is looking at military strikes ashore, but that option is highly unlikely considering the risk to civilians.
Senior military officers say the surest way to end piracy is not through attacks on land or even at sea. It's through the creation of a stable government in Somalia, more trained security forces, a stronger economy. After all, says Commodore Lowe, piracy started off in Somalia with out-of-work fisherman.
Commodore LOWE: We've got fisherman that - whose fishing grounds were being exploited by other nations. They were losing their income, so about eight years ago they took to conducting piracy as a means to try and overcome their lack of income from fishing.
Vice Admiral WILLIAM GORTNEY (U.S. Navy): The ultimate solution for piracy is on land.
BOWMAN: Vice Admiral William Gortney is a top U.S. naval officer in the region. He spoke to reporters just after the rescue of Captain Phillips.
Vice Admiral GORTNEY: Piracy around the world stems from activity where there is lawlessness, lack of governance, economic instability, things of that nature. And wherever you have that, you're going to have criminal activity at sea.
BOWMAN: That's why Mullen's piracy review, now nearing completion by his staff, will also send this message: Piracy can't be solved by just sending in more warships.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: Tomorrow we'll hear from some Somali pirates - one still in the business, one retired, and a few behind bars. Most of them say they were driven to piracy by financial hardships, so the search is on for alternatives.
Unidentified Man: These are people who know the sea, and as we have seen, they are bright, successful, smart, and courageous as well. This is the right material for making a cost cut. And so why should we not do it?
MONTAGNE: Our series on piracy continues tomorrow on MORNING EDITION.
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