Dealing With Somali Piracy (Updated)
Although Maersk Alabama captain Richard Phillips has been freed by the U. S. Navy from the Somali pirates who’d held him captive for several days and the issue of piracy off the coast of Somalia has caught the attention of the American people, the matter is far from over. There will be after action reports, debriefings, and, no doubt, investigations. It’s my understanding that the FBI has impounded the Maersk Alabama and is treating it as a crime scene. Although three of Capt. Phillips’s captors were killed in the rescue, one is in the custody of the United States. There will undoubtedly be a lengthy trial and, possibly, incarceration, although it has been suggested that in the case of the fourth pirate there may be extenuating circumstances.
This might be a good opportunity to reflect on prospective alternatives for dealing with piracy off the coast of Somalia.
Amphibious assault on pirate bases
It wasn’t long after the Maersk Alabama was attacked before we started seeing proposals to follow Thomas Jefferson’s lead in dealing with the Tripoli pirates and attack the Somali pirates in their bases. The Russians have been proposing a joint amphibious operation for some time now.
Let’s say you’ve eliminated the current pirate bases. What then?
The cost of entry into piracy in Somalia is very low and the prospective rewards are high. After the current pirate bases have been eliminated all of the incentives will still be in place and there are lots of unemployed Somali fishermen.
It’s also worth mentioning that Americans have been reluctant to engage in land operations in Somalia since 1993.
I’ve also heard various forms of air assault suggested. A BGM-109 Tomahawk costs a little over a half million dollars. How many would be needed?
This approach solves the problem of the U. S. reluctance to engage in further land activities in Somalia but otherwise has the problems of the approach outlined above.
I also don’t believe that this approach satisfies the criteria for a just war.
The approach being eyed by the world’s navies, assembled in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden in pursuit of of Somali pirates seems to be performing convoy duty for ships in the region. Roughly 25% of the world’s shipping passes through this area and there simply aren’t enough available ships of the proper type.
The attack on the Maersk Alabama took place more than 700 km from shore, in the Indian Ocean. That’s a very large territory through which to convoy vessels.
John Robb has suggested that anti-piracy is the inevitable but self-defeating solution to the problem:
The Pyrrhic solution that will eventually be adopted is a combination of A) funded militias (Somali anti-pirates that raid pirate dens) and B) business as usual (private sector management ala the symbiosis detailed above).
His estimate of the cost of these anti-pirates is approximately $2-3 million per month. What could possibly go wrong?
Pay off the pirates
It’s been suggested that tributes be paid to the pirates to save them the trouble of actually attacking ships. I see no straightforward way to enforce this solution and it certainly lowers the already low cost of entry for piracy.
Create a pirate chief
Combining Eric Posner’s line of reasoning:
It would be much better if a single pirate leader controlled entry. Then we could do business with him, paying him a tribute (we might prefer to call it a “toll”) in return for a promise not to molest our ships. As a monopolist, he would have an incentive to limit “production” of piratical activity, relative to the unregulated market we currently live in. The monopolist essentially would be selling passage off the coast of Somalia, and would be constrained by competition from people who control alternative routes (which, unfortunately, seems limited). We might even expect the pirates to start organizing, or fighting among themselves, in an effort to establish a single firm that could obtain these monopoly rents. In the happy event that an organization emerged, we could call it a “state” and deal with it as we deal with any other state—paying it or pressuring to act as we want it to act, in light of its interests and capacities. We could even call this state “Somalia.” If the gains from rational management of this newly discovered resource—the power to block important sea lanes—provide sufficient incentives for Somalia’s warring clans to make a deal and reestablish a state that can control entry into the market, we should be sure to keep paying Somalia money (we might call it “foreign aid” if “tribute” or even “toll” is too irksome) rather than yield to the temptation to smash it to pieces.
with John Robb’s we could create a pirate chief whom we’d pay to prevent competition. Again, what could possibly go wrong?
Adopt a market-based solution. The insurance companies would keep paying ransoms and raising rates to cover their costs. At the margins it would raise the costs of goods coming via this route. 1% has been suggested. Even if it’s slightly more that’s still small potatoes compared to convoy duty, amphibious assault, or air assault. The Somali pirates are no threat to the United States and don’t appear to have political motivations.
I’m open to other suggestions. Propose your alternatives in the comments. Please limit your suggestions to things that can be done with forces that actually exist.
In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Fred Iklé suggests that the crews of merchant vessels in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden be armed:
When these pitifully unarmed crews watch pirates climb aboard their vessels, they can do little to fight back. And while the United States and many other naval powers keep warships in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean — deployments that cost millions of dollars — these ships cannot keep pirates from boarding commercial ships that have unarmed crews.
As Dr. Iklé observes the reason that crews have not already been armed is that the shipping companies have been advised not to by lawyers and by their insurance companies.