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Fighting Modern Piracy

Piracy has been a fact of life at sea since the first merchant ship set sail millennia ago, although, until recently, most people probably thought they only existed in history or fantasy.

The public view of pirates typically falls into four categories: Disney-style (Captain Hook, Pirates of the Caribbean), older fiction (Long John Silver), the real pirates of the Caribbean (Blackbird, Henry Morgan, Jean Laffite) and modern pirates off the African coast.

However, piracy has always been present, somewhere, in some form. The United States made its first major move as an international power under President Thomas Jefferson, who refused to continue to follow the European tradition of paying tribute and ransom to pirates operating off the Barbary Coast of North Africa. Part of the U.S. military action against them at the start of the 1800s is immortalized in the Marine Corps Hymn reference to “the shores of Tripoli”.

The U.S. Navy and the forerunners of the U.S. Coast Guard were largely responsible for ending the so-called “Golden Age” of piracy, from the late 18th to early 19th centuries. Those pirates, operating down the Atlantic coast from the Carolinas to the Florida Keys and out into the islands of the Caribbean, were the descendants of state-sponsored privateers, granted official license by England, France and Spain, primarily, to attack ships flying the flags of the other nations.

Modern pirates are most active off the East African coast of Somalia, in the Straits of Malacca (linking the Indian and Pacific oceans), off the coast of South America (especially Brazil), in the Indian Ocean and in the South China Sea, although piracy in the form of stealing boats for single smuggling runs has become a growing problem for coastal Florida and the Caribbean. From July 2002 through July 2009, the International Maritime Organization received 5096 reports of acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships around the globe.

While the number of attacks each year has been on the rise, some authorities believe anywhere from 50-to-90 percent of actual attacks go unreported to avoid increases in insurance premiums or publicity that might scare away potential customers. Even so, worldwide losses to piracy are estimated at $13 billion to $16 billion a year.

Anti-piracy efforts near the U.S. generally fall to the U.S. Coast Guard’s District 7, based out of Miami, Fla.

“Piracy is a maritime safety issue,” says Rear Adm. Steve Branham, District 7 commander. “They are hard to respond to because they are generally in an isolated location where the pirates do what they intend before we can get there. However, if there is a hostage situation, such as typical in Somalia, we would quickly reprioritize to deal with that.”

In its role as the U.S. government’s primary interface for training and equipment with most foreign navies, the Coast Guard has worked with governments in Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere to develop counter-piracy tactics and procedures.

The Coast Guard also provided a maritime law-enforcement and force-protection unit to Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151), a multinational task force created in 2008 to conduct counter-piracy operations in and around the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Red Sea. CTF-151 was established by the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a group of 20 nations that came together at the start of Operation Enduring Freedom to conduct Maritime Security Operations in those waters.

Modern pirates are a far cry from the Disney image – or even many of their real-world antecedents. They do not ply the seas in large ships flying an easily identified “skull and crossbones” flag. If using a ship, they typically pretend to be from an official naval force, there to “protect” their prospective victim. More often than not, they attack primarily cargo vessels – but also cruise ships – sailing near the coast, usually from small speed boats (often launched from larger mother ships, enabling attacks further from the coast) and armed with rocket-propelled grenades and military assault weapons.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...