Royal Navy helps reduce Somali pirate activity

Fol­low­ing his post­ing as Com­man­der of the UK Counter-Pira­cy Task Group, Cap­tain Ger­ry North­wood, Roy­al Navy, has writ­ten in The Times news­pa­per about how con­cert­ed efforts are help­ing reduce attacks on mer­chant ves­sels.

Roy­al Marines board a pirat­ed dhow [Pic­ture: Lead­ing Air­man (Pho­tog­ra­ph­er) Kyle Heller and LA (Phot) Dave Jenk­ins, Crown Copyright/MOD 2012]
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

Cap­tain North­wood writes: 

“Eleven pirates on board with auto­mat­ic weapons and rock­et-pro­pelled grenades. All comms on ship are down. Crew safe in engine room and have con­trol of engine and steer­ing. Please help.” 

This mes­sage was con­tained in a plas­tic water bot­tle thrown into the Indi­an Ocean by a mem­ber of the secu­ri­ty team on board the Ital­ian Mer­chant Ves­sel Mon­te­cristo, which the pre­vi­ous day had been board­ed by Soma­li pirates. 

Des­per­ate times require des­per­ate mea­sures and, in this age of satel­lites, radar and com­put­ers, call­ing for help via a mes­sage in a bot­tle cer­tain­ly qual­i­fies as an act of des­per­a­tion. The secu­ri­ty team had attached a strobe light to the bot­tle, which, for­tu­nate­ly for the 23 Mon­te­cristo crew mem­bers, was picked up by a US frigate, De Wert. 

Not far from her was our ship, the Roy­al Fleet Aux­il­iary Fort Vic­to­ria, equipped with a Roy­al Navy heli­copter and Roy­al Marine board­ing teams. We were able to answer the mas­ter of Montecristo’s plea for help, recap­ture his ship from the pirates, and return it to him. 

The gun­ner on HMS Somerset’s Mer­lin heli­copter fires shots across the bow of a pirat­ed dhow [Pic­ture: Lead­ing Air­man (Pho­tog­ra­ph­er) Kyle Heller and LA (Phot) Dave Jenk­ins, Crown Copyright/MOD 2012]
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

The 15 Soma­lis we detained are now in Ital­ian custody. 

Mon­te­cristo was lucky; lucky that Fort Vic­to­ria could cross 550 miles [885km] of Indi­an Ocean, the dis­tance from Portsmouth to Edin­burgh, before the pirates broke into the crew safe area or ‘citadel’. But she also made her own luck. 

She was well pre­pared for her tran­sit of the Indi­an Ocean with razor wire defences of her upper decks and super­struc­ture. These at least slowed the pirates down as they board­ed the ves­sel and gave the crew and their unarmed secu­ri­ty team time to retreat and bar­ri­cade them­selves into the engine room, and wait for help. 

The Mon­te­cristo inci­dent is the Soma­li pira­cy prob­lem and some of its solu­tions in microcosm. 

A year ago Soma­li pirates were a reg­u­lar fea­ture in the news. The num­ber of attacks on mer­chant ves­sels was in dou­ble fig­ures each month and the num­ber of ves­sels held by the Soma­lis for ran­som had increased to more than 25. 

The advent of Soma­li pira­cy in 2008 caught peo­ple by sur­prise, and there was a strong sense that noth­ing could be done to defeat the pirates. 

With no obvi­ous solu­tion to the prob­lems of Soma­lia ashore, the huge dis­tances involved made it dif­fi­cult for mil­i­tary forces to pro­tect mer­chant ves­sels effectively. 

To give some idea of scale, in the four months that Fort Vic­to­ria was at sea she oper­at­ed in an area the size of west­ern Europe, patrolling a front 2,300 miles [3,700km] long — the dis­tance from Berlin to Moscow — and steam­ing a total of 27,000 miles [43,500km].

But some­thing has been done and the past few months have seen a sig­nif­i­cant rever­sal of for­tunes. Attacks on mer­chant ves­sels are down by 80 per cent and today there are only a hand­ful of ves­sels held cap­tive off the Soma­li coast. 

Most mer­chant ves­sels in the Indi­an Ocean and the Gulf of Aden are now employ­ing armed and unarmed secu­ri­ty teams, along with oth­er pro­tec­tion mea­sures. Col­lec­tive­ly this descrip­tion of mer­chant ship self-pro­tec­tion goes by the mun­dane name of ‘indus­try best man­age­ment practice’. 

Yet these mea­sures work. In most cas­es they pre­vent the pirates suc­cess­ful­ly board­ing ves­sels. This enables the patrolling naval forces to locate the attack­ing pirate ves­sels and detain the Soma­lis for pros­e­cu­tion. All this has served to set back Soma­li pira­cy activ­i­ty to 2007 lev­els and to reduce their cash­flow significantly. 

These are tac­ti­cal suc­cess­es that must be viewed in the con­text of a much big­ger strate­gic pic­ture. They depend on a far wider net­work of oper­a­tions involv­ing politi­cians, com­mer­cial ship­ping and oth­er agen­cies. When Fort Vic­to­ria recent­ly cap­tured 14 Soma­li pirates we were able to take them to the Sey­chelles for pros­e­cu­tion. Thanks to the sup­port of the British High Com­mis­sion­er to the Sey­chelles and his strong rela­tions with mem­bers of its government. 

But there is an even big­ger strate­gic pic­ture. The pres­sure put on pirates by mil­i­tary suc­cess has cre­at­ed head­room for those tack­ling the more intractable issues of gov­er­nance ashore in Soma­lia. This week’s Soma­lia Con­fer­ence in Lon­don marks the next stage in restor­ing calm to the Indi­an Ocean. 

This piece by Cap­tain Ger­ry North­wood was first pub­lished in The Times news­pa­per on Mon­day 20 Feb­ru­ary 2012. 

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK 

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