As recent headline-grabbing actions by, among others, British, French and Russian naval vessels in the waters around the Horn of Africa have highlighted, pirates have not been entirely consigned to the romanticised Hollywood world of Jack Sparrow and his crew.

The involvement of the world’s navies in suppressing piracy is hardly a new development. As far back as 67BC the Roman general, Pompey, was tasked with sweeping the scourge of pirates from the Mediterranean and granted a massive force – and a correspondingly enormous budget – with which to do it. History records he achieved his goal with typical dispatch and thoroughness.

Naval anti-pirate actions have continued ever since, though seldom on the scale seen in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when the world’s most powerful navy originated with a mandate to quell pirates.

One of the main reasons for the fledgling US replacing its Articles of Confederation with the Constitution was to gain taxation powers and the primary need for taxes was to establish a navy to fight piracy, then endemic off their eastern seaboard.

The old and new

In the modern age, some things have changed – the AK47 and the RPG have replaced the cutlass and the cannon and the pirate-infested hot-spots now lie amid geographically different waters – but much has remained the same. Piracy is still an opportunist crime, perpetrated where the rule of law is weak. On that basis, today’s danger zones are essentially self-selecting and depressingly predictable: Bangladesh, Cameroon, Colombia, Indonesia, Nigeria and Somalia.

Like their predecessors, today’s pirates rely on speed and surprise. Prowling the southern gateway to the Suez Canal in the Gulf of Aden, Somalia-based pirates routinely plunder one of the world’s busiest shipping routes and the effect of their successes is beginning to show. In 2008 alone, piracy has forced up insurance premiums ten-fold for vessels navigating the Horn of Africa and forced many to divert their routes. In return the pirates themselves have been targeting bigger vessels (most recently an oil supertanker) and demanding ever-higher ransoms for their return. In these lawless waters, even UN food aid to Somalia’s starving needs a naval escort.

The risks of modern piracy extend beyond the traditional cargoes of merchantmen. When pirates boarded the Ukrainian cargo ship, the MV Faina, in September 2008 its hold contained more than thirty Russian-made T-72 tanks, together with an arsenal of anti-aircraft guns, RPGs, ammunition and spare parts. With military hardware and nuclear fuel loads added to the list of potential plunder, the stakes have never been higher.

Naval successes

“The involvement of the world’s navies in suppressing piracy is hardly a new development.”

There have been some notable naval successes; in mid-September, French commandos rescued two kidnapped sailors, killing one of the pirates responsible and capturing six others in a ten-minute raid personally authorised by President Sarkozy. Two months later, HMS Cumberland identified a pirate dhow as one of a number of vessels involved in an earlier attack on the Danish-registered MV Powerful and dispatched a contingent of Royal Marines to intercept. The mixed crew of Somali and Yemeni pirates opened up with their Kalashnikovs. After a short but decisive exchange of small arms fire, two of the pirates lay dead and the dhow was successfully boarded.

However, containing piracy in the Gulf of Aden remains an uphill struggle. The international combined task force-150 (CTF-150) – a coalition of navies with warships from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Pakistan and the US – now policing the area, has been credited with preventing 12 attacks to date this year. But over the same time more than 100 pirate attacks have been successful.

The technological battleground

According to a BBC analyst, Mohamed Mohamed, today’s pirate gangs comprise of, ‘brains, muscle and geeks’. Ex-fishermen, with their intimate knowledge of local waters form the brains, ex-militiamen – in the Aden veterans of Somalia’s internecine clan warfare – comprise the muscle, but it is the geeks who represent the newest face of piracy. Their understanding of GPS, communications, computer technology and hardware systems forms the lynchpin in enabling the pirates to capture and manage vessels, which today typically rely more heavily on technology than hands on deck. Automation has become the weakness exploited for ransom.

Unsurprisingly, given the levels of high-tech expertise in modern navies, the technological battlefield is asymmetric – with naval forces able to bring vastly superior resources to bear on the pirates and the superior intelligence that this facilitates is a significant factor in the conflict. Unconfirmed reports, for instance, suggest that information gathered by US unmanned aerial vehicles could have played a significant role in September’s raid by French commandos and allowed them to pinpoint their ambush with such precision.

While the use of surveillance drones is well established, the pirate problem has driven calls for more unconventional approaches to be considered. Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of the US Fifth Fleet, recently made an urgent request for non-lethal ‘active denial’ weapons such as sonic blasters and ray guns.

“Containing piracy in the Gulf of Aden remains an uphill struggle.”

Although the idea sounds like something straight out of an episode of Star Trek, the technology is already well developed. Long-range acoustic devices can broadcast pre-recorded warnings in Somali or Arabic and zap small boats with an ear-splitting klaxon if those warnings are ignored. Meanwhile the controversial ‘pain ray’ can broadcast microwaves that make targets feel that their skin is on fire.

Costs and technical difficulties preclude the universal uptake of these devices but the potential application of these systems seems ripe for further development. As Marine Maj. Gen. Tom Benes, the director of expeditionary warfare for the chief of naval operations, observed in Navy Times, the choice between doing nothing or opening fire is stark but non-lethal weapons provide a way to bridge that gap.

Conventional power

More conventional naval power still remains an important factor in the fight. In the ensuing stand-off that developed between the international force and the pirates who had taken the MV Faina, it was the threat of the six US warships encircling the hijacked vessel that was to prevent the impressive inventory of military hardware aboard from being unloaded. Helicopter support from vessels such as HMS Cumberland and the Russian missile frigate Neustrashimy have also proven effective and when the EU taskforce replaces the Nato force in December, aircraft will continue to form a crucial part of the mix.

With navies involved in what is effectively law enforcement, the shape of the use-of-force-continuum for such policing actions is somewhat different. In addition, the path of escalation between the two parties is increasingly uncertain as political, jurisdictional and even human rights issues serve to muddy the water.

Combating piracy

In essence, the solution to the problem is straightforward and is the same as it has always been – naval watchdogs and the enforcement of law and order on land, denying pirates the freedom to operate unopposed at sea and removing safe-havens ashore. Throughout history this has always proven a potent remedy.

However, given the state of anarchy rife in war-ravaged Somalia, neither the rule of law nor the influence of government seems likely to be felt anytime soon in the self-declared autonomous state of Puntland, where many of the pirates are based.

“Today, pirate vessels typically rely more heavily on technology than hands on deck.”

Inevitably, this forces naval interdiction to assume a greater burden of responsibility, but entrenched piracy cannot be solved by naval action alone.

As Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman with the US Fifth Fleet has commented, “it is a problem that starts ashore and it’s an international problem that requires an international solution. It requires regional governments to get involved. We’re going to take a short-term responsibility; we are not the long-term solution to this problem.”

In the end, the message to the pirates around the globe has to be an old one – ‘crime doesn’t pay’. It remains up to the world’s governments to decide if they have the collective will to make that message clear.