Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/11/19/pirate_roundup/
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The world's media continues to follow the long-running piracy problems in the Gulf of Aden, with interest stimulated by last week's fatal shootings by Royal Marines off the Yemeni coast and the reported sinking of a buccaneer "mothership" by the Indian Navy yesterday evening. Meanwhile, other seaborne raiders in the region successfully hijacked five merchantmen including a 300,000-ton supertanker loaded with crude oil.
Ten fathoms deep on the road to hell
According to the International Maritime Bureau's weekly piracy summary, eleven ships were attacked in the Horn of Africa area in the week up to Monday. There were only four incidents in other areas around the world.
Ships were successfully seized in five of the reported pirate attacks in the region surrounding Somalia. These included the MV Sirius Star, the Saudi-owned Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) captured by pirates on Friday and now reported to be at anchor off the Somali coast. Hijacked ships, cargoes and crews are generally released unharmed after shipowners and insurers pay ransoms to the pirates.
A further four pirate attacks, according to the IMB, were unsuccessful due to evasive manoeuvring by merchant captains and other measures such as the use of fire hoses against boarding attempts. Two further attacks were repelled by international naval forces operating in the area, in one case by a helicopter launched from a warship and in the other by the warship itself.
Raiders normally make use of small, fast speedboats for actual attacks, in some cases operating directly from the coast. However, merchant ships are nowadays seldom foolish enough to come close inshore if they can avoid doing so. The region's main maritime chokepoint - the straits of the Bab-el-Mandeb ("The Gate of Tears") at the southern end of the Red Sea - is now intensively patrolled, and there have been no reported attacks there since July.
The majority of the attacks this year have in fact been seen nearer to Yemen than Somalia, as shipping hugs the Yemeni coast to the north of the Gulf of Aden in order to avoid passing near the lawless horn of Africa, where the main pirate base ports are.
Operations across the Gulf of Aden require the pirates to strike more than a hundred miles from their home bases. Even this is now a risky activity, with warships from most of the world's major navies now patrolling in the area, and there has been a recent trend for pirates to go even further afield, out into the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean. The Sirius Star was taken 450 miles out to sea, more than halfway to the Seychelles, and another big ship was unsuccessfully attacked the same day nearby.
Long-range operations like these can't be done using speedboats alone, and the pirates normally operate from mother vessels - usually large fishing craft or tugs. Such a mothership was apparently intercepted by the Indian warship INS Tabar two hundred miles out in the approaches to the Gulf of Aden yesterday. The pirates reportedly refused a command to stop and be boarded, and fired on the Indians with handheld weapons. The Indians returned fire, causing fires and explosions aboard the mothership sufficient to sink her.
The surviving pirates, according to the Indian navy, fled in their speedboats. One boat was later found abandoned and the other escaped.
The IMB believed as of last week - based on naval intelligence reports from Coalition HQ in Bahrain - that there were at least three trawler and tug motherships operating in the Gulf of Aden area, though the count may now be down by one.
In related developments, pirates who surrendered following last week's gun battle with Royal Marines operating from HMS Cumberland have been handed over to Kenyan authorities for trial.
Naval commanders in the area have stated that they will never be able to wipe out piracy in the area with any reasonable level of effort. They have appealed for merchant ships to follow a patrolled corridor, to use the recommended self-protective measures, and to embark private security teams if possible while passing through the area.
We on the Reg naval operations desk would concur that world navies can never control piracy using the methods they are employing now. The warships currently patrolling east of the Gate of Tears are multi-hundred-million or even billion-pound assets with crews hundreds strong, and bring little to the fight but a single helicopter and boarding party.
There's no need to send submarine-hunting sonars, miracle sky-sweeping interceptors, cruise missiles, torpedoes and all the rest of it to fight pirates with RPGs, though. Cheap auxiliaries full of helicopters and marines - backed by airborne surveillance if possible - would be far more effective at a fraction of the cost.
This technical debate is largely being ignored, however, and arms-industry executives were using the piracy issue to argue for more expensive frigates in front of politicians in London just yesterday.
The current flurry of media attention is likely to die down soon, as editors come to realise that piracy off the Horn of Africa has been endemic for years and will keep on being so - just as they realised after a time that submarine telco cables break as a matter of routine.
In the meantime, fear not - the Reg will not be bulking out its coverage with any more non-digital piracy stories unless something out of the ordinary happens. One reason we won't is that anyone who'd like to keep track can do it for themselves very simply.