US Navy captures Somali 'Pirate'

The BBC reports the USS Winston S. Churchill captured a Somali pirate ship. This followed a report of piracy in the area. Notable about the BBC report is, in addition to the standard background, was the fact the are still referencing the Top Cat Marine Security contract to provide anti-piracy services, implying it is current (a few weeks back the BBC reported TopCat was "in mobilization" for the gig). What about the US Navy being the world maritime police?

A Hampton Roads news channel (the Churchill is based in Norfolk) gives additional details that indicates the ship may the so-called Mother Ship that permited blue water attacks (more below). The chase covered some distance, from Kuala Lumpur to "off the coast of Somalia."

Friday morning, the USS Winston S. Churchill got reports that a group of pirates attempted to take over a ship off the coast of Kuala Lumpur. The guided missile destroyer as well as other U.S. naval forces in the area found the ship and followed it through the night and into morning.

About 8:00 Saturday morning, the Churchill started to question the boat over ship-to-ship radio. They repeatedly asked the suspected pirates to abandon their main ship and get into the two smaller boats they had in tow.

After 3 hours and no response, Churchill began firing warning shots.

At 3:00 Saturday afternoon the captain of the pirate ship surrendered. U.S. Navy Sailors boarded the boat and found several small arms weapons.

Forbes has even more details on the pirate ship (a dhow), its recent actions, and the composition of the crew. The vessel itself was hijacked less than a week before off Somalia and used for pirate operations. The trigger for the USS Winston S. Churchill, one of many NATO ships patrolling off the coast of Somalia, was an unsuccessful pirate attack on the MV Delta Ranger 200 miles off the Somali coast.

The pursuit of the dhow, no match for the US destroyer by any means, ended about 50 miles off Somalia. The crew, 16 Indians and 10 Somalis, are being questioned.

The heavy military presence by US, and increasingly NATO, forces in Djibouti and Somalia is part of an expanding US focus in the region. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wasn't there for the fishing, maybe hunting, but not fishing.

That said, what is the capability of the USN to provide blue water protection? Consider the following bit posted one week after the capture on The Honolulu Advertiser:

Until now, the U.S. Navy has been reluctant to engage pirates because the service is stretched out with other duties. Many warships are supporting the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The operating tempo of the warships has forced sailors to be gone from home ports for many months, and ship maintenance and repairs have been put off.

In the Pacific Command, with headquarters in Hawai'i, staffs have been order to prepare for hostilities between China and Taiwan, and North and South Korea. Intelligence gathering and analysis has been given a high priority. Working to maintain military relations with Japan, Thailand and other nations consumes much time.

The issue is politically sensitive because leaders of Asian maritime nations have asserted that they do not want outside powers, notably the United States, operating in their sovereign waters, where many pirate assaults occur. Many Asian naval officers argue that combating piracy is the job of law enforcement, not navies.

Many U.S. Navy officers agree, but they assert that some Asian nations lack the proper ships — small, fast and adequately armed — to defeat or capture pirates. Moreover, coordination and intelligence-sharing among the maritime nations has not been fully developed.

On the other hand, President Bush's war against terrorism is where much of the action is today, and many U.S. Navy officers contend that their service needs to be involved, if for no other reason than to preserve its standing among the U.S. armed forces.

Thus, said a Navy officer, maritime security operations are intended to "deny international terrorists use of the maritime environment as a venue for attack or to transport personnel, weapons, or other material."

The incidence of piracy in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia, where the recent episode took place, is among the highest in the world. Somalia is a poor nation with ineffective government, and it may be easier for Somalis to steal from ships at sea than to earn a living wage on land.

Piracy off the coast of Indonesia, which lies along the southern edge of the South China Sea, is even worse. The maritime bureau reported 71 incidents in Indonesian waters and the Strait of Malacca during three quarters of 2005, the most in the world.

If ever there was a country made for piracy, Indonesia is it. The archipelago has 17,500 islands, of which 11,000 are uninhabited, and 32,800 miles of coastline. Its law enforcement people are poorly trained and ill equipped.