Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Solving the Somail pirate/poaching/dumping problem

Somali piracy isn't one problem. It's at least eight:

1. Seizure of passing ships and crew and holding both for ransom by Somali nationals, often bankrolled by foreigners in places like Dubai.

2. Illegal dumping of toxic wastes in Somali waters by foreign businesses in Europe and elsewhere.

3. Poaching in Somali waters by foreign fishing fleets, often using trawlers that destroy the habitats on the sea floor as well.

4. International law that doesn't adequately cover crimes committed in the territorial waters of failed states like Somali. Oh, and it currently forbids ships from keeping their decks floodlit at night!

5. Navies--very much including ours--that are primarily oriented towards conducting major wars against powerful nations.

6. Fundamental philosophical conflict between those who want to treat Somali piracy as a kind of war vs. those who want to treat it as a kind of crime--that is, do you shoot them or arrest them? And if the latter, where do you take them to be tried? Kenya has agreed to try pirates, but that seems like an ad hoc solution to many.

7. The land the attacks are coming from is no longer a country, but rather a patchwork of feudal holdings and theocratic enclaves.

8. The situation is rapidly becoming much worse as the 10s of millions of dollars of ransom money is going to buy more and more sophisticated arms and other materiel, and as the pirates become more adept at parasitizing the rest of the world and the local communities become more and more oriented around piracy. All this defies simple solutions, but Somali piracy has become so substantial it's actually damaging the world economy, and we have to act.

So here's my solution, which attempts to address all of these issues:

Just as our Army and Air Force are being dragged into the world of assymetrical warfare, so must the Navy. Even destroyers are too big to be used cost-effectively against Somali pirates.

We need several task groups of pocket carriers that fly fleets of small, inexpensive, unarmed UAVs (drones) with a smaller number of killer UAVs and some choppers. The UAV pilots can be located anywhere. For example, the Air Force's UAV pilots work in air-conditioned trailers in Nevada, even when flying missions in Afghanistan.

The task groups would also have the kinds of vessels the Coast Guard uses—far smaller than destroyers, armed with one or two missle launchers, a chain gun and one longer-range gun. These would be fast, light and economical to operate. If these could be equipped with hydrofoils they'd be really fast.

Secure an agreement from the Somali provisional government (there is one, more or less) to let the multinational force act as Somalia's coast guard, tasked with stopping piracy AND international poaching and waste dumping.

Use the UAVs to patrol the Somali coastline and territorial waters. Tell the Somalis that we will stop foreign poaching and dumping—-but we'll also use the UAVs to sink pirate skiffs and motherships, since no other method is cost-effective—-and, consequently, we won't be taking prisoners, since UAVs can't pick up survivors. Give the Somalis a month to get the word out before we start the operation. Pirate skiffs carry far more crew than fishing boats, so even without the guns being visible they're easy to spot. Heck, with gun-mounted UAVs we could even fire a shot across their bows to warn them to turn back if there's a doubt.

On the other hand, we'd use the Coast Guard-type vessels to board and confiscate all foreign ships poaching and dumping in Somalia's territorial waters, and use the sale of such vessels to defray the cost of operations.

Meanwhile we'd work with the UN to get the law of the sea updated to cover such situations and, based on our experience in Somalia, set up similar operations off the shores of other shaky or failed states that lack a Coast Guard.

Note that we can use UAV task groups—either with pocket carriers or land-based---to patrol our own coasts to defend against smuggling and suchlike.

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