Crackdown on piracy

The Baltimore Sun

On a day he described as "not too hot, calm seas," Navy Cmdr. Stephen F. Murphy surveyed the sparkling water ahead of his ship, the guided missile destroyer USS Mahan, as it embarked on aggressive anti-pirate operations launched this week by the U.S. Navy.

Murphy, a Catonsville native and Naval Academy graduate, is patrolling the Gulf of Aden, a million square miles of water squeezed between the coast of Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula.

Each year 26,000 merchant ships and oil tankers traverse this vital sea lane of global commerce.

So do pirates.

Murphy and his crew are "just trying to hunt them down," he said in a phone interview, as part of a group of Navy vessels and warships from more than a dozen countries, including India, China and Russia.

Responding to an alarming rise in piracy, the U.S. 5th Fleet has moved additional ships into the gulf, including the Mahan; a 689-foot, 24,000-ton Navy cargo ship, the Lewis and Clark, converted to hold prisoners; and the USS Vella Gulf, a guided missile cruiser.

Navy officials said the USS San Antonio, an amphibious vessel that carries helicopters, assault hovercraft and Coast Guard and combat Marine search and seizure teams, is also in the area.

Officials said the new operations could include attacks to free the seven merchant vessels, including a German tanker seized last month, and roughly 120 seamen being held hostage by pirates.

Murphy's pirate hunt relies on an unmanned aerial spy plane known as the ScanEagle for target surveillance. He's also working with Russian and Chinese warships.

The drone flies high enough that it cannot be seen or heard from the water, and it is in use "extensively, every day," Murphy said. "It makes it harder for the pirates to hide, and it allows us to react much quicker" when a target is spotted, he said.

The unmanned aircraft can scan large areas during missions that can last all day or night, sending back "real time" imagery of suspected pirates. Somali pirates typically operate from small skiffs, not much larger than a Boston Whaler runabout, venturing hundreds of miles at sea and sometimes operating from larger "mother ships."

Watching the transmitted images, the Mahan's crew can determine whether a fast-moving skiff is carrying fishing gear or ladders, weapons and other equipment common to piracy.

In a sort of racial profiling at sea, Murphy said, the drone also can help determine whether those on board the skiff are ethnic Somalis, and thus more likely to be pirates, or simply fishermen from elsewhere.

In the past, the U.S. Navy has stood by and watched these hostage ships but has not had the authority to move against the pirates. Some ships have been freed after millions of dollars in ransom have been paid by the owners, usually in the form of bundles of cash parachuted onto the deck of the hostage ship.

That will change.

In the first action of its kind, the Vella Gulf this week snatched and detained seven men who had tried to board a merchant ship. They will be transferred to the prison ship and taken to Kenya for prosecution, officials said.

"We're going to make it unpleasant to be in the pirate business," vowed Rear Adm. Terry McKnight, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 2 and of Task Force 151 that was set up last month to oversee anti-piracy operations.

Until now, U.S. naval operations against Somali-based pirates have been restricted because U.S. warships could seize the pirates but had no authority to detain them or turn them over for criminal prosecution.

The Navy now holds that authority, thanks to an agreement with Kenya, which will prosecute and punish offenders.

The Gulf of Aden is one of the world's busiest choke points for commercial traffic, a route that connects Asia, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean through the Suez Canal to Europe and the United States.

Any threat to that shipping drives up the cost of insurance - and so can drive up the price of imports including Persian Gulf oil.

Last year the seizure of ships by Somali pirates leapt nearly 200 percent, reaching 111 reported attacks, according to the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in London.

In response, 14 countries have dispatched warships to the area, including the U.S., Britain, Germany, Greece, France, China and Russia. Currently about 20 ships are on station there, and Turkey and Japan say they intend to send ships as well.

Murphy said he talks with the Chinese destroyers by VHF radio to coordinate search patterns and to exchange information on suspicious ships. He said they also have coordinated Chinese helicopter flight operations with the ScanEagle launches and recoveries.

The exchanges are "professional, routine and positive," he said. "They have someone who speaks very good English."

Between sea tours, Murphy lived and studied in the Ukraine for two years with his wife, Carrie, earning a master's degree in international relations from Kiev university. He speaks Russian and Ukrainian, but he said he hasn't yet had a chance to speak with anyone on the Russian warships in the gulf.

Even as anti-piracy operations heat up in the Gulf of Aden, the problem of maritime piracy seems to be growing worldwide, suggesting that the U.S. Navy and others will have to expand anti-piracy operations.

Last month, for example, there were 32 attempted attacks on ships around the world; of those, eight occurred in the Gulf of Aden.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, more pirate attacks than anywhere in the world occurred last year off the coast of Nigeria, which reported 40 of the 293 piracy incidents worldwide.

But the IMB said it knew of at least 100 other unreported incidents that took place last year in Nigerian waters.

Extending permanent anti-piracy operations to other parts of the world might be beyond the capacity of today's Navy, which has shrunk from a fleet of almost 600 warships in 1987 to 283 ships today.

Current Navy strategy, accordingly, calls for "collective security efforts" with maritime nations, envisioning just the kind of multinational effort that is currently under way against pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

"I think this is an enduring mission, not only here but in other parts of the world," Murphy said. "The promotion of maritime security is a key objective for us as a maritime nation - 90 percent of our commerce touches a ship at some point.

"Safeguarding the free flow of commerce is important to our own security."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad