A seven-month deployment of the frigate HMNZS Te Mana left Devonport Naval Base this week to join an international task force providing maritime security in the Gulf of Aden. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key called the mission “important” because New Zealand goods travel through the area. Around 25 different countries participate in similar anti-piracy missions.
The Gulf of Aden has been a hotbed of Somali-based piracy over the past four years. Even though the security situation has seen a sharp decline in ship hijackings over the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013 - at least in comparison to the highs of 2011 - piracy remains an expensive and disruptive problem. The war against pirates is being won, but it is not over.
New Zealand’s naval deployment is occurring at a time of relatively low intensity. The International Maritime Bureau reported at the end of 2012 that the number of ships attacked by Somali pirates has dropped to the lowest level in four years. Because piracy has become an essential component of the Somali economy, hijackings will continue. But thankfully for Kiwi ships, incidents will likely be fewer and further between.
For international actors it has become politically and militarily easier to contain the pirates rather than to eliminate them. However, containment is proving to require very high costs for both the international task forces and shipping owners, and it is unclear if many of the participating nations can continue to protect shipping traffic indefinitely.
Pirates targeting shipping traffic transiting the Horn of Africa hold a strategic position along a heavily-used international shipping lane which is unfortunately far outside the natural protection of any competent national power.
With several years of practice sailors, from the US-backed Combined Task Force 151 and EU-backed Atalanta mission, along with unilateral missions of Australia, Iran, China, and New Zealand, have had time to dissect the tactics of pirates and mostly become very efficient at stopping attacks.
China especially has used the missions as an ideal training ground for its crews to better understand the complexities of long-range naval deployment.
Logistics over such huge distances are very difficult and with China’s navy looking for a greater blue-water capability, the chance to learn from experience will prove invaluable. Greater cooperation and interoperability between the various participating maritime nations is also proving to be a positive by-product of the anti-piracy measures.
There has been a lot of success over the past year. International actors have led a convincing assault on the so-called “motherships” to limit the range and effectiveness of pirates. These motherships have extended pirate operational ranges deeper and deeper into the Indian Ocean. They also allowed pirates to make multiple hijackings during one expedition.
But captured Somali pirates insist it is the efforts of the owners of the ships they target which have had the greatest impact in disturbing their hijacking attempts.
Some of the more valuable ships, such as oil tankers and cargo ships with high-value goods are now virtual floating fortresses. Barbed wire prickles over hulls making it difficult for pirates to climb over, and high pressure water hoses are relatively good at non-lethally keeping pirates at bay.
Even more effective at prevention has been the inclusion of highly-trained armed guards. Firefights have been recorded between armed guards and pirates and lethal force is changing the balance. Because of this, Somali pirates are beginning to see the cost-benefit ratio of hijacking ships lean to an unwelcome side as piracy evolves to be more dangerous than ever.
However, stocking a cargo ship with armed guards is a high cost for shipping owners. For some idea on this expense, over 30,000 commercial ships pass through the Gulf of Aden each year. According to recent estimates, between 40 and 70% of those ships carry armed guards. And at an average of 10 days per trip with an average cost of US$60,000 per guard, the costs quickly balloon to between US$800 million and US$1.4 billion.
Looking at the sobering figures collected by the One Earth Future Foundation, the cost of preventing piracy is substantially higher than the costs piracy causes to the world economy. The piracy enterprise costs over US$6.6 billion each year, including ransom payments, preventative measures, rerouting ships, and extra fuel. The figure does not include costs to the international counter-piracy missions of which New Zealand is now a part of.
Kiwi ships deployed to the region will assist in maritime security and should help keep the number of successful pirate missions low. However, the threat of piracy will not be eliminated around Somalia in the near future and the international community will continue to prefer a containment strategy.
Dealing with the humanitarian and political dramas on the Somali mainland will be a better long-term fix for the security situation at sea. But this is proving to be easier said than done as the two-decade long civil war shows no sign of bringing the nation together.