By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 15, 2009 - A new patrol in the U.S. Central Command is working to make it unprofitable to be a pirate, the commander of U.S. Navy Central Command and 5th Fleet said today. Acts of piracy have "spiked" off the coast of Somalia with merchant vessels and crews being held for millions in ransom by pirates using AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and ladders to take "low and slow" ships traversing one of the world's busiest sea lanes.
The pirates come from a clan based on the northern coast of Somalia, Navy Vice Adm. William E. Gortney said, and they are in it for the money.
"The problem of piracy started ashore," the admiral said during a Pentagon news conference. "It's because there is no rule of law. There isn't a government. There isn't economic stability. There isn't a court system that will hold these criminals responsible for their actions."
Without a penalty for the Somalis, these clansmen -- who are normally fishermen -- took to piracy.
"As commander of the Combined Maritime Forces, I directed the establishment of the Maritime Security Patrol Area," Gortney said.
Coalition ships and aircraft patrol the area, but it is a complex operation, and task forces already in place had an existing counterterrorism mission. As a solution, Gortney established Combined Task Force 151 to conduct counter-piracy operations. Nations that are members of the task force "will bring their collective capabilities to bear to deter, to disrupt and eventually to bring to justice these maritime criminals," he said.
The coalition group works with all concerned nations to deter the pirates and it has had some success. "I think, it's really a fascinating story to watch unfold as, at this point, 14 nations have sent their navies to work against this destabilizing activity," he said.
This includes Russia and China, which are primarily escorting their own national flag vessels. "That allows us to go focus elsewhere with the rest of the ships that are down there," Gortney said.
The efforts against piracy focused on three areas: bringing in more international forces, working with the shipping industry to put in place defenses to prevent pirates from successfully getting onboard their vessel, and finding a way to deal with the pirates legally.
"When we capture a pirate, where do we take him? Where do we hold him? What court system tries him and holds him?" Gortney asked.
"When the activity spiked in the middle of August, we knew ... our current process wasn't working, and we had to take a new look at it," the admiral said.
And it is working. In the last six weeks there have been only four successful piracy attacks, the admiral said.
"Dis-incentivizing piracy" is what Gortney calls the missing piece. "The State Department is close on finalizing an agreement with one of the nations out there," he said. "And once we get that authority, then we're going to change my orders."
The orders to the coalition now are to disrupt and deter, but not capture, pirates. "But once we get the authorities, my orders will change to disrupt, deter and capture, and try and hold them accountable for their actions," he said.
"We have to make it unpleasant to be a pirate, and that's where, when we can capture them and try them and hold them accountable for their actions," he said.