The Near-Shore Strategy

A year after Somali piracy peaked with more than 100 ships attacked, the world’s navies have assembled dozens of warships to combat the threat. David Axe joins the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Donald Cook in Djibouti, to observe firsthand this “global war on piracy.”



A year into the “global war on piracy,” naval operations have settled into a comfortable routine. The world’s maritime bodies have agreed on a 50-mile-wide “security lane” connecting the Gulf of Aden to the Indian Ocean. Commercial ships are encouraged to travel inside that lane. Each of the roughly 20 NATO, E.U. and U.S. coalition warships in the region is assigned a squarish portion of the security lane to patrol. Recon aircraft from Djibouti crisscross the skies, spotting suspected pirates and directing the warships to investigate. Merchant ships also spot possible pirates and radio in their locations.

This is a “surveillance-driven” model, in the words of Commodore Steve Chick, senior officer of the five-ship NATO force. It has its disadvantages. The surveillance model is mostly reactive, and it’s aimed at interdicting pirates in the terminal phase of a potential attack — that is, when the pirates are already close enough to represent a danger. For this reason, the counter-piracy fleet often counts on stalling tactics to keep merchant ships safe until warships can respond. Merchants are instructed to sail fast, zig-zag and use their hoses to keep pirates at bay while warships and helicopters race to the rescue.

There’s another, potentially better, way of countering pirates, Chick explains. He calls it an “intelligence-driven” model that relies on a better understanding of pirates’ infrastructure and attitudes. By this method, a warship might sail a circuit within sight of a pirate port. The vessel’s presence is meant to bottle up pirates, while also creating an impression of overwhelming power that hopefully would deter future pirates from every setting sail, even after the warship has left.

USS Donald Cook — “DC” to her crew — has already tested out Chick’s new intel method, and other ships might do the same, as counter-piracy operations evolve. “There’s a bit of hearts and minds there, as well,” Chick says, adding that a visible warship presence can encourage the vast majority of Somalis who oppose piracy, but have been cowed by the sea bandits’ wealth and aggression. DC routinely sends boarding teams to talk to friendly Somali fishermen, “asking what they’ve seen and what they know” regarding pirates, Chick says. As the intel approach gains acceptance, this kind of interaction will only grow in importance.

(Photo: David Axe)