In the Battle Against Modern-Day Pirates, the Pentagon Eyes Its Role Warily

Some want the U.S. military to go ashore in Somalia to hunt pirates, commanders aren't enthusiastic.

Pirates leave the Ukrainian merchant vessel MV Faina for Somalia's shore. The MV Faina, carrying a cargo of Ukrainian T-72 tanks and related military equipment, was seized by pirates Sept. 25, 2008 and forced to proceed to anchorage off the Somali coast.

By the tongue-in-cheek estimates of the Department of Defense, this month marked the first time in roughly 100 years that the National Security Council at the White House held a meeting to discuss piracy. But while the high-level discussion is an indication of how concerned the Bush administration is about the an alarming spike in pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia, the U.S. military and the State Department differ considerably on how to fight it.

It is a lucrative business, netting pirates an estimated $120 million in ransom this year, with the vast majority of them escaping with relative impunity. In the past two months, pirates off the coast of Somalia have attacked some 30 vessels including cruise ships and oil tankers.

Earlier this month, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a U.S. State Department-backed resolution to permit a coalition of navies to go ashore in Somalia to hunt down pirates and "use all necessary measures that are appropriate in Somalia."

The U.S. military, however, is less than enthusiastic about this option. "I see people trying to look for an easy military solution to a problem that demands a nonkinetic solution," said Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, the commander of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, using a military term to refer to a nonviolent response.

The U.N. resolution could increase the chance of killing innocent civilians, according to military officials. "They're irregulars, they don't wear uniforms," Gortney said. "If you're going to do kinetic strikes into the pirate camps, the positive ID and the collateral damage concerns cannot be overestimated."

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates added that U.S. intelligence isn't yet good enough to pursue pirates in Somalia. "With the level of information we have at the moment, we're not in a position to do that kind of land-based operation," he said at a Mideast regional security conference earlier this month. Somalia also remains a haunted place for the U.S. military, which lost 18 servicemen in 1993 when a Blackhawk helicopter was shot down over the capital city of Mogadishu.

An even greater concern for the military, say U.S. officials, are the legal difficulties of prosecuting any pirates that would captured by any coalition of navies. Issues of jurisdiction are murky in the waters, particularly given that Somalia is a failed state with no functioning central government or justice system. Many western nations with navies patrolling the waters also have laws against handing over prisoners to countries that impose the death penalty. As a result, those who are captured often receive a medical examination, a free ride to shore, and little more, officials add.

In the meantime, despite the spate of media stories about the growing scourge of piracy, Gortney recently noted that piracy is a chiefly a criminal, not a terrorist, activity and that the risk from Somali pirates remains relatively small. Statistically from January to the end of November, "just in the area north of Somalia, your chances of getting pirated were 0.14 percent."

He advocated armed security guards for shipping companies—many of whom are contractors who previously worked in Iraq. These arrangements, however, come with their own outstanding legal questions.

For his part, Gates suggested instead that shipping companies first embrace "minimally intelligent" safety measures. These might include speeding up when pirates approach, and pulling up ladders when they try to board. "This isn't rocket science," Gates said.