Why the U.S. Military Is Wary of Open Warfare With Somali Pirates

The Pentagon will defend Americans against pirates, but it's reluctant to get too deeply involved.

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America's early run-ins with the Barbary pirates lent some historical resonance to the events that unfolded off the coast of Somalia last week. With its payout to those pirates accounting for a pricey, not to mention rather humiliating, 10 percent of federal expenditures in the early 1800s, a young Navy commodore, William Bainbridge, was tapped to lead the charge against them.

That it was from the deck of the USS Bainbridge that Navy snipers killed three kidnappers and freed a captured American captain last week is a dramatic parallel probably lost on Somali pirates, who have vowed revenge. This promise has prompted concern that the U.S. action could inspire more pirate strikes rather than deter them, particularly after the Bainbridge had to speed days later to the site of a thwarted attack against yet another U.S. ship, which sustained a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades.

Military officials emphasize that while they will not hesitate to conduct similar operations to protect Americans, they had hoped the episode would end nonviolently. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the three dead pirates, who ranged in age from 17 to 19, "untrained teenagers."

This seemed a telling signal from Gates, who tends to choose his words carefully. With many on Capitol Hill robustly demanding an end to piracy and shipping executives calling for more military action, Pentagon officials are working to ratchet down the rhetoric. They caution that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have limited what they can send to the vast Arabian Sea. It is unlikely that they will embrace a call from freshman Rep. Mike Coffman for teams of marines to be placed on U.S.-flag merchant vessels in the region.

That's in no small measure because military officials believe the first responsibility for deterring pirates should fall to the shipping companies. Back in December, Gates urged firms to take what he called "minimally intelligent" measures, including pulling up ladders when pirates approach, hiring private security guards, and going faster. These steps, however, can be costly for the industry. Going faster burns more fuel. But "it's like driving through a bad neighborhood," says a senior Pentagon official. "You lock the doors and roll up the windows. And to be fair, many of them are [thwarting pirate attacks]. They need to continue to do that."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a plan to expand international counterpiracy efforts, including freezing their assets and going after their sanctuaries on the Somali shore. U.S. military officials remain wary of taking on this latter task, however, even though many in Congress have endorsed the idea. Back in December, the United Nations passed a U.S. State Department-backed resolution authorizing navies to go ashore in Somalia. But Vice Adm. William Gortney, commander of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, warned back then that he saw "people trying to look for an easy military solution to a problem." The concern that raids on pirate camps in Somalia could result in innocent civilian casualties, he added, "cannot be overestimated."

For his part, Gates has said that U.S. intelligence is not yet good enough to pursue pirates in Somalia. The specter of Mogadishu, where a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter was shot down and 18 American soldiers were killed in 1993, is one the military will not soon forget.