By DeWayne Wickham
The standoff between U.S. Naval forces and a band of Somali pirates that ended Sunday when Navy Seals freed an American who had been held hostage by the brigands ought to teach this country an important lesson.
The best way to combat these thugs, who have attacked more than 130 ships off the Horn of Africa in the past year, is not with a massive show of warships, but with the lethal force of small combat teams. That’s what the Navy employed to free Richard Phillips, the 55-year-old captain of a 17,000-ton merchant vessel the pirates tried to seize last week.
Thwarted by the vessel’s unarmed crew, the Somalis took Phillips hostage as they escaped onto a 24-foot lifeboat. But they didn’t get very far. Their getaway was blocked by at least three U.S. warships — a destroyer; a guided-missile frigate, and an amphibious assault ship stocked with missile launchers, attack planes and a crew of 1,000.
The U.S. vessels had enough firepower to topple Somalia’s government, if it had one. The East African country is run by a collection of warlords and clan leaders, who are thought to benefit from the piracy. More than $50 million was paid to Somali pirates last year to get back the ships and crews they seized.
An international flotilla of naval vessels has patrolled the vast waters of the Indian Ocean for months trying to stop the hijackings, but they have continued. Forty ships were seized by pirates in the past year, the BBC reported.
“We consider it a serious matter,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week as the pirates demanded money for Phillips release. “These people are nothing more than criminals. And we are bringing to bear a number of our assets in order to resolve the hostage situation and bring the pirates to justice.”
But ultimately the goal should be prevent hijackings, not rescue hostages. It would take the entire U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet — with help from a lot of U.S. allies — to keep the Somali pirates at bay. That would be a huge, and costly, undertaking that’s unlikely to make the pirates stand down.
So here’s a better idea. Instead of sending scores of naval ships and tens of thousands of sailors in the hope of preventing a replay of the attack on Phillips’ ship, why not create a small military force which, like Sky Marshals, would be randomly placed aboard some of the commercial ships traveling through the area.
This would make attacking any of them a very costly crap shoot for the Somali pirates who chase down the large commercial vessels in boats better suited for sport fishing than combat. It wouldn’t take much for a small number of heavily-armed sailors or Marines hidden onboard one of the ships targeted by the Somalis to send the pirates to Davy Jones’ locker.
If you think this is a pretty wild idea, consider the alternative: endless years of pirate attacks on civilian ships off of Africa’s east coast, millions of dollars paid in ransom and hostage-taking that might not result in the happy ending that brought Phillips home alive, while his captors were killed in a firefight.
The presence of a large number of foreign warships off Somalia’s coast hasn’t frightened off the privates, who usually avoid contact with the military vessels while hunting the more numerous and defenseless merchant ships.
Give some of these vessels a protective force to fight off Somali pirates and the waters off the Horn of Africa will be a lot safer.