Navy Relying on Patience in Pirate Standoff

The U.S. captain of a cargo ship tried swimming away from his pirate captors, only to be recaptured off the coast of Somalia. The military is negotiating for the release of Richard Phillips, taken from the Maersk Alabama. Video by AP
By Ann Scott Tyson and Edward Cody
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 11, 2009

As U.S. Navy warships surrounded the lifeboat where four pirates held an American sea captain hostage yesterday, defense officials and analysts said the most likely military option for ending the standoff would not involve any significant use of naval firepower, but rather blocking maneuvers or a discreet operation by elite U.S. sailors.

"We're not going to do anything rash," said one defense official, as a second Navy vessel, the guided missile frigate USS Halyburton, arrived to join the destroyer USS Bainbridge in the Indian Ocean off Somalia. A third Navy ship is expected to reach the scene within 24 to 48 hours, the officials said.

Using helicopters and unmanned aircraft to keep an eye on the lifeboat and other pirate vessels in the vicinity, the Navy ships are currently engaged in a strategy of attrition, they said. "Our strategy would be to run them out of options," said a senior defense official.

Still, defense officials and analysts did not rule out the possibility of a more aggressive, surgical operation by elite Navy SEALs to attempt to rescue the captain, Richard Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vt.

"I can guarantee you, every possible approach is being planned as we speak," including a covert rescue operation, said the senior defense official.

The French military decided to use its naval commandos yesterday in an operation to rescue two French couples and a 3-year-old boy, after a day of fruitless negotiations with pirates who took the group captive last Saturday aboard a sailing yacht in the Gulf of Aden.

One of the hostages was killed in an exchange of fire, along with two pirates, but the four other captives -- three adults and the child -- were rescued, President Nicolas Sarkozy's office announced in Paris. Three pirates were taken prisoner in the operation, and French sailors took control of the sleek vessel, the Tanit, and sailed it toward a Somali port.

U.S. Navy SEALs train regularly to mount such operations, which in this case would require extreme stealth, analysts said. A SEAL team would likely mount a nighttime assault from the sea, they said. Helicopters and boats would be too noticeable, so the SEALs would arrive by swimming and possibly with the aid of submersibles that would allow them to move clandestinely through the water, said Roger Carstens, an expert on U.S. Special Operations forces and a nonresident fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

"It's within the realm of possibility that a SEAL team could produce a positive outcome," said Carstens, who served as an Army Special Forces officer. "They could act under cover of darkness after these people are worn out," he said, referring to the pirates.

Defense officials reiterated yesterday that the Navy would thwart any efforts by the pirates in the lifeboat to make contact with other pirate vessels or to reach land, which they said would vastly complicate the rescue effort.

For example, the Navy ships on scene could use blocking techniques to control where the lifeboat goes. One technique, known as "shouldering," would involve the USS Bainbridge powering alongside the lifeboat to determine its direction. Navy ships could also use their wakes and bow waves to block the lifeboat, the senior defense official said.

"Our job is to make sure the negotiations can continue," and that is accomplished by keeping the pirates "away from another vessel that might support them, and from the land," he said.

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