What's the Big Idea?

How to Fight Pirates

By Emily Langer
Sunday, April 12, 2009

After Somali pirates tried to commandeer a U.S.-operated container ship in the Indian Ocean last week and captured its American captain, the United States dispatched a Navy destroyer to the scene, creating a showdown between a massive warship and a tiny lifeboat on which the pirates held their hostage.

The Navy destroyer is just one more mammoth foreign vessel floating in the waters off the Somali coast, where piracy is raging at levels not seen since the Barbary corsairs ravaged northern Africa. But when it comes to a long-term strategy for battling pirates, are big ships really the answer? Not if you ask Navy Cmdr. James Kraska, a self-described "smaller vessel kind of guy."

In a recent article in World Policy Journal, Kraska and Navy Capt. Brian S. Wilson call for "a network of shipping states, regional partners, and major maritime powers that can collaborate on how to respond to piracy attacks." Countries such as the United States, Korea, Japan and China deploy big ships to respond to emergencies or show off their military might, Kraska said in an interview, but as last week's events made clear, pirates aren't impressed by the hulking show of power. A smarter approach, he said, would be to pool resources, provide African countries with smaller, leaner boats and train people there to patrol their coasts effectively.

The high seas aren't like the jungle, Kraska said, and locals don't always know how to navigate their waters better than foreign naval officers. But they do know their pirates. Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton branded the rogues "nothing more than criminals," but unlike run-of-the-mill bands of outlaws, these groups grow out of clans, tribes and families, according to Kraska. Locals who understand those relationships are better prepared to beat the pirates.

Bringing partner countries into the fight would ease the burden on major military powers, including the United States. It's not easy to sustain a major warship, especially in hostile waters. "Where do you get gas? Where do you buy fresh fruit?" Kraska asked. "You can only keep a single ship at sea for so long."

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