Commentary Magazine



The August 27 report of Somali pirates firing at a U.S. Navy helicopter highlights the frustrations of defensive tactical deterrence as a national policy. The Navy’s reason for not firing back was iron-clad, but the overall piracy situation remains dangerous, irritating, and unresolved, in spite of the converging armed forces of more than two dozen nations and many earnestly expressed commitments from political leaders.

There was no decision point for returning fire from the Navy helicopter, because the crewmen were not certain they had been fired on until they evaluated the recording from their infrared camera after the mission. The pirates used small arms (rifles), which give off little muzzle flash and do not have the range to hit the helicopter at the altitude it would maintain for a surveillance mission. A shoulder-fired missile would be immediately detectable and draw an immediate response from the Navy. But small-arms fire, in these circumstances, is not a valid pretext for any specific critique of either our operational policies or our military rules of engagement.

Citizens, however, can be excused for finding this explanation technically and politically unsatisfying. While our Navy and others labor in obscurity, making the headlines only when something less than heroic occurs, Somali piracy is on the rise and adapting to naval deterrence tactics, and European lawyers are representing pirates and arguing for their rights.

The pirates who fired at the U.S. helicopter did so from M/V Win Far 161, a Taiwanese fishing ship hijacked on April 6, 2009, and used ever since as a “mother ship” from which the pirates launch long-range attacks like the one on M/V Maersk Alabama on April 8. The ship’s crew of 30 remain on board as hostages. The International Maritime Bureau reports that in spite of the growing antipiracy effort in the Gulf of Aden, Somali pirate attacks in the first six months of 2009 totaled 130, compared with 111 in all of 2008. Much of the increase has been off the east coast of Somalia, with the pattern of attacks being gradually displaced from the Gulf of Aden, where the world’s navies are operating. The summer monsoons have reportedly slowed pirate activity east of Somalia. But open-ocean piracy is far more difficult to interdict than piracy in restricted waters, like those of the Gulf of Aden, and weather is likely to be the main factor inhibiting pirate operations farther out to sea.

The Paris-based legal-aid group Lawyers of the World, meanwhile, is representing more than 40 piracy detainees handed over to Kenya for prosecution, insisting that their rights are being violated by deficiencies in Kenyan law. Fighting piracy is turning into a series of bureaucratic opportunities for attorneys and alliance staffs. It is also providing the pretext for Russia and Iran to establish a maritime presence in this crucial region. Yet piracy continues to flourish undaunted. Something is wrong with this picture. The exasperating features of the latest helicopter incident are emblematic of what is wrong with the whole enterprise, in spirit if not in literal explanatory value. At the strategic level, we are fighting piracy on the pirates’ terms and giving them a head start for good measure.