Defense Official: More Private Security Needed Aboard Ships to Combat Piracy
Navies from around the world, including the United States, have participated in task forces designed to deter pirates from operating in the seas off of the East African nation’s shores, but they will never be able to stop every attack, William Wechsler, deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics and global threats, testified before the House foreign affairs subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade.
Pirates operate in an area of approximately 2.9 million square nautical miles, roughly the size of the continental United States, he said. “If you took all of the navies of all the countries in all of the world, and put them against this area, they still wouldn’t be able to cover this amount of nautical space,” Wechsler added.
Making ships harder to capture is the best short-term solution for the shipping industry, he said, adding that no ship employing armed guards has ever been successfully captured by pirates. During the last month at least six attacks were thwarted after armed security teams aboard ships engaged pirates.
“From the Department of Defense’s perspective, when we have the opportunity to act, we do act ... One of the key elements in our strategy has to have more effective shared responsibility from the industry,” Wechsler said.
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., said from 2007 to 2010 piracy has “grown sevenfold.” The average ransom payment a few years ago was $300,000, but today the number is between $4 million to $5 million.
“For Somali pirates, crime does pay,” Royce said. He repeated some analysts’ assertions that that pirate ransoms might be funding Somali militants from al-Shabbab, which is believed to have ties to al-Qaida.
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., ranking member on the subcommittee, said the cost of piracy is much higher than current estimates because funding naval task forces is often left out of the equation.
“Are we charging fees for protection for any of these ships or do we bear the cost at the cost of U.S. taxpayers?” Sherman asked. It’s time for the U.S. government to ask shippers to bear the financial burden of convoy protection and to make them place armed guards aboard their ships, he said.
Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said piracy can only be defeated with organized international efforts, focusing on a “multi-dimensional” strategy of security, prevention and deterrence. Security should emphasize the cooperation of international naval forces. Prevention efforts need to focus on actions such as the current U.S. policy of denying ransom pay. Deterrence requires the strengthening of prosecutorial powers against captured pirates.
Royce said he preferred the “justice our SEALs dispense,” referring to an April 2009 incident when Navy special operators ended a five-day standoff by shooting three Somali pirates in the head and rescuing the captain of a merchant ship.
— Reporting by David C. Ake