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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Pirate Fighting: Roundtable with RADM McKnight, CTF-151

I was involved in a DOD sponsored Bloggers' Roundtable with RADM McKnight, who leads CTF-151, the newly created coalition anti-piracy task force. A transcript and a recording will be available this afternoon. In the meantime, and subject to extension and revision, here are some rough notes:

  1. CTF-151 is not a "fix Somalia" task force. Its function is to thwart pirates in the Gulf of Aden in cooperation with the forces of other nations, the EU and whoever else shows up.
  2. There are currently 14 nations and some 20 ships operating in the Gulf of Aden. One concern for CTF-151 is deconfliction and coordination among these units. To that end CTF-151 has contact with the EU force and the Chinese force. This is important as there are also numbers of helicopters, maritime patrol aircraft and various small boats and LCACs operating as part of the anti-pirate effort.
  3. The primary focus is preventing attacks and halting those in progress before a ship is hijacked. This requires the merchant ships to be awake to the threat and quick response by the forces (the admiral referred to the "Magic 30 Minutes" -UPDATE "Golden 30 Minutes" is what he actually said). The goal is to "make it unpleasant to be a pirate."
  4. The effort is somewhat akin to a wild west cattle drive - cowboys (escorts) patrol on the outskirts of the herd movement hoping to be in position to head off trouble. There will be some leakers, but the goal is protection of the sea lanes, not necessarily any individual ship. The function of the Maritime Security Patrol Areas (see here) is to provide some organization to the process. It's not a pure convoy system, but an "area protection system" by narrowing the area better coverage can be provided.
  5. The level of cooperation has been good. This is not a competition among nations to gain exclusive control of sea lanes, but a mutually beneficial exercise in securing sea lanes for the benefit of all mankind except the Somali pirates.
  6. A recent agreement with Kenya (see here) will allow captured pirates to be transported there for trials. While the exaxct terms are still being work on, the counter-piracy effort is being treated as a law-enforcement matter, not as "warfare." Captured pirates are being afforded normal legal protections and evidence is being gathered for prospective trials. No drumhead trials and hanging from yardarms. On the other hand, if the pirates appear to or actually threaten coalition forces, counter fire is allowed.
  7. It currently appears that at least some forces are in the fight for the long haul. My initial question was about the willpower of the forces in the Gulf of Aden and whether the pirates can outlast their staying power. The admiral did not believe this to be a problem.
  8. Finding the pirates is hard. Their small boats, which are fishing boats, look just like small fishing boats and are hard to spot on radar or in the clutter of other, non-pirate fishing fleets. One of the reasons for new Maritime Security Patrol Areas (see #4 above) is to move the transit lanes further away from Yemeni fishing grounds to ease the sorting out process.
  9. The pirates are about "99.9%" Somali.
UPDATE: Transcript available here. MP3 here. Highlights:
Some things that have changed that have helped us in this case to combat the piracy: First of all, the United Nations has come out with several resolutions -- the most current ones are 1846 and 1851 -- that gives us more authority to combat piracy. The other thing that has changed dramatically in the area is the maritime community. We have tried very hard to say to the maritime community, you know, there's just not enough Navy ships out here to cover 1.1 million square miles, so we're trying to put you in like a, what we call the -- what we call it is the UKMTO Corridor. Basically, visualize it as an interstate system where you transit east and west. So we say, "If you can transit in this corridor, we will offer you as much protection as we possibly can." So that seems to be working.

Right now, we have about 14 nations out here with about 20 ships, so there's a lot of activity out here with military aircraft and ships. And my biggest concern, of course, is deconfliction and coordination. And we've had an excellent response from the ships that have been out here working on that.

I have talked directly to the commodore of the EU task force; I have exchanged e-mails with the Chinese, and have talked to -- (audio break) -- the ships that are out here. So it appears that it's been working pretty fairly in the last couple of months.

The other thing that has been a success for us, and always good, is the weather. When the -- these skiffs that the pirates have are not much bigger than a Boston whaler, so when the weather picks up, they tend to stay at home, and not out here.


Q Okay. Two more very quick questions. Are any of the pirates coming out of Yemen? And also, we keep hearing about mother ships for these small vessels. Are there, in fact, mother ships, or is that a media invention?

ADM. MCKNIGHT: No, there are mother ships. In fact, that's what -- what we tend to see happens is a mother ship will either drag along couple skiffs with it and have probably 10 or 15, 20 pirates on board, and then they'll send the skiffs out to, you know, go after a merchant vessel. So, yes, there are mother ships. And that allows them to stay out for an extended period of time so they don't have to go back to Somalia.

The pirates that we have seen are -- and I think I've got it right -- 99.99 percent are from Somalia. They have -- and we've seen times that they hang out -- (audio break) -- territorial waters. And it's unfortunate the coast guard for Yemen just does not have the capability to patrol their waters. But we have them that they'll come up there and hide out in the waters and then come south.
Q Good morning, Admiral. My -- I -- first, can I sneak in a question from Steeljaw Scribe? He e-mailed it to me. He says, regarding CTF-151, what do you see as the greatest challenge to the successful execution of your mission?

ADM. MCKNIGHT: Well, I think the couple challenges -- like I mentioned earlier, when -- people who are under my task force, I can direct them, you know, how to put helicopters in the air, how to manage the ships. The problems that I foresee -- if you're in a -- you know, it's just like running, you know, a highway system. If there's 14 nations and 20-plus ships, and most of them have helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft, the biggest concern is coordination and deconfliction, because what we don't want to happen is have a accident where two friendly helicopters run into each other.
Q Yeah, just -- it was just a comment. And I have a question about the Kenyan matter. I don't know how much detail you can go into or if this is purely a lawyer question. There's a lot of -- I've been getting a lot of e-mails containing law-review articles and cites about the rights that should be afforded to the pirates. Have -- what kind of rules are -- of -- for captured pirates, what kind of rules are our sailors operating under, if you can let me know?

ADM. MCKNIGHT: It's strictly the -- I'll probably get the wrong terms, but it's the -- strictly what human -- you know, they -- we retrieved these -- (audio break) -- (accordance ?) with all rules and regulations. We would -- you know, we'd -- of course we'd, you know, ask them questions. We'd treat them well. Law enforcement -- it's a law-enforcement mission, so we would treat them just like any other law-enforcement thing.

And let me just clarify one thing here. I don't think we'll ever stop pirates. We will do our best to bring the numbers down. When you think of the number of ships that pass through here a year, between 23(,000) and 25,000 vessels -- and the chances of getting pirated here are pretty slim.

But we think that we've had a pretty good success rate in the last couple months.

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