The French Defense Ministry announced the largest seizure of pirates and their vessels since the EU naval force's anti-piracy Operation Atalanta began in December 2008. Foreign forces conducting anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia have started targeting pirates' "mother ships" — vessels used to increase pirates' attack range — in a shift from defensive to offensive tactics.
The French Defense Ministry announced March 7 that the EU naval force (NAVFOR) had made the "biggest seizure" of pirates and their vessels since NAVFOR's anti-piracy mission Operation Atalanta began off the coast of Somalia in December 2008. During the previous three days, NAVFOR frigates captured four pirate "mother ships" and arrested 35 pirates. On March 2, the NATO flagship HDMS Absalon scuttled another mother ship. The tactical shift to pre-emptive strikes on pirates' mother ships comes at the beginning of the biannual pirate season in an attempt to deny pirates the ability to attack civilian ships in the first place. Pirates use mother ships to increase their attack range. The ships are key to pirates' operations from the Gulf of Aden into the Indian Ocean. The Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) within the Gulf of Aden is approximately 85-120 miles off the coast of Somalia, which includes Puntland, known as a pirate haven. This is barely within range of the average pirate skiff, which has a maximum range of 50-100 miles. Mother ships — usually larger fishing trawlers captured by the pirates — allow them to carry fuel, food and other supplies needed for days at sea. They are effectively offshore operating bases, giving the pirates the ability to attack much more quickly and at much greater range from shore. The vessels have allowed the pirates to respond to increased protection in the Gulf of Aden by attacking ships farther south in the Somali basin. Most recently, pirates captured a chemical tanker near Madagascar on March 5. The foreign anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and off the East African coast usually have been responsive and defensive since they began in 2008. NATO's Operation Ocean Shield, EU NAVFOR's Operation Atalanta and the Combined Maritime Forces involving such countries as Russia, China and India are all loosely coordinated through the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction Meetings. Their mandate focuses on protecting shipping traffic within the Gulf of Aden in the IRTC — the traditional target of pirate attacks — that extends into the Somali basin between continental Africa, the Seychelles and Madagascar. In the past two years, these naval missions have responded to pirate attacks and escorted ships through the shipping lanes. Tactics have focused on only confronting pirates when chasing them in direct response to a pirate attack. As the seasonal rise in pirate activity begins, EU NAVFOR has changed to aggressive tactics to prevent further hijackings. The naval force knows that the record month for pirate activity was April 2009 and wants to avoid a repeat in 2010. In the announcement about recent seizures of mother ships, EU NAVFOR Cmdr. John Harbour said, "We know the monsoon is over. We know they're coming. We're taking the fight to the pirates." The mandates of the anti-piracy missions have not changed, but the European Union and NATO have shifted their tactics to target key pirate vessels. As more mother ships are seized, pirates' capabilities are expected to weaken since their attack ranges will shrink. If foreign naval attacks on mother ships continue, the number of pirate hijackings off the Somali coast could decrease substantially. Disabling pirates' offshore capabilities will have a short-term effect, but pirates' ships and personnel are easily replaceable. (In fact, the pirates likely will respond to the foreign naval offenses by seizing more ships to use as offshore bases.) Anti-piracy missions do not address the underlying issue of the lack of governance and abundance of sanctuary for pirates in Somalia. Furthermore, pirate villages in the otherwise impoverished Somalia are awash with money. Until the underlying conditions that gave rise to piracy in the region are addressed, it will remain a challenge. STRATFOR will continue to follow events as the monsoon season ends and foreign navies attempt to stem the oncoming tide of pirate hijackings.
EU, Somalia: Targeting 'Mother Ships' in Anti-Piracy Efforts