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Jan 15, 2009 | 23:40 GMT

6 mins read

Japan, Somalia: Pirate-Infested Waters Getting Crowded

Japan is getting closer to deploying its own naval warships to fight piracy off the coast of Somalia. Gen Nakatani, a former defense chief and Japan Self-Defense Forces officer who now heads a government panel on combating piracy, expressed the need for urgency Jan. 15, as Prime Minister Taro Aso continues to prepare legislation authorizing the deployment. But there is more than just maritime security operations to the massing of the world's navies in the pirate-infested waters off the coast of Somalia. The more ambitious are also taking careful note and learning to become proficient in sustained, long-range naval operations.
The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) should be dispatched as soon as possible to the waters off Somalia, Gen Nakatani, a former Japanese defense chief and the current head of a government panel on combating piracy, said Jan. 15. Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso is expected to submit legislation soon that will authorize the JMSDF deployment, but Tokyo has certain unique legal challenges that could delay deployment for several months. The JMSDF ranks by many estimates as the second-best navy in the world, and Japan is keenly aware that it is the only G-8 country that has not deployed a presence off Somalia. (Canada has, but does not currently have a ship on station.) But there is more at stake than maritime security as the pirate-infested waters off Somalia's coast become increasingly crowded with foreign warships. For the United States, the United Kingdom, France and other NATO navies, such long-term deployments on missions like counterpiracy are positively routine. The European Union, which has taken over command from NATO of the U.N.-authorized operation known as Atalanta, now coordinates British, French, German, Greek, Italian and Danish warships. These countries are all NATO member states that have worked in conjunction with international forces at sea before. For a number of countries, however, the situation off the coast of Somalia — long considered an annoyance and largely ignored — is now affording a nonthreatening excuse to learn firsthand about conducting and sustaining naval operations far afield. While countries also can learn from joint naval exercises, which are quite common, it is the three-month or longer period many of these ships spend on station that is more rare. Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Saudia Arabia — and soon perhaps Japan and others — see this deployment as an opportunity to try gain real-world naval experience that is otherwise hard to come by outside of a maritime war situation. The Somalian deployment is quickly becoming one of Russia's most sustained naval presences since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia recently replaced the frigate Neustrashimy (712), which had been on station for about three months, with the Udaloy-class guided missile destroyer Admiral Vinogradov from the Pacific Fleet. (Other warships of the Pacific Fleet will join the Pyotr Velikiy for naval exercises with India later in January.) While it is hard to overstate the challenges facing the Russian navy, 2008 was a significant year for the fleet, and participating in operations like this is the next step for regaining and improving operational proficiencies at sea. China is in a similar situation to Russia, but unlike Moscow, Beijing has regularly released footage of the operation, showing its two destroyers being supported by the auxiliary replenishment vessel that has accompanied them. In one of the latest releases, shipborne helicopters deployed commandos to merchant vessels. The Chinese are learning a great deal from these operations as well as advertising it — both domestically and internationally. While the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been out of port and even conducted some port calls on the other side of the world, the Somalia mission is indeed a major development. The PLAN has never before tested out its basic proficiencies in actual maritime security operations, thousands of miles from home port, for such a sustained period of time. Both Russia and China might also be conducting electronic surveillance of U.S. and NATO warships, learning what they can about their communications and sensor suites. And the Russians and Chinese certainly are being watched by the United States and NATO. Comparatively speaking, India is hardly operating far afield, but it might still garner valuable experience with underway replenishment. Meanwhile, India also gained some hard-earned experience when it sank a suspected pirate vessel — reportedly in self-defense — on Nov. 19. The navy quickly claimed to have sunk a pirate "mother ship" and began to talk of expanding operations. But the next week, a Thai fishing company claimed that the "mother ship" had been one of its trawlers, and it emerged that a British warship had backed off from the same vessel when it realized there were hostages aboard. Though pirates had indeed seized the vessel, as many as 15 civilian hostages supposedly were on board when the vessel sank. This is the sort of operational subtlety that even exceptionally well-drilled navies can still misjudge in practice. But as the situation remains murky, it is not clear to what extent the Indian vessel took the potential presence of hostages into consideration. The pirates have used hostages to enable them to keep a UAE-flagged supertanker for nearly two months and to control many other vessels, including the Ukrainian MV Faina. Not to be outdone (and despite tensions at home), a Pakistani frigate also has been conducting security operations since October 2008. The ship is likely one of Pakistan's six Tariq-class frigates, originally built and deployed by the British Royal Navy. Pakistan's navy is also equipped with a small number of replenishment tankers. While Pakistan has neither the ambition nor the capacity for maritime prominence that India does, the current deployment could prove to be one of the more significant Pakistani naval operations in recent years, in terms of both tactical experience and continuous time at sea. Malaysia, meanwhile, is operating far from its own shores. It has worked in conjunction with Indonesia and Singapore recently to improve security in the Strait of Malacca, the world's busiest shipping lane. While Malaysia has recently made significant investments in its military, from German frigates to late-model Russian-built Su-30MKM "Flanker" jet fighters, its ships appear to be relying on an old U.S. Newport-class amphibious landing ship for support. While making this work in practice will certainly be an experience, what the Malaysian navy will likely find most useful will be better understanding the coordination of an international counterpiracy effort and refining relevant techniques. Finally, Saudi Arabia's navy is conducting escorts. While it is exceptionally well-equipped, the Saudi military is poorly trained. The Saudi monarchy is quick to spend billions on the latest defense equipment, but its personnel are not drilled in its use, and officers of royal lineage rarely spend much time practicing their trade. Overall, the service does not spend much time at sea. (One of Riyadh's newest French-built frigates ran aground the same year it was commissioned.) Escorting duty is valuable, but unless the underlying nature of the Saudi military changes, the force likely will garner only the most basic proficiencies from the experience. To this multinational force, Japanese, South Korean, Taiwanese and Australian warships might soon be added. All four will be looking to refine their capability to sustain naval forces far afield.

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