A bit over a week ago, French naval special forces cherry-picked the crew of a Somali pirate vessel from their base after the hostages of the luxury yacht Le Ponant. You can read about the story here. Now said pirates are on their way to trial in France, which means, of course, it’s not too late to screw things up.
Piracy is undoubtedly one of the world’s oldest professions (if not as old as prostitution), as old as water-born trade. It has been making a comeback in a big way over the last decade or so. Given the sheer amount of ship traffic these days—especially with containerization, which has reduced the size of merchant crews—it makes sense. Right now the big area of piracy is around the Horn of Africa, an area that sees lots of ship traffic. This, too is predictable. The Horn has been a lawless place for a few decades now and piracy thrives in places where there are many young men with lots of guns with nothing else to do except pilfer from the ships off shore. In other words, it’s the nautical version of crime anywhere else. More traffic, unemployed young men, and no law leads to more piracy. The Horn has had issues with this recently. For example, the cruise ship that was hit by an RPG from a pirate vessel in 2005.
The big, blue water navy—descendants of the careerist battleship admirals of old—isn’t what’s needed for anti-piracy patrol, though as the French raid shows, blue water ships such as the aircraft carrier Jeanne d’Arc are helpful for making brown water and coastal operations possible. Modern pirates, like old ones, often use stealth and smaller vessels. The Somali pirates are somewhat extreme in this regard as they often engage in daylight raids and are heavily armed, but even so, they’re using relatively small vessels and infantry weapons.
Because the military can’t always be there, anti-pirate tactics and devices make sense for civilian ships: Speeding up is a good one, as is staying away from coastal waters in areas where pirates are known to frequent. Various non-lethal (or less-than-lethal) weapons such as the LRAD have also been in development, though such things always seem to have more promise than they deliver. So it makes sense to make harder targets. However, it’s not always possible. Sometimes you have to slow down, e.g., in the Straits of Malacca, which is one of the most heavily traveled waterways in the world, and, until recently, overrun with pirates, until the local governments (Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore) decided to put their own quarrels on pause and get serious with the pirates.
If you ask me, the most visceral solution is old school: A push in the water after which the proper authorities will take care of the cleanup. They won’t even charge a penny of taxpayer dollars for the service! If you feel this is too old school, machine gun bullets first add a bit of metallic piquancy and crunch. I don’t think the proper authorities are all that discriminating.
The UK, however, has really jumped the shark, deciding that pirates might well be good asylum candidates! The Royal Navy had a long tradition of piracy suppression. In fact, the “classic” era of “arr, matey” Long John Silver piracy was brought to an end in the 18th Century by the anti-piracy patrols of the Royal Navy. Piracy is, after all, not good for business. The Barbary Pirates (this is the “shores of Tripoli” in the Marine Corps’ Hymn) were finished off by the US Navy and Marine Corps in some of their earliest engagements precisely because of the loss of Royal Navy protection after the Revolution. Now, the UK seems to be willing to offer asylum to pirates. Whoever is responsible for this policy—I’m sure it’s being foisted on the RN by someone else—needs to be sent to an asylum. Hearts of Pulp, indeed. Of course, perhaps Britain is simply waxing nostalgic for the piratical past of Hawkins and Drake, in effect looking wistfully on the early history of the Royal Navy rather than the glory days of Nelson?
In sum: Vive La France! Special forces were used for what they do best, bad guys got bagged, and collateral damage was kept to a minimum. Unlike the bangers-and-mash eating surrender orangutans in London these days, Sarko’s brass monkey seems to have some balls.