Hampton Park Fan asked me to talk a bit about the Somali pirate story, and while it is covered much better elsewhere on the blogosphere, I will add a few comments of my own.
1. Maritime Piracy is a land-based problem at its heart. That is, the pirates are paid by folks operating on land, they take orders from folks operating on land and they are tied to land-based logistics. These guys aren't like the pirates of old, who'd find an island and stash their treasure; in fact, the pirates today have little interest in gaining wealth from the cargo. The money in piracy goes to the guys ashore who shake-down the shipping companies. The pirates don't see much of that, but what they do see is quite a bit more than they would make from lawful activities.
2. As a land-based problem, modern piracy exists where legitimate government does not. Off the horn of Africa, Somalia is the culprit. In Southeast Asia, parts of Malaysia and the Philippines are the culprits. Where legitimate government does not exercise authority, maritime banditry is allowed to flourish.
3. The single biggest problem in more aggressively tackling piracy, whether on our own or in concert with others is what to do with the pirates. Once you've taken them down and have them in custody, they are yours to keep Mr Ship Captain--as maritime nations are not stepping up to take responsibility for their turnover and trial.
Ok--so far I've made two broad points...the first is that to tackle piracy, we need to kill its roots ashore. Secondly, in the short term we need to figure out what to do with the pirates.
But there's more.....
4. Piracy is simply not that big of an issue....yet. I covered a piracy story on the blog once before, and I think there were something like 65 piracy events off the Horn of Africa last year--but there were nearly 22000 large ship voyages though those waters (numbers aren't exact, but they are close). This is not an epidemic. Shippers have to a large extent priced in this risk, and the ransoms paid are a chip-shot compared to the profits they pull in. But as we've seen in the financial crisis, facts are not always persuasive. If the markets begin to feel that that the flow of goods is threatened, it will begin to do zany things that no one will like.
5. This issue is a test case for modern cooperative maritime relationships. While Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Yemen and Djibouti don't have big navies or coast guards, Germany, UK, Italy, Russia and the Saudis do. In fact, these nations and others are chomping at the bit to take this threat on, largely because it is exactly the kind of mission that their navies are good at. The US can do this all by itself--but shouldn't. It would require us to take our eye off of Iran (as our warships that would interdict pirates are the same one who would conduct land attack, anti-submarine warfare and anti-ship missile defense against Iran) a job ONLY we can really do. The problem with putting together an effective coalition revolves around two issues, with the first being what to do with the pirates (as we've discussed). The second involves an effective UN mandate, something most militaries in the world need in order to have a Friday afternoon parade.
6. No one should confuse this current issue with a lack of capability, resolve, or the desire of maritime nations to cooperate. This is a logistics issue. Get the UN to give a clear set of guidelines (I know, I know) including dispositional authority with respect to captured pirates, and there would be little left of the East African pirate story.
What should the US do?
7. Leave the actual anti-piracy (afloat) mission largely to others. We may need a ship or two as catalysts for action, but this is a bite sized job for bite-sized navies.
8. In conjunction with our friends in the USMC, we should begin to aggressively target the shorebased logistics and command/control of these operations. This sort of activity is very well-suited to what our Navy/Marine Corps team can do.
What is keeping us from doing this?
9. An effective UN mandate
10. The fact that our naval infantry (otherwise known as the Marines) is largely tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan.