A Not So Small War

November 24, 2008 | 5 Comments

For many the piracy off the horn of Africa seems interesting if a little remote. The stories about pirates catching up to freighter ships then asking for a ransom might seem an odd curiosity.

But when pirates seize and move 2 million gallons of oil, or more than 36,000 tons of wheat we’re talking food and fuel in big quantities. Americans are used to oil coming in from close by – Canada, Mexico and Venezuela with only a small fraction coming across dangerous waters. Demand destruction has pulled so far that for now the shipping and pipeline attacks aren’t having much price effect. This can’t last.

Eventually crews will be killed, cargoes lost or an enormous spill will occur, or likely all three. Then the news will heat up its reporting. For now, it’s a deep concern to the informed few.

East Africa Pirate Attacks Map and Graph

East Africa Pirate Attacks Map and Graph

Reports of pirate attacks are solidly unreliable. Pirate pursuits of targets that fail, attacks evaded, fought off and other early event attacks that come to naught aren’t getting counted. So when we see that 2007s number of 31 attacks compared to 2008s attacks at 199 in the first eight months, a bit of statistical glint comes to mind. But the attention to the counts is just warming up now, so the probability is that likely a 6-fold increase is at hand.

The suspected Somali pirates that seized the oil tanker Sirius Star is known to not be the first attempt. We can learn from the story of the Leander, a tanker that was accosted and got away. On October 28th the ship with 23 crew aboard entered the Gulf of Aden, the water on the north of Africa’s horn, with million barrels of crude aboard.

Moving at 12 knots, through what is called a” safe corridor” set out by NATO, 120 miles out to sea midway between the Gulf’s entrance and the turn up into the Red Sea three skiffs approached. “The center and forward attack vessel was actually a Yemeni skiff fitted with large outboard engine and was being used as a screen to mask the other two craft,” captain Russell Davies wrote in an official report filed to Interorient and the International Chamber of Shipping. Men on the skiffs fired automatic rifles at the side of the ship.

Captain Russell Davies sent a mayday signal, but nobody answered, and then followed the special training paid for by Interorient. He locked his crew in a hold, sped up the ship to 15 knots, blared his airhorn and sailed in furious S-patterns. After 10 minutes, the pirate vessels fell back and disappeared. But at 3 p.m., the pirates reappeared. In an interview via satellite phone, Mr. Davies described three “fast attack boats departing a white mother ship.” Four men were in each boat. Mr. Davies followed the same emergency routine. This time, a Spanish naval carrier responded to the mayday alert. Thirty minutes later, a military plane appeared. “The fire was a lot more intense than the morning attack,” says Mr. Davies. The pirates were approaching when the plane fired back, chasing the pirates away, says Mr. Davies. “The military only responded one out of two times we called.” Mr. Davies says ship captains need “a couple 50 millimeter mounted guns” to defend themselves.

Ship owners and insurers haven’t armed ship with weapons because they fear deadly shootouts. Interorient and other shippers say they’re looking into hiring professional security guards. The next day, three miles from the same spot, pirates successfully hijacked a Turkish bulk carrier.

But the seizure of a giant the Saudi oil tanker Sirius Star with $100 million worth of crude far off the coast of Kenya could enlarge the “war risk” zone of the Gulf of Aden that already is lifting insurance costs for thousands of ships heading west of Africa, further raising the cost of piracy to world-wide shipping.

Some 6,500 tankers, carrying 7% of the world’s oil, used the route in 2007, according to Lloyd’s Marine Intelligence Unit. Pirates attack around one of 10 ships in the area; most attacks are unsuccessful, according to the International Chamber of Shipping. Back in May, insurers declared the Gulf of Aden a war-risk zone subject to a premium of tens of thousands of dollars per day, say insurance and shipping companies. That could now be extended to the east side of the African continent.

The slower-moving tankers and dry bulk vessels that carry oil, chemicals, coal, corn, wheat and other commodities have the most to fear. But the fear needs passed along to the customers who need those commodities for food and fuel and the huge array of products made from the cargoes.

The bewildering thing is governments and shippers are sparring over who should bear responsibility for fending off the pirates, who seized 26 ships in the region during the 2008 summer alone and have collected up to $30 million in ransom so far this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

You can just bet that “diplomacy” will be or is being used to get some form of organization going and to cope with the regions countries rights out to sea. One would think that an effort could get underway bloody fast – the ship owners in just the past few days includes Chinese, Turk, Saudi, Norwegian, Hong Kong, among others. Meanwhile, it might be a really good idea for a military plane to obliterate a few skiffs full of armed pirates and make a video of it to go up on the news and youtube.

It’s got to be cheaper than cleaning up 2 million barrels of oil, grieving over 20 plus innocent lives, or paying off a sunken ship.

America is there, even while busy in other places. Special note and thanks needs to go to Spain for being there providing security. But by no means has everyone answered the problem. Russia is busy showing off to Venezuela instead of patrolling for pirates as her station in the world as she asserts her wishes to seen and respected would suggest.

It looks like it’s still up to American and the few “standup to responsibility” allies to police the world.


5 Comments so far

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