Somali Pirates: How Obama Lets Them Get Away With It

One unacknowledged consequence of the Libya war? With the U.S. Navy occupied, piracy is bigger than ever.

Is the Libyan war claiming casualties as far away as the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Gulf of Aden? That is the implication of this week’s report from the International Maritime Organization, which says attacks on shipping by Somali pirates in those waters hit a record in the first half of 2011. Requests to NATO for more ships to patrol sea lanes have been denied. Why? The Western navies are too busy in Libya.

Two years ago, amid a great burst of media attention, the U.S. and the EU committed ships and aircraft to battle the pirates. In April 2009, President Obama drew widespread and justified praise when he ordered a military operation that resulted in the rescue of a hostage sea captain and the killing of three Somali pirates with three bullets. The president promised to “halt the rise of piracy” in the region. French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a similar vow the previous year, after his nation’s special forces freed a pair of hostages.

Since then, the world’s attention has moved on. Although the piracy problem largely dropped off television screens, it is growing worse. Not only are the rates of attack rising, but so are the ransoms. Indeed, piracy is one of the world’s fastest-growing businesses. A recent report from the consulting firm Geopoliticity calculates that the average ransom for a hijacked ship, which ran about $150,000 as recently as 2005, now exceeds $5 million, meaning that pirates are earning well over $200 million a year. The income of a Somali pirate, says the report, can easily exceed 100 times what he could earn from legitimate work in his country.

The most powerful pirate group, known as the Somali Marines, is so sophisticated, says, that it “has a military structure, with a fleet admiral, admiral, vice admiral and a head of financial operations.” The gang carries out more than 80 percent of the hijackings in the region, and evidently pioneered the “mothership” attack model, using a large boat to get small, fast skiffs into deep water. (The Somali Marines who are pirates should not be confused with the Somali Marines who are soldiers—and who freely admit that they cannot defend the coastline against the pirates.)

The annual costs of piracy to world shipping, including damage and delay, are difficult to measure, but most experts agree that the figure is in the vicinity of $10 billion; some say more. The Geopolicity report estimates annual losses in the $13 billion to $15 billion range by 2014. And unless the pirates are defeated, the cost is likely to keep rising. The practice is so lucrative, and so weakly policed, that there is little incentive for the pirates to stop.

Despite all the promises, there is, at the moment, little the West can do. Its forces are overextended. A traditional and often overlooked function of the military is to keep the sea lanes open. In recent decades, this responsibility has fallen largely on the United States Navy, the dominant power in the world.

This is one reason that President Obama’s plan to save money by greatly reducing the size of the Pentagon’s budget may prove shortsighted. Defense spending should not be off-limits when the entire country is struggling. But the $400 billion in cuts announced so far, combined with an additional $400 billion to $500 billion that the administration is said to be seeking, is far too high. The dividend from ending the Iraq War and drawing down forces in Afghanistan cannot explain the entire reduction. Much of the money is going to come from procurement, already strained under the Bush administration, which in effect cashed in modernization programs to get war funding.

Cutting the Navy will have particularly far-reaching effects. It is the Navy that polices the sea lanes: for example, battling pirates. The naval surface fleet is built around the carrier strike group, consisting of an aircraft carrier and its escort ships. By maintaining a large number of these CSGs, as they are known, the United States is able to do what no other nation can: Project power, on short notice, anywhere in the world.

With the expected retirement of the USS Enterprise next year, however, the U.S. will have only 10 active-duty aircraft carriers, one less than the 11 mandated by federal law, and the smallest number since early in the Second World War. This is not entirely the fault of the administration: Congress has required that 11 carriers be maintained but has not provided the funds to support them.

In 2015, the first of the new Ford-class carriers is scheduled to enter service; the next is due in 2020. But these will likely replace, not augment, the carriers now in service. Moreover, because of maintenance and refitting requirements, the practical number of carriers deployable at any moment will be, most likely, six—an awfully small number to guard an awful lot of ocean. At the moment, only five American carriers are out of port. One of them, the Ronald Reagan, is reportedly in the Arabian Sea, but it is not there to battle pirates. It is supporting Operation Enduring Freedom—that is, the Afghan War.

Budgetary constraints have placed the Navy under increasing stress. According to Jane’s Defense Weekly, the Navy is cannibalizing its own ships in order to meet inspection requirements—that is, taking equipment from ship A (in active service) to bring ship B (also in active service) up to standard. Other reports say that as many as 20 percent of America’s naval vessels are failing combat-readiness inspections. Half of the Navy’s air fleet is in disrepair. One cause is said to be shrinking naval manpower: It is difficult to do the same amount of maintenance on a ship with a smaller crew.

Maybe Muammar Gaddafi will fall soon, and the West will have ships to spare to battle the Somali Marines and the other gangs. But we should bear in mind that what the pirates are doing is neither new nor unusual. All through history, wars have been fought for control of the sea lanes. The goal of America’s first naval war, against the Barbary States of northern Africa during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, was precisely to protect shipping. Even if the Somali pirates are defeated, new maritime threats will arise.

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Like it or not, for more than six decades the world has looked to the U.S. to keep the sea lanes open, a task, as Navy Secretary James Forrestal put it 1947, “more or less inherited from Britain” following World War II. Keeping the sea lanes open keeps world trade flowing. The job is indispensable, and nobody else can do it. In a perfect world, an international flotilla might patrol the seas, but the world is not perfect, and only the U.S. is in a position to take on the responsibility. It may even be, in a moral sense, our duty as the only superpower.

Thus a stark choice is upon us: We can spend what is necessary to defend the seas, or we can leave them undefended.