International fleet is unable to vanquish piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean; the Russian military does not understand its mission there at all. That was said by Mikhail Voitenko, editor-in-chief of the online Maritime Bulletin in the interview to the Central Navy Portal.
Mikhail Voitenko. Photo taken from personal files
- Mikhail, what is your appraisal of anti-piracy activities held by the international task force?
- To analyze military actions in the Gulf of Aden and northwest Indian Ocean, one needs to have statistical data and set forth goals of military presence clearly. There are no detailed statistics of international task force presence. I'm talking only of the most transparent units like EU NAVFOR or CTF, not about crowds of non-aligned ships. However, that specious statistic is enough after all. The principal analysis input is outlining of military tasks; curiously enough, those tasks do not serve the interests and demands of civil shipping, and that makes analysis impossible whatever detailed and overall statistics would be.
- So what do you think those tasks are?
- Currently, the military has following objectives in the region:
protection of humanitarian foodstuffs imported to Somalia;
security of shipping;
monitoring of regional fisheries.
- Looks logic, eh?
- Only at first sight. You ask me what else? The main thing. Not a word said about what security of shipping is. The point is that nobody has announced Indian Ocean a combat operational zone so far. We live in peacetime, so civil shipping must feel absolutely safe. Global economy operates in peace-time mode, and maritime commercial shipping is one of the most important components of global economy. It must work uninterruptedly and break-even as the free market requires. Namely, the duty of international community when any threat to shipping occurs unless it's a world war is not only to provide 100% security but to prevent any losses to shipping.
- In your opinion, the abovementioned tasks do not imply this?
- Exactly. In my thinking, and of course that's not only my point of view, the top-priority missions should be stated like this:
ensuring safe passage of merchant and other vessels through piracy-risky waters;
security operations should not have negative impact on the shipping process like causing any kind of losses beginning from direct expenses for shipborne protective equipment, hiring security guards, insurance, double pay for crew etc. and ending with indirect charges like change of schedule, engines' wear and waste of fuel while maneuvering, etc.
That is just what commercial shipping needs, but not anti-piracy operations. Finally, there's no matter at all for shipping whether anybody would fight piracy or not and by what means total destruction or arrests with further imprisonment.
Obviously, there is a great difference between officially declared objectives and actual needs of shipping. Therefore, we estimate military activities either from position of anti-piracy or meeting shipping's requirements. Thus and so, we have two absolutely different appraisals of the military actions; and from the viewpoint of commercial shipping, effectiveness assessment of the military does not require detailed statistics the general data is quite enough.
- No problem. There are 30-50 warships of leading sea-powers permanently deployed in the region. Majority of ships form EU NAVFOR and Combined Task Force; plainly speaking, those are EU and US ships. Rest of ships sail separately; they are dispatched by India, Iran, China, Korea, Malaysia, Russia, Japan and other states. Exact amount of countries and warships is unknown and uncountable because of lack of sources. Mainly, the anti-piracy comes to escorting convoys, efforts to control at least so-called safety corridor in the Gulf of Aden, and attempts to counter piracy by other means nearby Somali seashore. Different methods are being tried, although whatever the military does, pirates successfully bypass all shags and barriers finding new countermeasures each time.
- Militarily, 50 warships is a quite awesome force. Has it affected statistics of pirate attacks somehow?
- You mean, has the military presence chilled pirates? Rather. Now they simply have to sail far into Indian Ocean or the Red Sea instead of Aden's outskirts. However, impunity in the ocean has not resulted in growing number of captured vessels, so we can say that piracy is limited with some interior circumstances. For example, they can easily hold hijacked ships along their coastline providing the crews with stuff needed for survival. Surely, the military knows quite enough of pirates' real capabilities and limitations, but such information is classified and not published. Instead of that, we're fobbed off with tales of mighty pirates' mafia wrapped around the half of the world and having informers in each big port. But the military officials, however, try to keep their mouths shut yielding the floor to various experts, politicians, and journalists.
- And what's the official statistics, after all?
- When you try to puzzle out statistic of pirate attacks happened in the first half of 2010, you find interesting things there. Let's see what says Kuala Lumpur Center, the organization responsible for world's pirate assault statistics and subordinate to London-headquartered International Maritime Bureau (IMB). There have been 196 pirate attacks registered this year worldwide, against 240 in the last year. Only 98 attacks recorded this year in Somali region (the Gulf of Aden, the Indian Ocean, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, and the Red Sea); there were 144 incidents in the first half of 2009. However, the known independent news agency Ecoterra Intl checked this information and found out that not all as simple as it sounds. During the first half of 2009 there were 86 pirate attacks off Somalia, but not 144. Moreover, according to Ecoterra Intl, as of early July 2010 NATO registered 387 incidents; not nearly all of them were officially recorded by IMB. Why do they juggle with statistics? Just to demonstrate success and effectiveness of military presence. Through years of monitoring over Somali piracy, I have accumulated my own statistics of hijacks, releases, list of ships and sailors held hostages. I got my own perception of pirates' activeness based on not only official reports but rare letters of sailors and shipowners; by the way, my statistics coincides with reports of Ecoterra Intl it has not become safer.
The military continues singing praises to itself, sometimes to the point of absurd. EU NAVFOR colorfully emblazons its successes whenever occasion offers, although commented the capture of three Thai fishing vessels like "they were captured in Indian Ocean beyond the mission zone". That's another evidence of the fact that pirates have been pushed out of the Gulf of Aden. However, not completely, as is seen from the recent hijackings. Actually, that's funny we're on top in any case. The Russian military recently said about plans to create a sort of own safety corridor extending escort routes eastward to the ocean. Such decision looks reasonable, although they were careful to give a wink that NATO warships were dawdling in their corridor around the Gulf of Aden with not an awe-inspiring performance while Russian mariners guarantee totally safe escorts. In substance, the message is correct. Though it is absolutely wrong as for actual situation and shipping's needs; moreover, it is unfair towards companions-in-arms.
- I'll explain. It is known that shipowners prefer to join convoys escorted by Indian, Chinese or Russian warships, because servicemen of these countries play so hard that mice and men are fearful even to come in sight of escorted convoys. However, reading reports of their success neither the military nor general public do not realize that it is too little for commercial shipping; it's like a drop in the ocean. How many convoys have Russians escorted through almost two years of their presence in the region? Some hundreds, barely half a thousand. Only this corridor is annually used by about 22,000 vessels sailing westward and eastward. So, Russian warships have provided safe passage through this corridor for not more than a week. Out of two years. One of my friends from Vladivostok presently runs his vessel from Europe to the Far East. All crewmen are Russians. He would fain pass the corridor being escorted by Russian warships, but hired Yemeni military for $15,000 instead. He took them in the Red Sea and dropped at Omani border in the Gulf of Aden. Why? Because one never can tell when Russian convoy sails, and you guys must know what does demurrage day means for every shipowner. He counted everything and it appeared that paid services of Yemeni military was cheaper than free Russian convoy. By the way, Yemeni guards apparently have an agreement with pirates; there was not a scintilla of pirate boats around. You see, the shipowner wanted to eliminate any kind of risk. After passing the gulf, his vessel turned northward despite stormy weather which is unpopular among pirates. Once the weather was good, the ship would either sail along Omani coastline right up to the Strait of Hormuz and then along Hindustan peninsula or hire the guards for all cruise duration.
- It turns out that effectiveness of ship escorts is low because of impossibility to provide all vessels with on-board security, so shipowners anyway bear extra charges?
- Exactly. That's the point; that is just what shipowners need not simply to pass the dangerous zone safely but to pass it with minimal losses. That is why NATO and EU naval assets criticized by the Russian military have refused convoy escorts and try to maintain security by patrolling the corridor. They seek to play the game of commercial shipping and to reduce its losses. Thus, they attempt to block Somali coast near known dens like Eyl or Harardhere. And the Russian military simply stated that their counterparts had acted ineffectively. Russians either have no notion of the situation or have problems with honesty. I feel that the Russian military does not understand what really happens and make no attempts to dig it.
This is not a war. This is peacetime and peaceful shipping which is the keystone of global economy. And the military tries to put shipping into the framework of wartime, Word War II and the Atlantic Convoys. The result is negative. The task of enhancing security needed for commercial shipping and peacetime economy has hot accomplished.
- So what the military should do then?
- Technically, they're not the ones to blame. They were not tasked to make shipping safe, they were ordered to secure it. Being clamped in those limits, they cannot do more. What would the military do if, say, they are told not to counter piracy but sweep it away or at least allowed to apply any measures to secure merchant shipping?
Obviously, total liquidation of piracy is possible only in Somali land by occupation either of the whole country or its key points on the coast. There are not too many of them. But none single country will venture upon such operation. Who wants to wear such collar burdened by criticism of progressive mankind? Global community really constitutes a mob of countries; each of them takes care exclusively of itself and won't sell its "sovereignty" even in front of a common enemy. Just like street punks. So, there are few hopes that global community will solve the problem by international land campaign.
- You mean that today's piracy is an irremediable disease?
- It would be possible to hold massive mopping-up operation by ironfisted methods, although it's hard to say what result would be. We could try to puzzle it out by the example of Indian and Russian militaries.
When I criticized hard the way Russian mariners dealt with hijackers of tanker Moscow University no matter whether they killed them or let off to die in the high sea, although I'm sure pirates were killed at once or after a while I was given hell by everyone. Even Russian defense ministry officially recognized my existence in the interview to Komsomolskaya Pravda and said all my words were poppycock. All arguments of critics came to the same thing we'll extirpate them, pirates got their lumps, no mercy, no diplomacy, we showed them who the master is, and so forth.
I can say again and couldn't care less of how community will treat this one must not do like the Russian military did. This is neither coolness nor antipiracy; it's a cheapshot dishonoring naval servicemen. This is irresponsibility for those who are supposed to be protected civilian sailors. Speaking of who the master is, pirates look better so far. Sailing their cockleshells with rusty Kalashnikovs and RPGs, pirates still remain masters of their seas. The armada of world sea-powers' most advanced warships cannot do anything to them. And such massacres do not tame pirates' temper. Honestly, not only Russians enjoy their coolness over there by tormenting helpless pirates. The coolest thugs are Indian mariners. Here is their most famous achievement fishing vessel Ekawat Nava 5 scuppered by INS Tabar in the Gulf of Aden on Nov 25, 2008.
Ekawat Nava 5 was sailing from Oman to Yemen carrying fishing tackle and equipment when it was captured by pirates 30 miles off Yemeni coast. The shipmaster managed to report to the ship's operator which transferred the message to Kuala Lumpur piracy monitoring center and then it informed the military deployed in the gulf, having attached description and photographs of Ekawat Nava 5. The ship's frequency was transmitted to military assets deployed there so they could track the vessel. A British warship responded that it was common thing the vessel had been captured and was sailing to a pirate base, there was nothing to do but waiting till pirates get on contact and demand ransom. Ekawat Nava 5 was expected to reach the pirate den in 5 days, although later on the same day the ship's signal was lost. The shipowner assumed the most logic scenario pirates found transmitter and disabled it. However, on the next day India boastfully reported of scuppered pirates' mother ship. The Indian military published pictures of a ship in flames and said pirates had opened fire first. The crew of Ekawat Nava 5 consisted of 15 men 14 Thais and 1 Cambodian. The shipowner anxiously waited for news which came 6 days later when a ship passing the gulf picked up a man not speaking English. He turned out to be Cambodian crewmember from Ekawat Nava 5 and was the only survivor. And what he told by no means was in line with India's triumphant crows.
The ship was hijacked in the morning and turned towards Somalia. Afternoons, a warship appeared near Ekawat Nava 5, and pirates lined up the crew on the top deck as a human shield. The warship sailed away but continued to follow in the wake of Ekawat Nava 5. Under cover of darkness, the ship came closer again and opened fire at the fishing vessel. The bulkhead instantly inflamed, and the crew jumped overboard into the dark sea alive with sharks. Meanwhile, pirates got on their motorboat and left the burning vessel at full speed. The warship rushed for them, although returned back after a while and again opened fire at Ekawat Nava 5. Apparently, Indian crewmen found their bearings and wanted to sink all evidence of their mistake so tragic for Thai fishermen. Only one Cambodian escaped by grabbing shipwrecks. The shipowner collected all available information and ascertained with exactitude that it was Ekawat Nava 5 which was scuppered by Indian frigate INS Tabar. Thai government did not raise a stink and claim any compensation from India.
- You think actions of the Indian military are inadequate?
- So what, we should call them tough guys then? There is a plenty of information about how hard Indian and Russian naval servicemen inspect fishing vessels in the Gulf of Aden; actually, the number of complains is almost equal. Have the cruelty and coolness of the Indian military helped much their civil seafarers and fishermen? That's the major question. Have pirates become afraid of hijacking Indian vessels or treat captured sailors better? Quite the opposite. In spring pirates immediately seized dozen of Indian dhows in a crowd. Indian sailors and fishermen are let off without water, fuel, and food in high seas after their dhows are used as pirate mother ships. Being captives, they have bad time as well. Do we want the same fate for Russian sailors?
That's what I was trying to say, but few people heard me.
- What exactly were you saying about?
- I told them that all naval forces deployed in the Gulf must either extirpate pirates or have no right to kill them alone like rabid dogs. In the latter case pirates are not afraid but get edgy and vent spleen not on the military but on civilian sailors. That is neither coolness nor antipiracy; pardon my French, it is hockey-pokey, failure to restrain temper, conscious misunderstanding that evanescent triumph over pirate gang will result in pain of innocent sailors. All right, you've killed dozen of pirates, so what? There are thousands of pirates and tens of thousands of those who desire to become pirates. Somali piracy is not an organized crime with a couple of well-known gangs consisting of confirmed bandits; that is a nationwide fact, people's occupation. Probably, they can be threatened or psychologically spavined by grim killing at sea. But this should be done by everybody but not individuals hiding from publicity. Let us be honest, Somali pirates do not kill hostages. And let us plainly admit that by doing this for many years, pirates count on some retaliatory steps of those who fight against them. They hope the military won't treat them like rabid dogs and kill thoughtlessly.
- Are such drastic measures possible?
- You mean, will the global community venture upon extirpating piracy? Absurd, definitely no. Though it has been long-standing need to show who the master is, and not only to Somali pirates
- So what is to do?
- In my opinion, only armed guard on board can protect commercial ships in piracy-risky waters. The best way is conveyer method a guard team boards a ship in point A and is gets off at point B. Technically, it is possible. Financially, it is much cheaper than to have an array of warships and task forces on station there. But as long as neither a single country nor an alliance like the EU can do that alone, such method will never work. Not only because of technical and organizational difficulties. There are some other issues. For instance, some flag states prohibit having armed guards on board their vessels. Thus and so, what we need is concord and united actions of global community. And then there would be no need to counter piracy as it would simply disappear. No fowl, no hunters.
Alas, this will never happen. There will be no radicalism, since Somali piracy is good enough for almost everybody, and losses are insensible. Not once nor twice I told about those who get benefits from piracy.
The military is also among those who sit well with piracy. Witnessing excruciation which captives have to overcome and being physically involved in what happens in the region, some servicemen and crews humanly sympathize with hostages and ready to exterminate piracy even tomorrow. But they're military people serving to the system which does not want radical solutions for piracy. It's not an urgent issue. Defense budgets have grown, and unique opportunity to participate in endless naval maneuvers appeared. That's a good chance to demonstrate own power and watch others. Fighting piracy suits the military much more then its extermination by some means.
- It turns out that the problem of piracy is insoluble, isn't it?
- Anti-piracy campaign has turned into sheer slapstick and deadlocked. Mostly, because of those who is supposed to lead this campaign all kinds of politicians and international organizations. Perhaps, the military could become a force to put "antipiracy" into motion. Some naval commanders from Britain and the U.S. (not from India, Russia, China, and other countries) make announcements from time to time as private persons saying this is not a campaign but waste of money and energies. But their statements remain unheard because too many people do not want to hear. If only commanders of ships and task units could get together and publish a notification to global community, it would be impossible to shut ears. If only they could outline the sad picture of what antipiracy turned into and offered some options, this will probably make global community sit up. But this apparently needs some other-than-military courage.
That is why Somali piracy will continue to exist unless any legal regime would finally come to power in Somalia. Who knows, even dictatorship can be established there in a couple of days. Conducting "antipiracy" mission, the global community evidently proved its impotence and showed how naked we are to any threat requiring minimal unity and refusal of egoism.