Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Judicious Use Of Force Against Pirates

Amidst all the hoopla about Christian extremists planning to burn Korans, some may have missed today's news about the boarding by US Marines of a hijacked vessel off the Somali coast.

Two dozen members of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit's Maritime Raid Force boarded the M/V Magellan Star just before dawn this morning (local time). Suspected pirates had taken control of the freighter yesterday; her eleven crew managed to get themselves into a safe room after sending out word of the situation. In response, elements of CTF 151 (the maritime counter-piracy force in the region) were dispatched, including a Turkish frigate and the American warships USS Dubuque and USS Princeton. The Marine raiders aboard the Dubuque then prepared and executed an operation to board the Magellan Star and free the crew.

Nine suspects were apprehended by the members of 15th MEU, in what is the first instance in that region in which American forces have undertaken such an operation with a commercial vessel seized by pirates. No injuries have been reported.

The Force Recon platoon commander ("Blue Collar 6") during this incident is none other than USMC Captain Alexander Martin, whom I have mentioned in a few earlier posts (see here and here, for instance). He posted a short item on the incident today on the USNI Blog, which is worth noting:

"We got word that the pirates wanted to stay on and fight - it was funny b/c when we came alongside and they saw us board and rush the superstructure, you could see the look change in their eyes...they didn't want to play'd be proud of the men today, they represented America with honor. It didn't need to be a bloodless day (for the pirates) but it was..."

Actually, I'd say that the raiders from 15th MEU represented more than just America today. They also represented the larger international community who are trying to work together to deal with maritime criminal acts. And this is important to mariners around the world, because it shows that seafarers are not alone when it comes to being predated upon by pirates.

The boarding of a hijacked vessel by military assets is fraught with dangers, for the raiders, the crew and the pirates. Past incidents have seen such endeavors end badly (such as happened with the yacht Tanit last year). Still, I would argue that today's incident shows that professionals, trained in counter-piracy operations, can do a far more effective job of dealing with these situations than some of the other options floated out there (such as arming mariners or embarking private security assets). The skill sets of teams such the 15th MEU allowed for a successful operation without the loss of any lives - military, civilian or criminal.

Is a permanent, international counter-piracy raiding force, willing to board vessels, take on pirates and risk their own lives to safeguard civilians the way to go? Well, we do it on land all the time. They're called police. It's part of the process of containing and deterring criminal activities. Not the whole solution, but an important element. And, no, raiders like the 15th MEU cannot be everywhere. But the threat they pose to pirates has risen dramatically as a result of today's events.

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