High Sea Piracy: Crisis in Aden

By Richard Whittle | June 1, 2009
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Piracy has been around for hundreds of years, but during these tough economic times, those being pirated have chosen to strike back at the robbers. The incident in early April, when a U.S. captain was taken hostage for days, inflammed the anger against these lawless people.

The guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey (CG 61), serving as flagship of U.S.-led anti-piracy Combined Task Force 151, was patrolling in the Gulf of Aden when the distress call came in. The German-owned merchant ship Courier, sailing off the north coast of Somalia en route to the United Arab Emirates with a cargo of steel, radioed that it was under attack from two skiffs packed with pirates. The attackers had fired on the Courier with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

What happened next has become nearly routine not only for U.S. Navy helicopter pilots but also those of more than a dozen other nations. As of this spring, warships from 15 countries were patrolling the Gulf of Aden to protect merchant vessels against pirates who have terrorized sea lanes near the coast of lawless Somalia for the past two years.


Most of the warships are part of two task forces operating under United Nations and European Union (EU) mandates. Others — notably those of China and Russia — have operated independently of those task forces. Chinese and Russian warships have primarily escorted merchant vessels from their own countries but have come to the aid of ships of all nations.

Whatever their mandates, all the navies involved have one thing in common: They have been relying heavily on helicopters to combat a surge of high seas piracy experts call extraordinary.

When the Courier radioed for help this past March 3, U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Grahame Dicks, along with a copilot and gunner, was already flying a regular anti-pirate patrol in one of two Sikorsky SH-60B Seahawks assigned to the Monterey. As Dicks got the order to go to the Courier’s aid, he told Rotor & Wing by telephone from deck of the Monterey a few days later, "They were a little over 50 miles away."

By the time Dicks’ Seahawk neared the Courier, the merchant ship’s captain had radioed that the attackers were fleeing. Dicks and his crew scanned with their AN/APS-124 radar until they spotted a suspicious blip, then slewed their forward-looking infrared sensor (FLIR) to the area, searching its screen for the pirate skiffs. Before long, they spotted one and headed toward it. About the same time, the German frigate Rheinland-Pfalz radioed Dicks’ Seahawk to say that its MK 88a Sea Lynx helicopter was on its way to assist the Courier and aid in pursuing the pirates. The Rheinland-Pfalz itself was en route, too, but at a top speed of 29 knots, the ship would take a while to get there.

As the German Sea Lynx arrived over the Courier, Dicks’ Seahawk caught up with the pirate skiff it had been tracking and covered it, flying high enough to stay out of range of the pirates’ AK-47s and RPGs. The skiff continued to flee, so Dicks radioed for permission from CTF 151’s commander to fire warning shots. Permission granted. Dicks’ Seahawk, usually outfitted for anti-submarine warfare, had a.50-caliber GAU-16 machine gun mounted in the aft cabin for the anti-piracy mission. The crewman fired a burst into the water. The pirates paid no heed. Their skiff kept plunging toward the coast and the Seahawk continued the pursuit.

Soon the chase had lasted long enough that the Seahawk was running low on fuel. The German Sea Lynx, after confirming that the Courier was no longer under threat, had returned to the Rheinland-Pfalz to gas up itself. Dicks considered flying back to the Monterey but was told the ship was busy boarding yet another pirate skiff, so he flew to the Rheinland-Pfalz instead. He landed on the frigate’s aft helicopter pad and took on fuel courtesy of NATO-ally Germany. "It was nice to have a German frigate there that we could just go to and get gas and not have to worry about running out of fuel," Dicks said.

The Rheinland-Pfalz’s Sea Lynx, meanwhile, had caught up with the pirate skiff the Seahawk had chased and fired warning shots of its own from its on-board 12.7mm M3M machine gun, a weapon specially installed for piracy patrols. This time, the skiff stopped. Soon German special operations troops from the Rheinland-Pfalz boarded the small boat, confiscated weapons, ladders and a large amount of fuel, and took nine pirates into custody. The Rheinland-Pfalz later delivered the would-be hijackers to Mombasa, Kenya, whose government has agreements with the EU and the United Nations to put such suspects on trial for attacks on merchant shipping.

"It was a good international effort and actually very easily coordinated, all over the radio, all real time," Dicks said.

The cooperation between the Monterey of Combined Task Force 151 and the Rheinland-Pfalz of the EU’s "Operation Atalanta" anti-piracy task force was typical of how navies with ships in the area have been working together, even those from China and Russia.

"I’ve been in the Navy 30 years. I never thought I’d be working with the Russians, the Chinese, Pakistan, India," CTF 151’s commander, Rear Admiral Terry McKnight, told the U.S. armed forces newspaper Stars & Stripes recently. "I exchange e-mails with the Chinese and the Russians. Bet you never thought that would happen."

Even Japan has sent warships to the Somali coast to escort merchant vessels that fly its flag — the first long-range deployment by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force since World War II. In late March, the guided missile destroyer Sazanami and the guided missile destroyer Samidare began escorting convoys of Japanese merchant ships through the Gulf of Aden. Each of the warships carried an SH-60K helicopter, a version of the Seahawk built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries under license from Sikorsky.

The international response stems from the fact that the high seas hijackings have driven up shipping costs through rising insurance rates and, in some cases, multimillion-dollar ransom payments. The Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea constitute one of the world’s most important maritime routes, a gateway to the Suez Canal transited annually by some 33,000 ships. According to media reports, vessels carrying about half the world’s bulk cargo and four percent of the world’s daily oil supply pass through the area each year.

The Somali pirates, bands of heavily armed young men backed by warlords and shrewd businessmen ashore, have menaced the area in spectacular fashion, capturing vessels ranging from private yachts and civilian cruise ships to a Ukrainian ship loaded with Soviet-era T-72 tanks and a Saudi oil tanker said to be the largest ship ever captured. The pirates typically attack in 15-foot speedboats, wielding AK-47s and RPGs to bring their targets to a halt and using ladders and grappling hooks to scale a hijacked vessel’s hull. Ships with a high "freeboard" — the height of the ship from the waterline to the deck — and powerful engines can often evade an attack, but others may be at the pirates’ mercy. "They tend to target your slower, low freeboard type vessels," Dicks noted.

"The merchants have taken a lot of defensive measures," Dicks said. "You’ll see ships that have fire hoses energized and are constantly spraying over the side to prevent someone from getting close to the ship. You’ll see ships that have built barriers, fences, gates and whatnot around them. They’ve become pretty inventive and are paying attention to lessons learned." Merchants vessels also rarely hesitate to call on the naval coalitions operating in the area if they see something suspicious, the Navy pilot added. When they do, helicopters are often the first responders.

The task forces are patrolling a 15-mile-wide International Recognized Transit Corridor, but at 1.1 million square miles — four times the area of Texas — the zone is simply too vast for the number of warships in the area to police adequately. Cmdr. Jane Campbell of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain has estimated 60 ships would be needed to cover the Gulf of Aden, and the pirates haven’t confined their attacks to that body of water.

The specific ships attached to the multinational coalitions formed to combat the pirates varies as vessels rotate in and out of the assignment. As of this spring, CTF 151 included two U.S. cruisers and a supply ship, a Danish command and support vessel, and a Turkish frigate. Task Force Atalanta — not to be confused with Atlanta — included one frigate each from France, Germany, Greece and Spain and an Italian corvette.

Another naval coalition created at the start of the decade to combat terrorism in the waters off the Horn of Africa, Combined Task Force 150, includes warships from France, Germany, Great Britain, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Some of CTF 150’s ships have been barred by their home countries from engaging in anti-piracy operations, but others have taken part in thwarting or responding to pirate attacks, and all have been sharing information, according to naval officials and diplomats.

Even Chinese and Russian warships, though operating independently, frequently communicate and cooperate with ships of the U.S. and EU anti-piracy task forces. They also depend on helicopters to extend the reach of their vessels.

The Russians have been using their primary anti-submarine warfare helicopter, the Kamov Ka-27 Helix, which has two counter-rotating, co-axial, three-bladed rotors and a distinctive double-finned tail. On Feb. 12, a Ka-27 based on the nuclear-powered Russian cruiser Peter the Great spotted two pirate boats approaching an Iranian fishing vessel at high speed, according to a Russian navy news release. The boats slowed when the Ka-27 drew near and the helicopter crew saw the pirates throw weapons into the sea. The Ka-27 followed the boat until the Peter the Great arrived. The cruiser’s crew took 10 Somali pirates into custody.

"The detainees possessed weapons including a G-3 rifle, an AK-47, two AKMS machine guns, two grenade-launchers and two anti-infantry grenades, and also had a GPS receiver, a ladder, 500 grams of drugs, a large amount of money, a bag of sugar and a bag of rice," the Russian navy news release said. "The detained pirates were high on drugs." The Somali pirates are often seen chewing mouthfuls of khat leaves, a stimulant widely used in their country.

China decided in December to send three warships to the area in response to pirate seizures of Chinese merchant ships. Beijing took that step — unprecedented for China — after the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution authorizing international naval forces to combat pirates at sea and, in cases where "hot pursuit" can be justified, on land. China’s initial task force included two of the country’s newest guided missile destroyers, the Wuhan and the Haikou, as well as an underway replenishment ship, the Weishanhu.

The Wuhan and Haikou each carried a Ka-28 Helix, the export version of the Russian Ka-27, and a Ka-28 from the Haikou was credited by the official Chinese Xinhua news agency with saving the Liberian-flagged Italian merchant ship Lia from pirates on February 26. After receiving an SOS from the Lia, the Haikou launched its Helix with a crew of three and a photographer on board. The Ka-28 hovered near the Italian ship and fired two flares at the suspected pirates, who turned away, Xinhua reported.

The fact that a photographer was on the Ka-28 may reflect the pride China is taking in what experts on its military say is an historic deployment, the first operational use of Chinese warships so far from home in modern times.

"Film crews have even gone on several of these missions and then they beam this back to China," said Dennis Blasko, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and author of the book "The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century," (Routledge, 2005). "They’re telling their people what’s going on," Blasko said, adding that, like last year’s Olympic Games in Beijing, the anti-piracy deployment is seen in China as a symbol of the nation’s rising status in the world.

One of the most dramatic uses of helicopters against pirates occurred in April 2008 after a dozen Somalis captured the French cruise ship Le Ponant off the tip of the Horn of Africa and anchored the vessel off the coast of Somalia, holding 30 hostages for ransom. A French navy spokesman confirmed the accuracy of an account of the incident on the Web site

Shortly after the Ponant was seized on April 4, a Seahawk helicopter from the Canadian frigate Charlestown took the hijacked vessel under surveillance, following as the pirates sailed the cruise ship toward an anchorage near Somalia. The French corvette Commandant Bouan soon caught up and followed, keeping the Ponant in sight as the pirates brought it to anchor two days later.

The Commandant Bouan, carrying 18 French navy commandos, monitored the Ponant as the pirates began ransom negotiations by satellite phone with the cruise ship’s French owner. The company that owned the Ponant was being advised by the GIGN, the elite counter-terrorism and hostage rescue unit of the French national police.

In the meantime, the French helicopter carrier Jeanne d’Arc and two other French warships, the frigate Jean Bart and the tanker Var, were dispatched to the area carrying 50 navy and 10 GIGN commandos.

On April 11, after a purported $2 million ransom was delivered, the Jean Bart picked up the hostages, who were taken to the Jeanne d’Arc in Alouette III helicopters. The pirates left the Ponant and went ashore — dumping part of their ransom into the sea because some of the bills were counterfeit, according to French news reports. Once on shore, the pirates split up and fled, chased by a French army Gazelle helicopter, two Alouette IIIs and a French navy AS 565UB Panther carrying commandos.

Guided by a radar plane, the helicopters tracked six of the pirates as they drove into the barren Somali countryside in a 4x4 vehicle. A sharpshooter aboard one of the Alouettes fired a single shot into the 4x4’s engine, stopping it cold. The hijackers tried to run away, but the other helicopters landed with their commandos, who took the pirates into custody. They packed the detainees into the Panther, which flew them to one of the ships. A few days later, the accused were taken to Paris to stand trial.

Five months after the Ponant operation, French commandos captured six more pirates and killed one who had hijacked a sailing yacht, the Carre d’As, on its way from Australia to the Suez Canal. The pirates had held a couple from French Polynesia who were sailing the yacht hostage for two weeks, demanding a ransom of $2 million and the release of the six Somalis captured in the Ponant incident. The French government has released no details of that rescue, but according to press reports, the couple were freed by frogmen of France’s Commando Hubert, who approached the yacht from underwater.

More recently, the pirates have shifted their tactics, using captured fishing trawlers as "mother ships" to carry their skiffs to attacks on targets hundreds of miles offshore. Last September 25, pirates seized the Belize-flagged, Ukrainian-owned ship Motor Vessel Faina about 200 miles off the coast of Puntland, the northern province of Somalia. The Faina was carrying 33 Soviet-era T-72 tanks, grenade launchers and ammunition that Ukraine’s defense minister said had been sold to Kenya.

The destroyer USS Howard was sent to find the Faina as the pirates sailed it to the Somali coast and an SH-60B helicopter from the ship located it. The Faina’s crew included three Russians, including the ship’s captain, who died of heart failure a few days after the hijacking. Moscow sent the frigate Neustrashimy with marine commandos but no rescue operation was attempted. The Faina remained anchored in the port of Hobyo — carefully watched by U.S. and other warships to be sure the T-72s weren’t offloaded — until February 5, when the owner paid what according to news accounts was a $3.2 million ransom dropped to the pirates by parachute.

The April 8 hijacking of the U.S. cargo ship Maersk Alabama in the Indian Ocean some 200 miles south of the Somali coast was seen by experts as a sign the international naval presence in the Gulf of Aden was having its intended effect there, forcing the pirates to other waters. The dramatic rescue of the cargo ship’s captain on April 12, when U.S. Navy snipers allegedly firing from the fantail of the destroyer USS Bainbridge killed three pirates who had held the Maersk Alabama’s captain hostage in a lifeboat for five days, was hailed as a victory for the anti-piracy campaign.

As subsequent hijackings have shown, however, defeating the pirates at sea is neither easy nor a long term solution to the epidemic. Experts agree that Somalia’s pirates are a product of nearly two decades of anarchy in their country that have ravaged its economy and given the young men who turn to piracy few other options.

"The ultimate solution for piracy is on land," Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, commander of U.S. naval forces in the Middle East, told reporters at the Pentagon the day after the Maersk Alabama’s captain was rescued. "Piracy around the world stems from activity where there is lawlessness, lack of governance, economic instability; things of that nature. And wherever you have that, you’re going to have criminal activity at sea."

Until a solution on land is found, though, part of the solution at sea will be helicopters, said Michael Frodl, a Washington shipping and insurance consultant. "If you look at nearly every case of military response to pirate attacks," Frodl said, "it’s always the helicopters that show up first."

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