Sunday, April 12, 2009

Captain Richard Phillips Rescue: Final Thoughts

The world was delighted to hear the wonderful news today that the Maersk Alabama's captain, Richard Phillips, was rescued by elements of the U.S. Navy, who not only killed three of the four Somalian pirates holding Phillips, but captured the surviving pirate and rescued the heroic captain, who exchanged himself for his 19-man crew earlier in the week when the Alabama was first boarded by pirates.

Although the U.S. Government is to be commended for its actions in rescuing Philiips, the US Navy no doubt was being held back from Wednesday to Saturday. Only when it became probable that the pirates might be successful in taking Phillips to the Somalian shoreline, was action taken. Clearly, the U.S. was taking a risk that the pirates might well execute Phillips at any time during his captivity.

Now that the incident has had a happy ending, we still need to be mindful of the fact that the U.S. has not been nearly as proactive as the French government has been regarding maritime piracy, as demonstrated by several recent incidents whereby French commandoes engaged in several operations against Somali pirates; in one instance entering a village in Somalia itself where they captured six pirates and recovered ransom money.

Although there are relatively few U.S.-flagged merchant ships operating in waters frequented by pirates when compared to the ships of other nations, the U.S. and American shipping owners need to be far more deliberate in their efforts in surveilling suspicious boats and having security watches posted 24/7 than they have in the past. Whenever you have a valuable vessel worthy of being taken over by pirates, you need a security plan and response resources commensurate with that threat. One question that no one has answered yet is "How did these pirates get aboard the Alabama to begin with, given the vessel's freeboard (the distance of the water to the uppermost deck), which is substantial?

While there has been far too much discussion of handing an act of piracy after it has occurred, the really important issue is what security vulnerability led the pirates to be boarded 300 miles from land?

In April of this year, French commamndoes conducted a rescue operation on the Tanit, on which five French citizens were aboard, after the yacht was boarded by Somalian pirates in the Indian Ocean. Enroute to Zanzibar, the captain of the Tanit, Florent Lemacon, encountered a French frigate that was on anti-piracy patrols, who urged Lemacon to discontinue the group's voyage to Zanzibar. When French commandoes attempted to rescue Lemacon's party, they killed two pirates and captured three others. The French government has indicated that Lemacon may have been killed during the rescue in a "friendly fire" incident. That being said, the French have taken a much more hard-line approach to neutralizing piracy than the U.S.

There is now talk of the U.S. Government trying the pirate captured during the rescue of Captain Phillips. Unfortunately, this pirate is 16 years of age. Hence, if he is sentenced to life imprisonment, American taxpayers are likely to have the privilege of spending $2.3 million to house and safeguard a criminal that may live in a U.S. prison until age 70. Justice for whom?

Clearly, it is time to assign armed security teams aboard high-value vessels and institute 360-degree comprehensive electronic and visual surveillance of vessels that are underway and in port. Far too many politically correct pundits are offering explanations why these measures cannot be used. In the meantime, unchecked piracy continues. Reality check: Since 1999, 3,200 sailors have been kidnapped by pirates, 500 have been injured and 160 have been killed.

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