Modern Pirates are High Tech and Dangerous
To most Canadians, the word “pirate” conjures images of hooked prosthetics, mad swashbuckling and swarthy beards. However, piracy on the high seas is a very real threat in the 21st century. With incidents of piracy growing 10 per cent in 2007 alone, more and more seafarers are learning the hard way that pirates remain alive, well and extremely dangerous.
In an effort to show its power, increase its strategic reach and combat piracy on the high seas, a NATO fleet recently circumnavigated the African continent for the first time ever.
The fleet dispatched for the exploratory policing mission was NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 1, a six-ship complement comprising American, Canadian, Dutch, Danish, Portuguese and German vessels.
Canada’s contribution to the expeditionary fleet was HMCS Toronto, one of Canada’s 12 Halifax-class frigates. Weighing 5,000 tons and carrying a crew of 235, the frigate is among the largest, most powerful, and most versatile ships in the Canadian navy.
Powered by twin diesel engines, the Toronto is armed with advanced sensors and an array of rockets, naval guns and torpedoes, rounded out by a compliment of smaller boats used for close contact and boarding. During this trip, the Toronto sailed without a Sea King helicopter, something the ship’s captain says reduced its effectiveness.
In particular, the fleet set its sights on two of the hottest piracy spots in the world: the coasts of Nigeria and Somalia.
Rough with a Side of Ransom
“Around the world today, pirates are a very serious problem,” says Lt.-Cmdr. Angus Topshee, the Toronto’s second-in-command.
Riding in small boats and armed with rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and even shoulder-launched missiles, pirates are intimidating interlocutors, Lt.-Cmdr. Topshee says.
With these new weapons, these bandits are stalking larger and larger prey; in 2005, pirates off Somalia attacked a massive luxury cruise liner with at least three rocket-propelled grenades in addition to small arms.
With shipping traffic on the rise worldwide, Lt.-Cmdr. Topshee says, pirates from lawless parts of the world are cashing in with kidnapping and ransom schemes. They will, he says, seize whole ships—including crew and cargo—and wait for payday. The going rate these days, he says, can be as high as $1,000,000 per ship, plus ransom for crewmembers.
After seizing a ship, bandits will take it back to the lawless shores of a country like Nigeria or Somalia. Here, Lt.-Cmdr. Topshee says, the ships are out of reach of international forces, as chasing them into foreign waters would be a violation of international law.
There are a number of reasons why the host governments don’t act, he says.
“They may be getting a cut from the profit…and it’s quite possible the government is not powerful enough to stop it,” he says. “There are any number of reasons, but at the end of the day, there’s no action being taken.”
The International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur reports that attacks on ships rose from 239 in 2006, to 263 for 2007.
“At the same time,” the report says, “pirates and robbers boarding vessels were better armed and more brazen in assaulting and injuring crew members, with a 35 per cent increase reported in the number of incidents involving guns, with 64 crew injured or assaulted, compared with 17 in 2006.”
Chocolate and Cigarettes
The decision to embark on the first time patrol mission was made at the 2006 NATO summit in Riga.
“Maritime security, ensuring the safe passage of shipping, and supporting a co-ordinated international approach to protect energy supplies are high priorities for NATO,” said NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at the time.
Or, as Lt.-Cmdr. Topshee puts it, “insecurity here costs us more at the pumps back home.”
HMCS Toronto skipper Cmdr. Stephen Virgin adds that the voyage was done in part “to prove we could do it.”
“[The aim was] to go far outside the normal area of operations of NATO,” he says. After the 9/11 attacks that set off the war in Afghanistan, he says, “the feeling is that the next crisis could happen anywhere, anytime.”
Thus, the fleet sailed on July 30, 2006 to complete the 12,500 nautical mile journey.
During the voyage, the fleet sailed at a distance of 12 to 15 miles off the African coast, just beyond the limits of sovereign national waters.
The NATO fleet did not inform African nations it would soon be on the horizon. This, Lt.-Cmdr. Topshee says, was an intentional move meant to “keep options open.”
“International law is built on precedent,” he says. “So if NATO creates a precedent where we’re going to inform countries, we’re going to operate off their coastline, over time that precedent actually becomes a requirement.”
The sailors described the mission similar to that of “policemen walking the beat.” In small boats and armed with rifles, the NATO crews interacted with local traders and fishermen, collecting information and boarding nine suspicious vessels.
Lt.-Cmdr. Topshee says when meeting local seafarers, they would assume a non-threatening posture. Canadian sailors would pass out sodas and chocolate bars as goodwill gestures. While welcome, he says, the Canadian fare was received with a bit less enthusiasm than the cigarettes and alcohol provided by the Danish crews.
Unsurprisingly, piracy in the two global hotspots—the Gulf of Guinea, off Nigeria, and the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia—calmed to a standstill when the fleet sailed in.
Cmdr. Virgin says that based on this trial, he estimates that a force of 10 ships would have to be dedicated to these areas to end pirate activity.
Seeking Future Partners
Another goal of the circumnavigation was to gain a sense of how NATO forces would be received, and which countries could be potential allies for the future, the sailors say.
The Nigerian Navy was perhaps the most aggressive force they encountered.
Lt.-Cmdr. Topshee says the Nigerians “were downright irate” when the fleet pulled in to view. “There was real concern they might take action against us.”
Fortunately, other countries were more hospitable.
Ghanaian naval forces, who patrol their waters in American ships from the Second World War, were interested and co-operative.
“Ghana may be a potential partner for operations in the future,” Lt.-Cmdr. Topshee says.
The most welcome reception was in Cape Town, where the fleet refueled and participated in exercises with the South African navy.
“They have a very powerful navy, on the up-and-up,” says Lt.-Cmdr. Topshee. “They are very interested in participating in global security”
For the visit, Canada’s High Commissioner to South Africa, Ruth Archibald, organized tours of the Toronto for dignitaries and diplomats. Canadian businesspeople also used the opportunity to sell instruments and equipment—the same as those used on the Toronto—to the South African navy.
The two-month voyage ended in the Mediterranean, where the fleet patrolled and investigated ships with terrorist links.
Cmdr. Virgin says Standing Maritime Group 1 could deploy next year to conduct similar operations in the South Pacific. Here, in the Straits of Malacca, piracy is declining but remains a persistent problem.