Aaron Willschick argues that despite Operation Ocean Shield’s perceived success in combating Somali maritime piracy, the reduction in pirate attacks may have less to do with NATO action and more to do with private security firms.
As NATO has redefined its role as a security alliance over the last two decades, it has increasingly elevated the importance of maritime security as part of its overall organizational goals. A major component of this greater focus has been Operation Ocean Shield (OOS), NATO’s primary contribution to combating piracy. Since 2009, NATO ships have been patrolling waters off of the Horn of Africa as part of OOS. Their mission is to contribute to international efforts to counter maritime piracy, a major long-term security concern in the region for many years. OOS works closely with European Union and United States naval forces and national actors operating against piracy in the region. The operation is specifically targeted at the waters surrounding Somalia, perhaps the most prevalent area for piracy in the world. NATO forces conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions to verify the activity of shipping off the coast of Somalia, separating out legitimate maritime traffic from suspected pirate vessels.
As a result of the fact that NATO has largely regarded OOS as a success that has reduced instances of maritime piracy, the North NATO Council last year extended the operation to 2014. In analyzing the success of the OOS in preventing pirate attacks, a simple look at the figures indicates that the Operation has been successful in its primary endeavour. Globally, pirate attacks reached a five year low in 2012 with 297 ships attacked compared to 439 in 2011. The number of people taken hostage onboard also fell drastically, from 802 in 2011 to 585 last year. Much of the reason for this drop can be attributed to a massive reduction in Somali piracy. In Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, just 75 ships reported attacks in 2012 compared with 237 in 2011 accounting for 25 percent of instances worldwide. The number of Somali hijackings was halved from 28 in 2011 to 14 in 2012.
On the surface, the OOS seems like a very successful NATO-led operation. The number of pirate attacks has descended by a huge margin and it has only taken one year to observe considerable results. However, a closer examination of the issue uncovers many potential difficulties with tackling Somali piracy. There is still much indecision over the best way to deal with the problem and the long-term effectiveness of the current methods.
This year’s decline in attacks has largely been attributed to the increased use of private security firms on board ships. Despite the success of this tactic, concerns have been raised about its long-term effectiveness. The use of private security guards has only recently won the approval of European governments and many ship owners remain uncomfortable with the prospect of an armed and unregulated presence on board their ships. There have been accusations of armed guards indiscriminately firing at fishermen off the coast of Yemen and industry bodies such as the International Chamber of Commerce International Maritime Bureau do not see the use of these guards as a long-term solution. Demands for naval personnel to be privately contracted out to commercial companies which would essentially see naval officers being used as private security guards has created great concerns for both military personnel and lobby groups.
If these claims are true then the reduction in pirate attacks may have very little to do with NATO counter-piracy action and Operation Ocean Shield after all. It may merely be a coincidence that NATO has launched OOS and Somali piracy has become less prevalent. It is not a simple task to determine what the primary reason is, but what can be said is that NATO action is likely only a part of it. What is more important in this instance is that there is a lack of agreement on how best to confront Somali piracy and piracy in general. There is a general consensus that the most effective long-term counter-piracy method would be to pull Somalia out of poverty which is at this point only an ambitious goal that is at best far in the future. At this point in time, Operation Ocean Shield has yielded some positive results, but the issue of Somali piracy is still very much prevalent and any success in dealing with this massive problem is likely due to a number of different factors that have little to do with NATO action.