Let’s look at pirate economics:
In the first three months of this year, Somali pirates attacked 97 ships (and captured 15), compared to 35 attacked in the first three months of 2010. Last year, pirates got paid over $200 million in ransom. Most of that was taken by the pirate gang leaders, local warlords and Persian Gulf negotiators who deal with the shipping companies. But for the pirates who took the ship, then helped guard it for months until the money was paid, the take was still huge. Pirates who actually boarded the ship tend to receive at least $150,000 each, which is ten times what the average Somali man makes over his entire lifetime. Even the lowest ranking member of the pirate gang gets a few thousand dollars per ransom.
The general rule is that half the ransom goes to the financiers, the gang leaders and ransom negotiators. About a quarter of the money goes to the crew that took the ship, with a bonus for whoever got on board first. The pirates who guard the ship and look after the crew gets ten percent, About ten percent goes to local clans and warlords, as protection money (or bribes).
There is no shortage of eager young Somalis seeking to join the pirate gangs. Most will not get much more than weapons, food, and the use of a speed boat. If they want to make more, they have to capture a ship and hold it for ransom. The dozen or so pirate gangs, led by men who were local warlords or tribal leaders, get really rich. There are plenty of local warlords and merchants who will finance new pirate gangs, in return for up to 50 percent of whatever that gang gets in ransoms over a certain period. The money men will advance several hundred thousand dollars, often selling needed weapons and equipment, as well as providing technical advice. For the pirates, it’s a business.
There are three basic strategies for dealing with pirates:
You can do what is currently being done, which is patrolling the Gulf of Aden and shooting only when you see speedboats full of gunmen threatening a merchant ship. The rule appears to be that you fire lots of warning shots, and rarely fire at the pirates themselves. This approach has saved a few ships from capture, and the more warships you get into the Gulf, the more pirate attacks you can foil. But it won’t stop the pirates from capturing ships. Establishing a similar anti-piracy patrol off the east coast of Africa would cost over half a billion dollars a year, at least.
A second approach is to be more aggressive. That is, your ships and helicopters shoot (pirates) on sight and shoot to kill. Naturally, the pirates will hide their weapons (until they are in the act of taking a ship), but it will still be obvious what a speedboat full of “unarmed” men are up to. You could take a chance (of dead civilians and bad publicity) and shoot up any suspicious speedboat, or larger mother ship. Some of the pirates would probably resort to taking some women and children with them. Using human shields is an old custom, and usually works against Westerners. More pirate attacks will be thwarted with this approach, but the attacks will continue, and NATO will be painted as murderous bullies in the media.
The third option is to go ashore and kill or capture all the pirates, or at least as many as you can identify. Destroy pirate boats and weapons. This is very dangerous, because innocent civilians will be killed or injured, and the property of non-pirates will be damaged. The anti-piracy forces will be condemned in some quarters for committing atrocities. There might even be indictments for war crimes. There will be bad publicity. NATO will most likely avoid this option too. The bottom line is that the pirate attacks, even if they took two or three times as many ships as last year, would not have a meaningful economic impact on world shipping. Total cost to shipping companies (ransoms, extra fuel, security equipment and services) is over $5 billion a year.
For example, the international anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden costs $300 million a year, a fraction of a percent of the defense budgets of the nations involved. Politicians and bureaucrats can stand that kind of pain, and will likely do so and refrain from doing anything bold in Somalia.