Gunners Mate 1st Class Robert E. Lambert fires a .50 caliber machine gun during a live fire exercise aboard the guided-missile cruiser Vella Gulf in the Mediterranean Sea. Vella Gulf is deployed as part of the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group supporting maritime security operations in the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of responsibility. (MC2 JASON R. ZALASKY / NAVY)
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NORFOLK, Va. — Sailors will soon be back in the pirate-hunting business again, following Tuesday's United Nations resolution authorizing aggressive military action against pirates bases in Somalia, according to the top Navy admiral in the Middle East.
The resolution gives militaries the go-ahead to conduct air and shore attacks against pirate bases. The resolution, coupled with plans to create a joint U.S.-European pirate court in Kenya to prosecute hijackers, lay the groundwork for the new naval action, said 5th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Bill Gortney.
"We're going to aggressively go after these pirates" once the judicial system is in place, Gortney said in a telephone interview Friday. "The sailors need to know that the international community, the international governments are working it really hard" to put the legal framework in place.
Whether that — along with the U.N. resolution — translates into hostile boardings, airstrikes on pirate enclaves or covert take-downs in the dark of night remains the subject of a revised playbook now in the works at the Pentagon.
"What are the rules of engagement? What are the collateral damage limits? What are the positive identification limits?" Gortney asked. "There are a whole litany of things that have to occur."
This year has seen 40 successful hijackings, including the capture of a Ukrainian freighter with a load of Soviet-era tanks and a Saudi supertanker filled with 2 million barrels of crude oil. Fourteen ships and some 281 mariners are still being held for millions in ransom money.
Until now, the Navy has been hamstrung by international laws and rules of engagement that allow sailors to use force only if they catch pirates in the act of taking over a ship, or if Navy ships are fired upon. The 1.1 million square miles off the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden has given pirates in small boats vast swaths of unpatrolled water from which to launch attacks.
In the past few weeks, Gortney has counseled shipping companies to arm themselves and take defensive measures because coalition ships can't be everywhere at once.
"There's no downside to being a pirate right now. It pays pretty well. And it's pretty much risk-free for them," Gortney said Friday. "It's not going to be that way once the international community provides us the mechanism, the tool we really need, which is to hold them accountable."
Those changes went into motion Tuesday with the U.N. passage of the U.S.-sponsored resolution. According to the State Department, the resolution "authorizes states cooperating with the Somali Transitional Federal Government to extend counter-piracy efforts to include potential operations in Somali territorial land and air space, to suppress acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea."
Maritime forces already have U.N. permission to pursue suspected pirates inside the international 12-mile boundary into Somali waters. The new measure gives the green light to strike on land in from the air.
The second piece of the puzzle — where to put the pirates once they're captured — also has made pirate-hunting difficult for U.S. forces.
As it stands now, warships have no place to drop pirates off for prosecution once they've been captured. When Danish sailors captured pirates earlier this year, they disarmed the pirates and left them on the beach in Somalia in what's being called a "catch-and-release program." British forces worked out a deal in November to put captured pirates into Kenyan custody and now both countries have an agreement to continue the arrangement.
"Nations are very wary of taking pirates onboard their ships," said Lord West, British undersecretary of state for security and counterterrorism, in an Associated Press report. "It is extremely difficult — where can you put them — if you're not going back to your home country, and even going back to your home country causes immense problems in terms of legal prosecutions."
Gortney said the legal system of a regional nation, likely Kenya, will end up providing that "tool" the coalition navies need to act more forcefully.
"When that happens we're really going to move out and aggressively go after this problem," he said. "And it will no longer be good to be a pirate, because you'll do time."
However, the upcoming legal agreements, along with the U.N. resolution permitting air- and land-based military action, do not mean it will be open season on pirates. As a naval aviator for 32 years, Gortney said he is very conscious of potential consequences when "kinetic" solutions are sought.
"We do not want collateral damage. We do not want innocents being hurt," he said, noting the U.N. resolution is now being put into a U.S. military template establishing requirements, such as rules of engagement and positive identification.
"The U.N. resolution gives us more authority to operate ashore. Those authorities will be operationalized, and they'll trickle down to me, probably with a lightning bolt," he said.
Likewise, the judicial framework being crafted by American and European Union authorities will make capturing pirates a law enforcement action, forcing sailors to be as meticulous as crime scene investigators.
"As we go roll up these pirates, when we get the judicial system [in place], we'll need to make sure we adhere to the rules of evidence," Gortney said. "We'll have to make sure our sailors are prepared to get that evidence so we can get a conviction."
Today there are warships from the U.S., U.K., Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Malaysia, Turkey, India, Saudi Arabia, Greece and Russia patrolling off the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden. The Chinese government has announced it, too, will be sending a warship into the same waters to protect shipping bound for its ports.
"I think civilized societies just can't tolerate criminal activities that are flaunting the rule of law," Gortney said. "It's just not right and we know the ultimate cause [is conditions in] Somalia."