Less than half a percent of the ships that transit the Gulf of Aden are attacked by pirates, and of those attacks, less than half are successful.
That statistic, reported during a Senate panel Tuesday in Washington, offers one reason why shipping firms have been unenthusiastic about using armed guards to thwart pirate attacks, leaving the problem to be solved by the US and other militaries.
"Many in the merchant shipping industry continue to assume, unrealistically, that military forces will always be present to intervene if pirates attack. As a result, many have so far been unwilling to invest adequately in basic security measures that would render their ships far less vulnerable," said Michele Flournoy, the Pentagon's chief of policy, at the hearing.
As with the "asymmetrical threat" posed by insurgents on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, experts have been taken aback by how quickly a small band of pirates can successfully attack large vessels with millions of dollars worth of cargo aboard. One answer is for shippers to provide for their own security, employing armed security crews to man each ship.
But those crews can be expensive and the shippers don't necessarily want to spend the money to hire them. And despite the recent high-profile pirate attacks, shippers recognize the odds are in their own favor and essentially see any ransom they may have to pay as the cost of doing business.
About 33,000 ships sail through the Gulf of Aden each year, and there were just 122 attacks in 2008, according to Pentagon officials at Tuesday's congressional hearing. Of those attacks, only 42 were successful.
Shipping officials also say that arming the ships could create an arms race. "Our belief is that arming merchant sailors may result in the acquisition of ever more lethal weapons and tactics by the pirates, a race that merchant sailors cannot win," said John Clancey, chairman of Maersk, Inc., which owns the Alabama, during another recent Washington hearing.
Shipping firms are also constrained by legal rules pertaining to port entries for armed private security, as well as insurance issues. Using private security firms is "the most controversial issue that we have right now," said James Caponiti, top official at the US Maritime Administration, at the hearing.
Still, some private security firms have offered their services. XE, the firm formerly known as Blackwater USA, is reportedly in negotiations to contract with shippers to provide a "security escort service" in the Gulf of Aden with their own 183-foot ship called the MacArthur.
In the meantime, Aegis, the British security firm, is offering a land-based sensor system that could help monitor pirate ship movements. Many experts believe the key lies in targeting the "mother ships" that are used as a base of operations, sometimes more than 400 miles out at sea.
The Pentagon is looking at what role the US should play. Last month, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, charged a group of officers to look at options for not only for the US military but also other government agencies, including the Departments of State and Transportation. On Monday, the group presented an initial set of findings that included offense- and defense-related solutions for ships at sea, says a military official, as well as solutions that could be effective on shore.
That includes the possibility of a combat action – one of the least desirable alternatives – as well as diplomatic and economic measures.
Military solutions have partly worked. The presence of some 28 nations patrolling the region has pushed some pirates out from the Gulf of Aden back to the Indian Ocean, says Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical intelligence for SRATFOR, an intelligence firm.
But most experts agree that military solutions alone won't do it. The root causes of piracy stem from poverty, lack of opportunity and lawlessness, things the military simply can't address on its own.
"Piracy, although generally considered a scourge of the world's oceans, has its origins on land and has usually been defeated on land as a result of political and economic changes that have evolved over time," said Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, who chaired Tuesday's Senate panel hearing on piracy in Washington. "Ultimately, the solution resides ashore, not just through action on the open seas."
In the meantime, American officials are urging shippers to take their own precautions to keep the pirates at bay. They run the gamut from rolling up ship ladders, to keeping the perimeter of ships well-lit, to installing barbed wire fences around the sides of the deck.
Nearly 80 percent of thwarted attacks were the result of ships employing some kind of defensive measure, including armed guards, according to Pentagon officials.
"They need to do some things on their own," says one military official. "Just like ... when you drive through a bad neighborhood, you roll up the windows and lock the doors."