Indian naval forces have shut down two Somali pirate “mother ships” in as many weeks operating close to the subcontinent, highlighting the increased range and sophistication of this scourge of the seas.
A new concept, mother ship is the term given to a hijacked oceangoing vessel that the pirates are using to extend their operations and avoid counterpiracy efforts closer to Somalia. Both of the mother ships off the coast of India were Thai fishing vessels captured by pirates in April 2010.
While India’s Navy scored two tactical victories, maritime experts say a more robust international strategy is also needed in the face of the pirates’ proven ability to adapt under military pressure. The problem has already cost governments and businesses an estimated $7 billion to $12 billion a year and is raising costs along vital sea lanes between Europe and Asia.
“It’s a sign of the situation worsening,” says P.K. Ghosh, a maritime expert at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “While the numbers of incidents are going down, the [pirates’] sophistication and their strategic reach are increasing dramatically.”
Until recently, pirates had mostly used skiffs and small whaling boats operating close to shore to hijack ships for ransom. The mother ship idea – which uses the hijacked ship as a floating base for the skiffs to launch further attacks – took off in November, says Dirk Steffen, a director at the Hamburg, Germany, office of Risk Intelligence.
“They have used hijacked ships before in support roles,” says Mr. Steffen. “But in terms of using mother ships in an offensive role, not just as a pure support platform … that is new.”
Mother ships tend to be fishing vessels, small tankers, and cargo ships. The hijacked crew is kept on board. They are needed, says Steffen, because the pirates often don’t know how to work larger ships, and because they can be used as human shields in encounters with navies.
What happens to the crew
The captive crew seems to have factored little into the Indian encounters.
On Jan. 28, Indian forces responded to a Mayday from a container ship near the Lakshadweep Islands, which are Indian islands just west of the subcontinent’s tip. Upon arrival, Indian forces watched the two skiffs flee and get hoisted onboard the Prantalay 14, a Thai fishing vessel now confirmed to be a pirate mother ship. An Indian attack ship retaliated after taking fire from the Prantalay, setting the mother ship on fire. The Indians rescued 20 fishermen and 15 pirates from the ocean.
The second incident occurred Sunday, about 100 nautical miles off the Lakshadweep Islands. This time, fleeing skiffs led Indian naval ships to the Prantalay 11. After a brief exchange of fire, the pirates raised a white flag and Indian forces took charge of 28 pirates and 24 fishermen.
A third Thai fishing vessel taken in April, the Prantalay 12, is still at large.
Mother ships concern experts for several reasons
First, it shows pirates are able to get agreement among their many investors back in Somalia to use a ship for longer-term operations rather than immediate ransom efforts.
The mother ship model also greatly expands what pirates can do at sea. They can carry tools for hacking into fortified crew cabins. They can also carry drums of extra fuel, which were apparently what caught fire in the Prantalay 14’s final moments. No longer can hunted ships so easily outrun pirate skiffs that run out of fuel after 60 to 90 minutes, says Steffen.
Piracy used to be limited for much of the year by two major monsoon seasons. Now the pirates can be at sea during the monsoon and sail closer to India where the weather is less rough.
Most important, however, pirates can now travel to locations where there are fewer international forces and where ship operators are less vigilant. More than 40 ships from different countries are deployed in the Gulf of Aden to crack down on piracy. Pirate activity has decreased there but risen to the east near India, and south near Tanzania.
Ship insurers used to stop charging premiums at the 65th meridian east, a line running north-south through the Indian Ocean and Pakistan. Companies would instruct ships to sail just east of the line to avoid the insurance, prompting a string of pirate attacks there, says Steffen. In December, the insurance risk line moved east to the Indian coast.
At the moment, there are eight to 10 known mother ships in use, but probably double that when taking into account unknown ships, says Steffen. Some 500 seafarers from more than 18 countries were being held hostage at the end of 2010, according to Oceans Beyond Piracy, a private foundation based in Colorado.
Busy shipping lanes between Europe, the Gulf, and East Asia pass by the Lakshadweep Islands. The rerouting of ships to avoid Somali pirates is already costing $2.4 billion to $3 billion a year, according to a new report from Oceans Beyond Piracy.
The international naval operations cost another $2 billion, the group estimates. The Indian Navy is beefing up its presence in the Lakshadweep Islands, upgrading facilities in Kavaratti, and building a new station in Minicoy. The Navy is touting its early successes, saying that piracy fell 75 percent around the islands since December, one month after stepping up patrols there.
Most experts, however, say that actually rooting out piracy will have to involve solving some of its driving forces on land in Somalia.
“What the military effort, in a sense, is doing, is suppressing the issue,” says Dr. Ghosh. He argues that naval operations, while important, should be a secondary focus. “The problem can only be sorted out if it is tackled from land, otherwise my prediction is that this piracy issue will spiral totally out of control and countries will find it extremely difficult to handle it.”