Armed only with grenade launchers and automatic weapons, Somali pirates are giving the modern shipping industry a run for its money. This year alone, pirates have attacked well over 100 ships passing through the Gulf of Aden that divides the Somali and Yemeni coasts. Thirty-five ships are being held for ransom, meaning at least 200 crew members are hostage. Millions have been paid to free countless more ships at an average cost of roughly $1 million per vessel. Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, NATO, India, and Russia have all sent ships to patrol the watersand the European Union has launched its own operation. On Dec. 2, the U.N. Security Council extended a mandate allowing those vessels to use all necessary means to quash the piracy.
Despite all these efforts, Somali pirates have only gotten bolder. In November, they captured their biggest vessel yeta Saudi oil tanker carrying 2 million barrels of oil. Even more impressive, the tanker was 420 nautical miles off the coast when seizedmuch farther out than the 250-nautical-mile limit that the International Maritime Bureau recommends sailing outside of.
Why the difficulty eliminating the scourge? Foreign Policy's Elizabeth Dickinson turned to retired Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, a master of military grand strategy, for his take on cleaning up the Somali coast. Van Riper, a decorated Vietnam veteran, famously trounced U.S. forces in a war game in 2002 using such unconventional techniques as broadcasting attacks from mosque loudspeakers and using motorcyclists rather than radios as messengers. Here's how Van Riper would take on the Somali pirates.
Foreign Policy: During the Millennium Challenge war game of 2002, while playing the Red team opposing U.S. forces, you used unconventional tactics to communicate and strike by surprise, eventually sinking a U.S. flotilla. Drawing from this experience, as well as conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, why is it that these guerrilla strategies can catch allied forces so off guard?
Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper: What were really talking about is what kind of methods folks might use that are unconventional. You struggle with words because to the person doing it, its not unorthodox, irregular, any of those things; its very normal. If you think in history, the Japanese didnt think that kamikaze pilots were unconventional, but the U.S. did and the British did. The insurgents dont think that IEDs [improvised explosive devices] are irregular or asymmetrical. Its in the eye of the beholder. I think [the tactics] youre seeing with many of these piratesits not something theyve done deliberately with relation to more modern nationsits what they do normally.
FP: What is it like to be fighting enemies like these pirates who are thinking differently than you? How do you have to think differently about your own strategy?
PVR: What we tend to do is look toward the enemy. Were only looking one way: from us to them. But the good commanders take two other views. They mentally move forward and look back to themselves. They look from the enemy back to the friendly, and they try to imagine how the enemy might attack them. The third [way] is to get a birds-eye view, a top-down view, where you take the whole scene in. The amateur looks one way; the professional looks at least three different ways.
FP: Lets imagine that there is a command structure in place mandated by the United Nations. How would that force figure out the weakness of nontraditional combatants like the pirates? Where would be the best place to strike them?
PVR: You have to understand what their methods of operation are, so youd obviously begin with whatever kinds of intelligence you can gather. There are going to be a lot of ways to do that. Probably to a limited degree, it would be radio intercepts or communicationsbecause they use varying means of communications. Then, having some sort of broad area surveillance for extended periods of times, you begin to see patterns. Youve got to develop some sort of a picture of what is normal and what is not normal.
Some of those same techniques have been used for hunting the folks who put in IEDs. You watch an area long enough and you begin to see whats not normal in the daily routine. You have to understand their method of operation and what the clues are if something is amiss. Any military unit that goes into a new area doesnt see the subtle clues until they have been there awhile and unless they set up their intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in order to pick those things up.
You're talking weeks and probably months [to get a sense of the patterns], because things dont happen every day. Its like weather: You watch one day; it doesnt mean anything. A week means a little bit [more]. But obviously, a month or months [of observation] means a lot. In Vietnam on the ground, we would have to be in areas for several weeks before we would begin to perceive what was normal and what was abnormal. And the longer they left [troops] in the same place, generally, the more effective they became.