Efforts by foreign navies to combat Somali piracy off the Horn of Africa country’s coast have made a difference but they will not be able to eradicate attacks by seaborne gangs, Britain’s navy chief said.
Somali pirates have stepped up attacks in recent months, making millions of dollars in ransom by hijacking ships in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, which links Europe to Asia.
Admiral Mark Stanhope said navies were dealing with 1.1 million square miles of water to monitor.
“We are not going to eradicate piracy it’s still a very large area,” he told Reuters in an interview.
Foreign navies have been deployed off the Gulf of Aden since the start of 2009 and have operated convoys, as well as setting up and monitoring a transit corridor for ships to pass through vulnerable points.
But their forces have been stretched over the vast expanses of water including the Indian Ocean, leaving vessels vulnerable.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said last month ships using the Indian Ocean would not receive the same level of naval protection from pirates as those in the Gulf of Aden because military resources are tight.
“We have made a considerable difference in terms of the amount of successful pirating attempts that is by virtue of the number of navies that are there,” Stanhope said. “While navies will do their very best in what is a huge area to address the problems of piracy, we will never solve the problem that is causing it,” he said referring to Somalia’s lawlessness.
Britain’s Royal Navy had deployed ships last year as part of the European Union anti-piracy force off Somalia’s coast. The EU mission numbers seven ships at present.
The Royal Navy has no vessels participating in the EU mission right now but has one frigate and a tanker stationed in the Indian Ocean available for counter-piracy operations if required, the navy said. The Royal Navy also provided much of the leadership for setting up the EU mission.
Stanhope said the Indian Ocean was a main focus for Europe owing to its importance as a transit route for goods from Asia to European countries.
In addition, he said China was growing in economic importance and its navy was expanding.
A Chinese rear admiral last month urged the country to set up navy supply bases overseas after China paid a ransom to free a ship held for nine weeks by Somali pirates.
Stanhope said that being part of the international anti-piracy efforts, China’s navy was “learning the ropes”.
“They want stability in that area (the Indian Ocean) to ensure their exports and indeed their imports,” he said. “Therefore the growth in their navy is entirely predictable.”
Asked if China would overtake Britain’s navy, Stanhope said: “China in scale is almost inevitability going to get bigger than we are if you count ship for ship, submarine for submarine.” But he said Britain’s navy measures up very highly in quality.