The US Navy and Coast Guard are this week adopting more aggressive rules of engagement in fighting piracy off the Horn of Africa.
The US military has also deployed one of its most modern vessels, the new amphibious transport dock, the USS San Antonio (LPD17) to the region to spearhead their effort. It is her first deployment.
US Fifth Fleet commander Vice Admiral William Gortney says his sailors “are going to aggressively go after the pirates that are conducting pirate activity.”
Speaking to US radio service VOA he adds “it’s going to be a mixture of surveillance and then rapid action once we observe them, because we know we’re going to have to adhere to the rules of evidence.”
Gortney says that under the new plan his forces will arrest suspected pirates – even if they are not in the act of attacking a ship. Under current rules, sailors confiscate and dump overboard weapons found on pirate ships, but let the offenders go because there is no system for detaining them.
The admiral says “pirate paraphernalia” include AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and ladders for climbing up onto large ships.
“We have to make it unpleasant to be a pirate,” he said.
“We have to make it unpleasant to be a pirate,” he said.
The San Antonio is currently serving as flagship for Combined Task Force 151 and is an “afloat forward staging base” (AFSB) for the mission.
Fulfilling the role of an AFSB is one of the many mission areas the ship was specifically designed to perform, its executive officer, Lt. Cmdr Sean Kearns says.
“We’re able to embark and support a wide range of forces and equipment, and as the [executive officer], it is my job to ensure that these embarked units– just like the crew — have the resources and support they need to accomplish their assigned tasking,” he adds.
Elements deployed on the ship, commissioned in 2006 and the lead vessel in its class, include Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, a military police detachment and intelligence personnel.
Also aboard is an eight-man Coast Guard law enforcement detachment (LEDET) that specializes in maritime interdiction operations, three HH-60H helicopters from Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 3 that cross-decked from USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), and members of Fleet Surgical Team 8 “who bring a level-two surgical capability to the ship to deal with trauma, surgical, critical care and medical evacuation needs.”
Sailors and Coast Guardsmen have been formed into joint boarding teams, Kearns adds.
“Our visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) teams will play a central role here, as will the ship’s ability to survey the water and air space to search for suspected pirates,” he adds.
The size of each team is dependent on the size and type of the suspect vessel the teams must board.
“Our role in CTF 151 is to augment and train the San Antonio’s VBSS team; the LEDET has years of boarding experience and collectively has safely completed hundreds of vessel boardings,” said Lt (JG) Greg Ponzi, officer in charge, LEDET 405.
The teams have trained each day in topics such as boarding policy, maritime laws, evidence handling, handcuffing, defensive tactics and searches.
LEDET 405 have instructed Navy VBSS team members in boarding procedures, evidence package preparation and safe and humane treatment of suspects.
“Our goal is to combine our two services to ensure safe and successful operations,” said Ponzi. “The top priority of any boarding team is the safety of the boarding team and the success of the mission.”
The Coast Guard and Navy boarding teams will board suspect vessels in order to detect, deter and disrupt piracy activities.
“This is a law enforcement operation to deter piracy and make the waters safe for all nations,” added Ponzi.
Kearns adds that the “mission is described as an antipiracy mission, which is true, but in a broader sense, it is also the mission that has been the central focus of the U.S. Navy since its inception, and that is maritime security.
“This is about keeping the international waters of the world open to free, safe and unencumbered access by mariners, not only for our nation, but for all nations. This is one of the missions that our Navy was first created to perform, and it is what we have continued to train for and perform ever since.”
Reutersreports that around 20 warships from 14 different countries are patrolling the area, although “their exact numbers and location unknown for security reasons”. Known deployments are:
· COMBINED TASK FORCE 151: The US Navy on January 8 announced a new task force specifically dedicated to combating piracy in the region. The San Antonio, an amphibious transport dock, serves as the command-and-control ship with two aircraft and two other US Navy ships. More than 20 nations are part of the Combined Maritime Forces. US Navy Rear Admiral Terence “Terry” McKnight has been named the commander of the new task force which will be fully operational by the middle of January.
· EUROPEAN UNION: The EU deployed an air and naval force off Somalia from December, replacing NATO ships. Up to ten EU nations are participating, including Greece, France, Germany and Britain in the first phase from December to March. The German frigate FDS Karlsruhe fought off a pirate attack in the Gulf in late December.
· CHINA: Three Chinese warships arrived in the area in January in the first such naval deployment by Beijing outside its waters.
· INDIA: India deployed INS Tabar in October to escort Indian ships. According to the Indian navy, the Tabar came under fire from a suspected pirate mother ship on November 18, returned fire and sank the pirates.
· MALAYISA: A Malaysian warship sent a helicopter to help scare away Somali pirates trying to attack an Indian vessel in the Gulf of Aden on January 1.
· RUSSIA: Russia’s navy sent a Baltic Fleet frigate, the Neustrashimy (Fearless), to the Gulf of Aden in September to combat pirates. Russian forces helped foil an attempted hijacking of a Dutch-registered cargo ship earlier this month.