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Defense Cuts Could Increase Piracy, Experts Say

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A US Navy visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) team, approached a suspected pirate after the Motor Vessel Nordic Apollo reported being under attack and fired upon by pirates in 2011. US Navy Photo

A US Navy visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) team, approached a suspected pirate after the Motor Vessel Nordic Apollo reported being under attack and fired upon by pirates in 2011. US Navy Photo

After a six-year low, Somalia-based piracy is likely to grow if international military budget reductions force a reduction in ships patrolling in and around the Gulf of Aden, an international piracy expert told USNI News in a Monday briefing.

Hans Tino Hansen, managing director of Copenhagen-based RiskIntelligence, said that because of declining international defense budgets and a dramatic reduction in piracy over the past three years, navies could face pressure to redirect sources away from Somalia, setting the stage for increased pirate attacks.

Mandated U.S. military cuts from sequestration could also reduce U.S. Navy presence in the region, a defense official told USNI News on Monday.

“We believe [piracy] will remain at the same level, not zero, but the same level for at least the next six months,” Hansen said. “After that it will be highly dependent on what happens with the navies as well as on land in Somalia.”

The number of hijackings in the region has dropped from 51 in 2010 to just 7 in 2012, according to data from the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence. Attempted boarding numbers fell from 119 to 24 in the same period.

Hansen cited several reasons for the drop, but the two most significant were ship owners adopting best practices—such as moving quickly through dangerous areas, hosting armed teams on board, and ringing ships with razor wire to prevent boarding from pirate skiffs—and ongoing naval patrols that deter pirate attacks.

Hansen said about 40 percent of the decline in attacks could be attributed to naval patrols; other experts agree.

“We believe warship presence still has a significant effect in repressing Somali piracy,” Michael Frodl, head of U.S. consultancy C-Level Maritime Risks, told USNI News on Monday.

Frodl said the NATO and the European Union presence of 10 to 15 ships in region consistently since 2009—along with the addition of about ten ships from other nations, including Russia, China and South Korea—have done much to curb the pirate threat

The combined 25-plus ships escort merchant traffic through the region and maintain patrols while a smaller number seek out pirates.

“A very small group of ships—three to five—actually are hunting, interdicting, taking out the pirates,” Hansen said. “Those are the ones that stop the packs from going to sea.”

A reduction of ten to fifteen ships would shift the focus to piracy protection rather than piracy hunting, allowing pirates more opportunities to attack, Hansen said.

“If you take the cops off the streets the criminals will return,” retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Terry McKnight, the author of Pirate Alley told USNI News on Monday.

McKnight was the first leader of Combined Task Force 151 in U.S. 5th Fleet, the Navy’s Middle Eastern arm responsible for the Persian Gulf and the waters off Somalia in 2009.

Though an international coalition, ships in 5th Fleet contribute heavily to the anti-piracy mission. However, sequestration cuts and the ongoing Fiscal Year 2013 Continuing Resolution (CR) could threaten U.S. involvement in the anti-piracy effort.

A defense official told USNI News operations in 5th Fleet are, “likely the last to face cuts in operational funding because of Navy leadership’s decision to prioritize funding to forces operating forward—but operations there are also at risk in the event of sequestration and a year-long CR.”

C-LEVEL’s Frodl called U.S. anti-piracy funding, “the budget orphan in the sequestration discussion.” He said concern over funding for carriers and submarines have pulled the focus from operations in the region.

Those operations at risk are essential to deterring piracy, Frodl said. “They need to continue.”