When director Kathryn Bigelow accepted an Academy Award in 2009 for her film, “The Hurt Locker,” depicting a US Army bomb-disposal team, she thanked “the women and men in the military who risk their lives on a daily basis in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world.”
Fast forward to a future awards ceremony: If Tom Hanks is honored for his forthcoming film, “Captain Phillips,” about the hijacking of a US cargo vessel, will he thank the international effort against maritime piracy, including some surprising allies?
Hanks’ biopic can help Americans learn about the threats we face and the allies we need. With Americans imperiled by bombings in Boston, turmoil in the Middle East and nuclear blackmail on the Korean Peninsula, maritime piracy also endangers our lives and livelihoods. The international response to this threat helps Americans appreciate which countries we can count on in a crisis.
In the incident that inspired Hanks’ film, four years ago this April Somali pirates seized a US-flagged cargo ship, the MV Maersk Alabama, 240 nautical miles southeast of the Somali port city of Eyl. In the fast-paced events of April 8-12, 2009, although the crew fought back bravely, the pirates captured Richard Phillips and held him on a lifeboat.
Meanwhile, the US Navy frigate Halyburton reached the Maersk Alabama. Then arriving with a Navy SEAL platoon, the destroyer Bainbridge killed the pirates and freed Phillips. Under armed guard, the Alabama was escorted to its original destination, the port of Mombasa, Kenya.
Until only three days before the hijacking, I had served as commander of Task Force 151, a multinational naval unit confronting piracy off the coast of Somalia.
In September 2008, when the Ukrainian-operated MV Faina was hijacked off the coast of Somalia, the cruiser Vella Gulf was responsible for protecting the crew and its cargo. The Faina was carrying a veritable armory: 33 Soviet-built T-72 tanks, anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades, a multiple-launch rocket system and 182 rounds of ammunition.
Fortunately, after 133 days of intense negotiations, the Faina’s cargo of weapons was secured and her crew was safely released from captivity.
The seizure of the Faina underscores the threat posed by piracy to US economic and national security interests, as well as the importance of international efforts to defend maritime navigation. Maritime piracy costs the world economy an estimated $7 billion to $12 billion a year, while the United States and its allies spend $1.09 billion annually on military operations to protect international shipping, and private companies pay another $1.65 billion to $2.06 billion for guards and security equipment.
The stakes include protecting the free flow of commerce on the high seas and preventing the proliferation of sophisticated weapons to terrorist organizations in Somalia.
Piracy has declined since 2009. One of the most important reasons has been overwhelming support from more than 25 countries in the international maritime community, including forces ranging from Spanish P-3 maritime patrol aircraft to the Swedish Navy’s deployment with Operation Atalanta.
Addressing the Naval War College in 2005, then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Mullen unveiled a coalition strategy, the formation of a global fleet or “1,000-Ship Navy.” This vision for how coalition forces could defeat a common enemy in the maritime environment has been fulfilled in the fight against Somalipirates.
One prime example of an unexpected but important ally in the fight against maritime piracy is Ukraine. Ukraine has been active in Operation Atalanta, the EU naval force’s military action to prevent and combat acts of piracy off the coast of Somalia. On five occasions, Ukraine’s Navy has deployed ships for extended operations with NATO’s Operation Active Agenda to prevent the movement of terrorists or weapons of mass destruction in the Mediterranean Sea.
In addition, two years ago, Ukraine joined the US in co-hosting Sea Breeze 2011, the largest annual multinational naval exercise in the Black Sea. In February, Ukraine announced it would take part in Operation Ocean Shield, NATO’s anti-piracy operation.
A major maritime nation with between 80,000 and 100,000 merchant sailors, Ukraine’s efforts against maritime piracy demonstrate this former Soviet republic’s commitment to participating in the West’s economic and security framework.
As the struggle to secure the seas reveals, the US and Western Europe need more partners. NATO and the EU should keep our eyes, our minds, and our doors open to contributions from nations such as Ukraine.
Retired US Navy Rear Adm. Terry McKnightwas the first commander of the anti-piracy Combined Task Force 151. He is vice president of government relations at defense firm Cobham. These views reflect only those of the author’s.