"Mission Atalanta" or: How to demonstrate incompetence

There are some ragtag modern pirates in our world. Most of the time they're on land, of course. No pretty sailing ships and black powder guns - just small and nimble motor boats and some 1960's infantry weapons. They don't sail the high seas, but annoy (or entertain) news consumers with quite daring attacks on ships in front of Somalia and in the Strait of Malacca.

The Somali breed has annoyed some governments too much too quickly.
They're pissed off and want to send warships to - well, to do something about it.
The EU calls that "Mission Atalanta" - about ten ships were said to be included in this.
That's an outrageous embarrassment - I'll elaborate on that later.

The German participation is even more embarrassing. The legal foundation for pirate hunts is surprisingly disputed in Germany. It's apparently unclear what to do with prisoners if any were taken (I doubt that).

Finally, there will be one frigate with anti-terror mission at the coast of Somalia (which collected valuable intel on the pirates in the past) and another one exclusively for anti-pirate patrol.
I'll better not go into any detail about the anti-terror frigate mission, that would be too much railing in one post.

Back to the anti-pirate patrol: It's a waste of time.
The politicians seem to go the most obvious yet completely pointless path. That's a demonstration of incompetence.
A successful hunt for pirates isn't the same as a patrol. Instead, you need to go to their bases. To patrol the seas just wastes time.
The EU has displayed a basic knowledge of Greek mythology by calling the Mission "Atalanta" (albeit it's not connected to the mission in any way). Instead they should better have known a minimum about military history - and call a different, really effective mission "Mission Pompey".
Pompey was not only a Roman politician and general of Caesar's time, but also likely the most successful pirate hunter of all time.

Superficial history books for pupils tell about how he fought the pirates at sea and defeated them. Good history books tell about how ships were necessary to move ground troops quickly - and how he eradicated the pirate's bases and (obviously) defeated them morally and by superior mass, coordination and high mobility.
He could have patrolled the seas for years without decisive success - the assault on the bases (often deserted in advance due to broken will) was the decisive element. Finally, he used an amnesty.

The EU wouldn't need to send any warships if it had a clue. A simple freighter, some inflatable boats, a medium transport plane and a fighter bomber in Djibouti and a company of parachute-qualified infantry is all that's necessary. I could plan and organize an effective raid (if intel was available to me) with the resources of a poor Third World country.
The key for a minimum intensity solution is to raid the base/village's coastline at night, destroy the tools (boats and engines) with explosives, use some threatening leaflets, exfiltrate with boats to the ship and demonstrate power (bombs impacting around the village at an announced time as a warning).

Well, some captives held by the pirates complicate the affair, but those are (AFAIK) mostly not Europeans and all you need to do is make clear that the village will be eradicated without further warning by bombs if piracy continues or captives weren't freed.
Finally, it may end in dead captives - and a village that was destroyed (including population). I would bet that this would end piracy and make lots of minor conflicts much easier for us for at least two decades.

Politicians are of course not ready to order such actions (anymore), but are unable to do nothing as well - that's why they launched a most likely wasteful mission with temporary success designed to save face - at the taxpayer's expense.
I bet the mass media won't understand the futility of patrols till that's too old news to tell a story about this.

edit 2008-11-20: Thanks to 'DemolitionMan' for the link:
"Dmitry Rogozin said the view of Russian experts was that naval action alone, even involving a large fleet of a powerful nation, would not be enough to defeat the pirates, given Somalia's geo-strategic position."

edit 2016:
Piracy off Somalia was largely subdued only years after I wrote this blog post.
It could flare up again any time, though.


  1. Seems like Russia is stealing your idea: http://africa.reuters.com/wire/news/usnLJ570319.html

    As the current events have shown, this might be the only way to get rid of that problem.

  2. And how are you going to tell the pirates and the pirate boats from the thousands upon thousands of legitimate fishing vessels and millions of ordinary people who look exactly the same?

    Most pirates are also fishermen some of the time. Or would you eradicate all the coastal villages? That would take years, and I doubt it would be considered acceptable by the international community.

    I agree that the solution lies on land, but you need major forces operating for an extended time on shore, mere raids would not be enough. The most important thing is to get a functioning goverment set up that can take back control of the whole country and enforce the laws.

  3. Intelligence collection (largely based on the bored OEF patrols that begun before the piracy bloomed) nailed it down to three or four villages at the time of writing.

    It was sufficiently known what villages were the origin of piracy, so a land-based countermeasure would have been adequately accurate.

    I think "mere raids" would have been enough because they couldn't go hunt ships without boats, especially not without boat engines.

  4. It seems you are too pessimistic. Dutch and Russian special forces recently stormed captured ships and liberated them. Action is possible, and is being undertaken. You do, however, have a point when it comes to the speed and comprehensiveness of such reactions, which they - alas - lack. Still, today's Russian reaction is a step in the right direction.

  5. Pessimistic?

    More than one and a half year later and the problem is still lingering, and binds many warships.

    That's no incompetence and failure in your opinion?

  6. Actually at some point in time you would actually have to eradicate such a village with bombs and napalm to really make a point. And this is something current "military" is no longer seemingly capable of.

  7. Why not tow an armed USV behind every ship in the area? That's quite cheap and clears the sea because the pirates don't board from the bow and won't board if they're killed by gun-fire. Plus the merchantmen aren't armed, rather they have a very individual escort for a few bucks. If remote control is too expensive, add some armour and an African mercenary.