Part Seven - Modern Piracy and Threats to Ships

Pirate Trials of Captured Suspects May Take Place in Sovereign Nations of the Region
Suspected Pirates are Recovered from the Sea by Naval Forces. Alleged Pirates Captured in International Waters May be Charged With Crimes Against Ships in the Region's National Courts and Face Pirate Trial. US Navy


We have reached the final installment of our short history of piracy and have arrived in modern times. We left off with Robert Louis Stevenson writing his “Treasure Island” first draft in just a few days because the bones of the stories he knew from encounters with pirate mythology.

In later years Hollywood would bring us many of these classic stories in a film format. Most of the readers of this piece don’t know that their great grandparents probably didn’t see pirates as witty, funny characters.

It’s the generations since then that have embraced the scoundrel as a hero mostly because of pop culture.

The real story about what happens on freighters in the Arabian Sea or to boats fishing illegally off Korea is graphic and most people do not want to consume that type of news. The thought that their new salad bowl from a big box retailer was on a ship that needed to take active measures to avoid pirates is very abstract especially for people who don’t understand the operation of a ship in normal safety and security conditions.

Salad bowl; Pirates; Salad Bowl; Pirates.

It’s hard to make the connection

Even when piracy surged in 2010 to 2012 and captives were dying waiting for clean water, food, and an agreement to pay ransom, few people outside the industry noticed. Usually when you click on something with “modern piracy” in the title you may expect to find an explanation of Somali’s attacking illegal fishing boats in the early 1990’s to protect their fish stocks.

You might even find accounts of former pirates who were unable to find any means of earning money to survive after twenty years of civil war. But this is just one instance of crime against ships and the problem goes well beyond Somalia.

Pirates have fast boats and ladders fitted with hooks in addition to assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades in almost all areas of the world.

The South China Sea has a historic reputation as a pirate hotspot and the attack there have been increasing since the multi-national naval patrols and drone scouts have made pirate operations mostly impossible in most of the Arabian Sea.

China may be looking the other way when pirates attack in waters belonging to weaker neighbors. The controversial island building programs are meant to expand a permanent military presence as close as possible to underwater features that define China’s sovereign territory.

Pirate attacks will add justification for their presence, and if the sand islands do become watchtowers of the sea they may be able to shut piracy down quickly. The Chinese certainly have the technology and manpower to hunt pirates in the South China Sea and beyond. It’s just not in their best interest right now since they want their neighbors to ask for help, which will justify the new islands.

If piracy ever actually threatened to damage the income or reputation of a mainland Chinese port they would quickly find and make examples of the captured pirates.

Technology is the Answer

It’s well known that the ransoms of millions of dollars go to outfit organized criminals and terrorists of all sorts.

The ability to squeeze the pirates on the supply side with banking restrictions and frozen funds takes much of the spark out of their crews. Financial gain is why they risk their lives, sometimes for a lifetime of laborers wages in just a few months.

The other part of the equation is monitoring and remote sensing. Predictive software looks at several conditions across a piracy risk area to anticipate an attack. Military assets can be deployed to this area for a fast response and hopefully a non-violent surrender.

Many ships undergo an occasional plundering much like the vessels historic pirates attacked. Paint and wire rope is often stolen from on deck lockers while the crew stays safely locked inside the hardened bridge area. Unless the cargo is to be stolen or the crew held ransom the only other prizes are ship gear  and maybe some personal effects and the contents of the ship’s safe which now rarely hold any significant amount of cash.

Small vessels like fishing boats will still be targeted but those are disputes similar to the original Somali problem which can be handled before it gets out of control by protecting sovereign fishing rights as much as combined militaries protect taker ships full of crude oil.