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Piracy in the South China Sea: Petty Theft in Indonesia, Kidnapped Ships in Malaysia

By Sarah Schoenberger

Armed with AK47s and equipped with GPS devices, modern pirates pose a serious non-traditional security threat to all seafaring nations, their people, and economies. In 2012, five crew members were killed in pirate attacks, 14 wounded, and 313 kidnapped; and the world economy lost about US$6 billion through disrupted maritime logistic chains, higher insurance premiums, and longer shipping times. While most associate piracy with hijacked ships and abandoned crews around Somalia, the area with the most pirate attacks in recent years has been the South China Sea. While the most severe attacks here occur primarily in Malaysia, 78 percent of the incidents in 2012 took place at Indonesian ports and concerned small cases of petty theft.

This analysis is based on data by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a UN specialized agency for maritime security. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines piracy as an illegal act of violence committed for private ends by the crew or passengers of a ship or aircraft against another ship or aircraft on the high seas; the IMO extends this definition to include “armed robbery against ships”—pirate attacks within a state’s territorial sea.

According to the IMO, piracy worldwide has risen substantially since 1994 with incident peaks of about 470 and 550 in 2000 and 2011, respectively (see Figure 1). This is primarily due to the exponential increase of global shipping in the course of globalization—leading to 80 percent of world trade being shipped across oceans today—with which opportunities for piracy increased likewise. The real number of pirate attacks are thereby even higher: An estimated two-thirds of all pirate attacks remain unreported, as shipping companies skirt the bad publicity, higher insurance premiums, and investigation delays that come with reporting incidents.

With the exception of 2007 to 2012, when piracy in East Africa experienced a sharp increase, the South China Sea has been the most piracy-prone region in the world, with up to 150 attacks per year. Why? First, about 30 percent of global maritime trade passes through the region, so opportunities for attacks are plenty. Second, the area’s geographical features foster piracy, as the island chains and small rocks constitute ideal hiding places, while the narrow passages facilitate attacks. Third, unresolved territorial issues and lack of agreed jurisdiction, particularly around the Spratley and Paracel Islands, complicate maritime enforcement and patrols and thus facilitate illegal activities at sea.

While pirate attacks in the South China Sea are spread across the entire area, the majority happen around Indonesia: Of 85 incidents with a known location in 2012, 66 occurred in Indonesia, 10 in Malaysia, 3 in the Philippines, 2 in Singapore and 4 in Vietnam. Indonesia’s geographical features and the increased efforts of Malaysia and Singapore to combat piracy in the Strait of Malacca explain the predominance in Indonesia. Here, efforts to fight piracy are weak, cooperation of corrupt port officials is high, and punishment for piracy rather light.

In Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, most attacks occur at ports, whereas none happened in the Singaporean port. In Malaysia, the majority of incidents occurred on the high seas (see Figure 2). Taken together, this leads to a regional average of 67 percent ‘port-attacks’ in 2012, while only 13 percent happened on the high seas. In this regard, the South China Sea is distinct compared to the rest of the world, where more than a third of all pirate attacks are committed on the high seas.

To know more about the nature of the incidents in the different countries, the severity of the attacks can be calculated. Taking the four variables, (A) number of pirates taking part in an attack, (B) weapons used, (C) content stolen, and (D) amount of violence employed, the grade of severity is established by scaling the four variables appropriately (0.5A-2B-2C-3D), using them as axes in a four-dimensional coordinate plane and employing a point-distance formula of the point A/B/C/D to the origin.

Figure 1: Yearly statistics of piracy incidents worldwide since 1948. Source: IMO, 2012.
Figure 1: Yearly statistics of piracy incidents worldwide since 1948. Source: IMO, 2012.

Linking the severity with the location of attacks yields the map in Figure 3 (the larger the bubble, the more severe the attack; when several attacks of different severity took place in the same location, they are marked by black lines). While no hot spot is obvious, it is apparent that attacks in vicinity of Malaysia and Singapore were more severe (at an average severity of 37.5 and 34, respectively, on a scale from 8.5 to 59.5), while the mildest ones occurred in Indonesia at 24. The Philippines and Vietnam range in the middle at 29.5 and 26.7.

Comparing the severity with the area of attack in the different countries, two types of piracy become apparent. The first one is exemplified by attacks in Indonesia, which occur at ports and are not that severe. These are usually carried out by four pirates armed with knives, guns, or machetes; they target the crew’s personal belongings and the ship’s stores without employing much violence. These attacks can be characterized as low-profile piracy, which is generally conducted by un(der)employed fishermen or idle dock workers. As they lack resources, the attacks are ill-organized and opportunistic and exercised where security measures are low, law enforcement weak, and the concentration of shipping high.

Figure 2: Occurrences in the South China Sea according to country and area.
Figure 2: Occurrences in the South China Sea according to country and area.

In contrast, severe high-profile piracy occurs primarily on the high seas. It is carried out by well-organized international piracy syndicates, which have substantial means at their disposal and use modern techniques and equipment. In the South China Sea, this type of high-profile piracy is most evident in Malaysia. On average, these are carried out by 11 pirates armed with knives and guns; they hijack the ship and take the crew hostage or abandon it in life rafts.

The most self-evident explanation for the difference of low- and high-profile piracy in Indonesia and Malaysia is the disparity in living standards and wealth. In Indonesia, where the GDP per capita was US$5,100 in 2012, piracy attacks are much more likely to be motivated by poverty. Local fishermen do not have the means, or the motivation, to conduct high-profile attacks, but simply seek money and food—making Indonesian piracy less severe. In Malaysia, with a GDP per capita of US$17,200 in 2012, poverty is not as high and there is less necessity for fishers to conduct low-scale piracy attacks in order to survive. Instead, piracy attacks here are conducted by organized crime syndicates, entail much more criminal energy, and are more severe. Other factors that have an impact on the prevalent type of piracy include the amount of port security measures, the degree of law enforcement, and the strength of penalties.

Figure 3: The location and severity of piracy incidents in the South China Sea.
Figure 3: The location and severity of piracy incidents in the South China Sea.

Understanding the nature of piracy in the South China Sea leads to several implications for its combat. As most attacks happen in harbors, increased port and ship security measures would be highly effective in reducing the number of these incidents. In addition, stricter law regulation and enforcement mechanisms, as well as training for local port officials would be useful. Both these measures should be conducted in multilateral settings, like regional Piracy Law Dialogues or Conferences. They should include regional government officials, legal experts, representatives from the IMO and IMB, the shipping community, and other non-regional states with an interest in combating piracy in the South China Sea.

To address the cases on the high seas, any military mission patrolling the waters and accompanying ships (such as the successful NATO Operation Ocean Shield in the Gulf of Aden) would be highly controversial and inadvisable due to the possible escalation of territorial tensions. Instead, a joint coast guard system with common patrols could be much more effective.

For a country-specific course of action, the incidents in the respective country should be analyzed more closely, looking inter alia at the specific locations of the attacks with their surrounding circumstances and the general structure of criminality in the country. Nevertheless, based on the results of this analysis, piracy in the South China Sea in general can be much reduced if the root causes of unemployment and poverty in Indonesia are addressed. Through the depletion of resources, limitation of fishing grounds due to territorial tensions, and competition from large international fisheries that outclass them in the open sea, local fishermen can no longer sustain themselves by their livelihood. Facing a dearth of other employment opportunities, there is often little choice but to commit low-scale opportunistic crimes around harbors—and thereby become pirates.

Sarah Schoenberger is a postgraduate student of International Affairs at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Peking University in Beijing. Her focus is on security studies and East Asia. This article appeared in its original form at the Indo-Pacific Review and was republished by permission.

B-1s Continue to Prove Worth Over Iraq

By Patrick Megahan
Research Associate, Military Affairs
Foundation For Defense of Democracies

As the air war over northern Iraq expanded over the last week, Pentagon officials for first time acknowledged that land-based bombers have begun conducting strikes against the Islamic State, or ISIS, as it is formerly known. Though the specific bomber type was not named, B-1B Lancers are widely believed to be the bombers providing much needed air support to Kurdish forces who retook the Mosul Dam. The appearance of the B-1 in Iraq should come as no surprise, as its long-range, all-weather, day or night, and low- or high-altitude capabilities have made it one of the most heavily used strike aircraft in America’s air armada.

B-1s of the 7th Bomb Wing from Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas, had deployed to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar earlier this month. The 350 service members and their B-1s replaced members of the 28th Bomb Wing, which also flies the B-1, as part of a routine six-month rotation, which both units have shared since the opening of the Afghan War in late 2001. With the U.S. still in Afghanistan and now returning to Iraq, the 7th will take on a challenge that only long-range bombers like the B-1 can meet: be on call to support operations in two different theaters while still based in Qatar.

Despite this unique ability, the B-1 has repeatedly been the target of budget hawks. Most recently, it was named as potential collateral damage in the effort to save the A-10 ‘Warthog.’ But its current deployment and continued development demonstrate how profound a mistake it would have been to discontinue the B-1

Originally developed as a nuclear bomber at the height of the Cold War, the B-1 has been continually updated to adapt to ever-changing threats the U.S. faces abroad. The B-1A variant was designed to replace the cumbersome B-52 with an agile supersonic bomber that could penetrate Soviet airspace at low level and drop nuclear weapons. But before it could ever enter service, B-1 was cancelled by the Carter administration, which cited its price tag, while arguing that air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) fired from the B-52 could do the same job. Four years later, President Ronald Reagan touted the B-1 as an example of Carter’s weakness on defense and revived the plane as part of the Long Range Combat Aircraft (LRCA) program.

LRCA arose because of the belief that by 1990 the B-52, even with ALCMs, would be increasingly vulnerable to improving enemy air defense systems. The updated B-1B variant promised a faster, more versatile bomber to fill the B-52’s role while augmenting the capabilities of the B-2 stealth bomber, which, at that time, was secretly still in development.

The collapse of the Soviet Union raised new questions, however. Without a nuclear-armed adversary, there seemed to be no need for a fleet of aircraft to drop nuclear bombs on distant continents. But with the rise of new conflicts, a need for long-range conventional strike capability endured. Following multiple updates, both the B-1 and the aircraft it was meant to replace, the B-52, were adapted to carry multiple types of precision-guided bombs and standoff weapons. Plus, in accordance with the START treaty, the B-1 was altered so it could no longer serve as a nuclear bomber. This allowed it to avoid the political stigma of stationing a nuclear capable bomber overseas. (Imagine the uproar from parking nuclear bombers across the Persian Gulf from Iran.)

Aside from its less controversial presence, the B-1 has a number of other advantages over its B-2 and B-52 counterparts. Its internal payload capacity is the highest at 75,000 pounds, which is 5,000 more than the B-52 and 25,000 more than the B-2. Reaching Mach 1.2, it is the only supersonic heavy bomber the U.S. possesses. It is also the cheapest to fly at $63,000 per hour of flight, compared with $72,000 for the B-52 and $135,000 for the B-2. Furthermore, as a testament to its preference among U.S. commanders, from October 2001 to September 2012 the B-1 flew 10,940 combat sorties over Iraq and Afghanistan versus the B-52’s 2,891 and the B-2’s 69. In fact, the B-1 dropped 40 percent of the bomb tonnage in the first six months of the war in Afghanistan, and, by 2012, had released 60 percent of the weapons overall. Now, it is carrying out a similar mission in Iraq.

Moreover, if, for example, the United States were to find itself in conflict in Asia, shorter-range aircraft fighters stationed at bases in Japan and South Korea would be vulnerable on the ground to long-range missile strikes. While the B-1, with its longer-range and ability to carry 24 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSMs), could operate from far-off bases and beyond the limits of advanced air defense systems.

The B-1 could also play an important maritime role armed with the Navy’s forthcoming Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). Paired with unmanned aircraft operating close to enemy shores, commanders will be able to direct LRASMs fired from B-1s to sink advancing warships without having to put pilots in danger. Additionally, this will complement the Navy’s own efforts over a wide battle-space, like the Pacific, providing a rapid strike capability where a limited number of friendly ships may not be able to cover.

Arguably, the one quality the B-1 does not have which critics claim will be vital in this kind of high-end conflict is stealth. But expanding evidence suggests modern stealth may soon be negated in a conflict with a sophisticated adversary.

Had the latest defense appropriation bill canned the B-1, much of this capability would have been lost until the next-generation bomber came online. Which, given that the Pentagon only just released the request for proposals and that the procurement process today is extremely sluggish, the next bomber will likely not be available for nearly a decade.

The Kurds at Mosul Dam are surely glad this did not happen.

Border Control Behind the Scenes: Maritime Operational Threat Response Plan

By Guest Author LCDR Craig Allen Jr., USCG for our “Border Control Week”

Border security presently headlines national policy discussions following the influx of child and teenage immigrants fleeing poverty and violence in Central America, the outbreak of Ebola in Western Africa, and warnings from the commander of U.S. Southern Command, General John Kelly, that the activities of transnational criminal organizations operating in the Western hemisphere pose an existential threat to the United States. The confluence of events has reinvigorated scrutiny of our border control programs, including the effectiveness of our deterrence and interdiction capability and the balance between humanitarian, law enforcement and national security interests at stake.

 

Although the 2,000 mile land border with Mexico garners much of the recent attention, identifying, tracking and interdicting threats along more than 12,000 miles of coast line that comprises America’s maritime border poses an even more challenging endeavor. Adding to the complexity is the fact that responsibility for maritime border security is shared by several US Government federal agencies with separate, overlapping, and occasionally competing authorities, capabilities and priorities.

 

The sword designed to cut through the Gordian knot of interagency friction in the maritime domain is the Maritime Operational Threat Response (MOTR) Plan. MOTR seeks to integrate the capabilities and expertise of all USG agencies that have a role in responding to a given maritime threat to achieve a unity of effort through a process of “compelled coordination.” Although perfect synergy often proves elusive, MOTR provides an effective forum to align efforts and facilitate early resolution of interagency conflicts. The Global MOTR Coordination Center (GMCC) located in Washington, DC, serves as the nucleus by providing relevant information and connecting all concerned agencies together when an event triggers the MOTR process.

 

This photograph of Simas Kudirka was taken from his Soviet Identification card. 1972 LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
This photograph of Simas Kudirka was taken from his Soviet Identification card. 1972 LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES

Like many cross-cutting federal policies, the impetus to improve interagency coordination that led to the present MOTR plan began with a high profile disaster. Most Coast Guardsmen are familiar with the Simas Kudirka debacle, in which a Lithuanian radio operator attempted to defect to the United States by leaping from a Soviet fishing vessel onto a Coast Guard cutter off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in 1970. The inability of Federal agencies to agree on an appropriate response in time (and poor tactical-level decision making) resulted in Kudirka being severely beaten and forcibly removed from the cutter by the Soviets. The resulting outrage at the stain on American prestige led to several Congressional hearings, a movie, and Presidential Directive 27 (PD-27) “Procedures for Dealing with Non-military Incidents.” PD-27 required several federal departments to maintain a 24-hour watch and coordinate a USG response to non-military incidents that could have an adverse impact on the conduct of US foreign relations. The PD-27 process significantly improved interagency coordination, but the reinvigorated focus on coordinated USG response to the elevated terrorist threat after 9/11 identified a need for further refinement.

 

The MOTR Plan, approved in 2006, expanded upon PD-27 by directing a whole-of-government response to threats in the maritime domain. The MOTR process address a wide spectrum of maritime threats, including terrorism, piracy, drug and migrant interdiction, piracy, and fisheries incursions. Interestingly, there is no command and control relationship within its structure. It requires coordination and cooperation, but no agency has the ability to compel another to do its bidding. Despite its coalition nature, sometimes described as “used by all, owned by none,” MOTR has proven successful. Since its inception, it has been an effective mechanism for responding to thousands of incidents, including high-profile events such as the Somali pirate attack on the Maersk Alabama.

 

To illustrate the value of the MOTR process, consider the following fictional but plausible scenario- an overloaded vessel departs from Haiti and appears headed for the United States. So far, nothing out of the ordinary, the Coast Guard responds to similar events all the time. But suppose recently there have been reports of Ebola in Haiti and reports indicate that several possible Ebola victims are fleeing Haiti hoping to seek treatment in the US. Add to that reports from a maritime patrol aircraft that it appears that there are several children onboard the vessel. Now the interest of other agencies is piqued, including (among others) Department of State, Health and Human Services, and Center for Disease Control. From all of the interests involved must emerge a single “desired national outcome” to guide the response. Depending on where the vessel was initially located, its stability and on-scene weather, and many other factors, the timeline for coordinating and carrying out the response might range from days to hours.

 

Maritime border security is a Herculean endeavor that continues to evolve in its complexity. Threats in the maritime domain range from primitive vessels: “sail freighters” from Haiti, “chugs” and “rusticas” from Cuba, and “yolas” from the Dominican Republic- to submarines manufactured in Andean jungles that can transit from Ecuador to Los Angles while thirty feet below the surface. The nature of the threat varies widely as well- terrorism, pandemic, narcotics, humanitarian crisis, etc. MOTR is an important evolutionary lead towards enhancing the US ability to respond to these threats more quickly and efficiently.

Army’s Strategy Education Lessons for the Navy

By: Bowen Vernan, Navy Helicopter Pilot

In May 2013, Chief of the Army, General Ray Odierno stood in a small DC area ballroom in front of a few dozen graduates and their families. Central to the crowd were several Army Captains and recently minted Majors as well as the 2013 Class of the Institute for World Politics. General Odierno and the US Army were both familiar friends with IWP, having participated in speaking engagements and sending dozens of students through the tiny graduate school nestled in an old mansion on the outskirts of Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. IWP’s faculty of approximately 30 instructor-practitioners are all leaders in their diverse field of expertise. At no other institute of learning is such a small group constituted of Generals, Ambassadors, and former Intelligence Operatives. The high caliber of experience brought together by the instructors drives the school to focus in a few key areas. IWP’s majors are limited to Master’s Programs is the fields of Statecraft and National Security Affairs, Statecraft and International Affairs, and Strategic Intelligence Studies with an additional Executive M.A. in National Security Affairs.

In a city filled with storied centers of learning such as Georgetown University, George Washington University, and countless military and intelligence centers of excellence, why has the Army invested their time and money in a school of less than 150 students? The Army has simply adopted IWP as a vehicle for training their Officer Corps in a way that no other military or civilian institution can currently supply. Beyond the ever present push for inter-service “jointness” IWP takes the Army’s mid-level leaders to a new level of inter-agency understanding and cooperation. The broad array of government leaders is seen not only in the staff, but also the student body of IWP. A typical class, consisting of only a handful of students could contain of a Captain from the US Army, an analyst from the CIA, and a Foreign Service officer from the State Department, all instructed by a retired Air Force General, Intelligence Community Professional, or former member of the National Security Council to learn the lessons of the past and together share ideas using every facet of the United States Government’s foreign policy resources. In an environment where fiscal resources are being stretched ever thinner among all government agencies, the Army has used IWP as a planning lab for learning how to better achieve mission goals by employing the resources and expertise of all government agencies. Following their time at IWP, many Army graduates are able to take their newfound understanding of inter-agency capabilities and jointness to forge the future of a more integrated and more capable US Army and US Government. It is clear that the Army has found a unique and invaluable resource in a government focused melting pot of higher education. However, the US Army is currently the only branch of the US Military that sends active duty officers to be among the ranks of the student body of this particular school. If the Army has found value from this program, why have the other services not followed the Army’s lead?

The US Army has recognized the importance of strategically focused professionals since the creation of the Functional Area (FA) 59 designation for Strategic Planning and Policy Officers. The Navy is starting to realize a need for a similar expertise to the Army’s FA 59 program. Making strides to create a new US Navy skill set, the Naval War College has recently begun its inaugural year of a Naval Strategy program. While the program is a first step in creating a corps of strategically thinking Naval Officers, it appears to be limited in scope and lacks a “full government” approach. To be prepared for the future of warfare, US Navy military planners will need to be familiar with the realms of conflict that reach far beyond naval engagements and sea power to remain effective.

It is my belief that the US Navy faces an additional hurdle in its pursuit of a strategic level expertise: the stigma that in order to remain relevant an officer must remain tactical. As a junior officer, I have seen my role as a tactical asset in the aviation community quickly diminished by the ever present budget cuts and the ever expanding age of unmanned aerial vehicles fulfilling every role from air-to-air combat to airborne vertical replenishment. However, when I attempted to look to the future and the Navy’s need to focus strategically, I quickly discovered that even inquiring how to shape the next generation of war fighter was frowned upon by the operational environment.

While the US Navy will always have a need to build young officers to sharpen the “pointy end of the spear”, an equal value must be placed on sharpening the young ingenious minds which will shape the strategic picture needed to effectively employ the Navy’s spear alongside the CIA’s arrows and the State Department’s shield in order to maintain America’s role as the preeminent foreign policy leader.