Battle of the high seas: On patrol with NATO's pirate-catchers off the Horn of Africa

Infra-red cameras, ballistic missiles... the battle of the high seas is increasingly one-sided

The Somali pirate drama is over in seconds: a helicopter swoops into view and hovers over the hijacked vessel, four hooded marines slide down ropes, the hostiles are overpowered, and the ship’s hostages released. Or at least, that is what NATO is rehearsing as it polices the world's busiest shipping lane and its most dangerous waters, the sea around the Horn of Africa.

This particular drill takes place on the deck of the Álvaro de Bazán, a 5,800-tonne, 147-metre Spanish frigate patrolling the Red Sea, while the pirates are merely other crew on the vessel. But such exercises are repeated almost daily to keep the crew sharp for actual encounters with the pirates who still threaten the trillion-dollar shipping that passes near the Somali coast.

“We prepare as much as we can for any situation in these waters,” says Paul Meacher, a 35-year-old lieutenant commander from Hampshire. “Fighting piracy is maritime security, not shock and awe warfare, so you have to adapt and use different techniques to deal with the challenge. It’s low intensity, but still high risk.”

Meacher is the only British member of the Álvaro de Bazán’s 250-strong crew, acting as the staff operations officer for the NATO anti-piracy fleet. Like almost everyone else on board, he refers to Captain Phillips, last year’s Tom Hanks movie about how the freighter Maersk Alabama was hijacked by four ragtag Somalis in 2009. A still from the 2013 film 'Captain Phillips' A still from the 2013 film 'Captain Phillips'

Patrols by around 14 vessels from NATO, the European Union and other countries have helped drive down piracy since then, but there are still attacks nearly every week in the area. “We don’t take anything for granted,” says Meacher. “It’s a bit like being a policemen: just because crime has fallen doesn’t mean you stop going on the beat.”

Read more: How piracy became a $413m business

Some 90 per cent of all global trade by volume is shipped by sea, and about half of that passes through the Indian Ocean, including one-third of Europe's oil supplies. More than 22,000 cargo ships travel through the choke point at Bab-el-Mandeb, the so-called Gate of Grief, the strait between Yemen and Djibouti that links the Red Sea and the Suez Canal to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. But the NATO forces operate from the Persian Gulf to the Seychelles in the south and the Maldives in the east, covering an area greater than 2 million square miles or the size of Western Europe. And they are acutely aware of overstretch.

But this is the sort of challenge that NATO is increasingly addressing. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen argues that as the alliance shifts gears in the post-Afghanistan era, it is dealing with non-state threats like thwarting desperadoes in speedboats.

So NATO’s counter piracy task force is now using new methods to find the pirate scourge: the patrols use a variety of measures to verify the activity of shipping off the coast of Somalia, separating out legitimate maritime traffic from suspected pirate vessels, and in many cases escorting ships through the most tricky passages.

There is an array of dazzling technologies at the task force’s disposal, from stealth technology to avoid enemy radar, ballistic missiles that could sink an aircraft carrier, sniper rifles that have an effective range of three miles, and infrared cameras that can see figures from seven miles away. They also have AWACS surveillance planes, use Mercury, a secure internet-based communication system set up by the British, while unmanned drones are used to spot pirate camps.

Álvaro de Bazán, the flagship of NATO’s anti-piracy mission, can send teams to pre-emptively board a suspect vessel, and even use force to stop them. The task force commander, Rear-Admiral Eugenio Diaz De Rio, based on the Álvaro de Bazán, echoes the mantra that counter-piracy is now to be part of NATO’s portfolio of activities. “We need to do this to protect our trade,” he says. ”And we have faced tough challenges, including coordination with non-NATO vessels as well as the huge area of operations we have to police.”

Other factors have helped curb piracy. The spread of ‘best management practices’, has given simple but often crucial advice for captains sailing at-risk areas, like maintaining high cruising speeds (pirates have never successfully taken a ship traveling faster than 18 knots), building citadels to protect the crew and fitting razor wire along a ship’s side. Private armed security guards are another cause, with shipping companies overcoming their qualms that they would escalate violence. They have proved a powerful deterrent and not a single vessel with guards - mostly British former Royal Marines - has been boarded.

But it is the presence of the NATO fleet – bolstered by the flotillas from the EU and other navies – that has been most imposing. “It shows that increasingly, NATO isn't asked to take on conventional military challenges but will have to develop new capabilities, partnerships, doctrine, and strategy for coping with difficult asymmetric challenges,” says Julianne Smith, a fellow at Chatham House. “And despite declining defense budgets, NATO can successfully adapt to the security challenges of the 21st century.”

There are still many would-be pirates. They are often teenagers in flip-flops, but they use satellite phones and GPS to communicate, and are also heavily armed with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s. Their speedboats, or skiffs, approach the vessels and with grappling hooks and irons - some of which are even rocket-propelled - they climb aboard using ropes and ladders. The pirates treat the ship, its cargo and its crew as hostages and hold them for ransom for anything up to $7 million – a fortune in Somalia where there are no jobs and almost half the population needs food aid after 17 years of non-stop conflict.

And the pirates have adapted to the naval presence. Now that high-value ships sail much farther from the coast, the pirates have learnt to roam farther by using ‘mother ships’ - powerful deep-sea fishing vessels seized earlier - as floating bases for their speed boats or skiffs. The mother ships allow the pirates to stay at sea for more than a month at a time. While the average distance for an attack in 2005 was 109km away from the coast, by 2012 this figure had risen to 746km. They are also still holding more than 70 sailors hostage.

This is why everyone in the anti-piracy effort is cautious about recent figures from International Maritime Bureau (IMB), a body that fights shipping crime, showing that piracy at sea is at its lowest level in six years. The IMB says there were only 15 declared incidents off Somalia last year – around 19 per cent of all attacks worldwide - down from 75 in 2012, and 237 in 2011. But Pottengal Mukundan, IMB's director warns that the pirates are biding their time. “Pirates continue to operate and the situation off the Horn of Africa can quickly change,” he says. “But actions such as aerial surveillance, the interdiction and disarming of pirate vessels and the detention of suspected pirates can only be done by the naval vessels.”

There is also consensus that the seas will need policing as long as the underlying causes of piracy remain. Somalia is still a failed state, a chaotic, impoverished, lawless land that is chronically insecure and now increasingly prey to Islamic terrorism (the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi last year was the work of Somalia-based Islamist militant group al-Shabab).

On the Álvaro de Bazán, Paul Meacher reels off the ships many smart counter-piracy activities, but admits that a long-term solution will have to involve reconstruction in Somalia, including building up a functioning government with coastguards, courts and prisons. That is beyond NATO’s remit, so for the moment the fleet in the Red Sea still patrolling its beat. “The threat of piracy remains, and we can’t leave our guard down,” Meacher says. “But we have shown we have what it takes to adapt to new missions in theatres far from home.”

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
i100
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
News
A rub on the tummy sprang Casey back to life
video
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
people
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little