After hitting the headlines last year, successful pirate attacks have been on the wane in the early months of 2009, despite a failed attack on a British cruise ship earlier this month. Experts disagree about what has led to the reduction, with some suggesting that bad weather had played its part, but Rear Adm. Terry McKnight of the U.S. Navy attributes the "dramatic" reduction in the number of attacks to the deployment of a British warship, the Royal Navy frigate HMS Northumberland, and the coordinated task force of which she is part.
To wage today's battles against pirates who took control of 42 ships and captured 815 sailors last year, the Royal Navy is combining machines and methods forged during the Cold War with centuries-old naval warfare skills. The Royal Navy is also hitting back at pirates by using some of the pirates' own tricks.
To beat pirates in potentially violent showdowns, the Navy has adopted the pirates' tactics of using "mother ships" carrying fast boats to spring on opponents.
Warships assigned to piracy patrols rarely engage pirates on their own. They deploy specialized search-and-seizure teams, which in the Royal Navy consist of marines armed with rifles and machine guns, traveling in raider craft. It was one such team from the frigate HMS Cumberland that killed three pirates in a firefight last November.
What the world needed was a stable, democratic country in East Africa, with a stake in the piracy fight and the ability to detain, try and jail pirates. What the world needed, in fact, was Kenya. The United Kingdom, with close ties to its former colony, was the first to draw Kenya into the counter-piracy coalition in a legal capacity. Moses Wetang'ula, the Kenyan foreign minister, and Alan West, the British security minister, met at a piracy conference in Nairobi to initiate the agreement, and none too soon: Eight Somali pirates already were being held in a Kenyan jail, on soft legal grounds, after being captured by a British frigate.
The United States was quick to follow Britain's example. In January, the U.S. State Department signed a similar agreement with Kenya. "The lawyers are at work for the particulars," McKnight said, "and as soon as we get those mechanisms in place, then we will shift our operation." Instead of just reacting to pirates, McKnight's task force would go on the attack.