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The High Seas

Thursday, April 09, 2009
In the news has been the story of pirates who, off the coast of Somalia, attempted to hijack an ship sailing under the American flag. The crew managed to fend them off with the aid of the captain, who gave himself up as a hostage. That saga is still unfolding.

However, a great quote comes from Ken Menkhaus, an expert interviewed by the New York times:
"It’s a business model that has proven very effective for them."

I really agree with Ken on this. I'm not the first person to note publicly that piracy is a choice; it's a tradeoff or risk versus reward. In this case, piracy near the Horn of Africa has been frequent and newsworthy of the last couple years. It has become a medium-risk enterprise with high reward and low cost of failure. If only honest adventures could be classified that way.

With the high reward but only medium risk, it seems that the pirates have decided that reinvestment in their enterprise will pay off. The sophistication level of many of the attacks has been on the rise, and they've been using better equipment. What to do?

The current solution is more warships patrolling more frequently. A classic response, but it doesn't really seem to be fixing the problem, much like trying to fight an insurgent warfare with more tanks. We're just using the wrong tools. What if we started putting out smaller, faster boats to act as escorts for various ships, or embedding Marines on random ships? A few pirates getting shot in the act would tend to discourage the behavior. I mean, I think increasing the risk of the activity is the quickest and most effective way to decrease piracy at this point.

The problem isn't going to go away on its own and it's not going to get better without changing the parameters of the game. Let's just hope we can figure it out before too many people get hurt.


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