Piracy in the waters around the Horn of Africa continues to be a vexing problem for international shipping. The ultimate solution to piracy in this region will involve the establishment of an effective government in Somalia that is capable of ensuring the rule of law in that country. However, while initiatives are undertaken to support that crucial objective, American merchant mariners continue to sail in harm's way.
As chairman of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, I have carefully studied the issue of piracy in the waters around the Horn of Africa and the ongoing threat it poses to U.S. merchant mariners and American shipping interests. I have convened two hearings on this issue this year - one in February before U.S.-flagged vessels had been attacked by Somali pirates and one after the April attacks on the Maersk Alabama and the Liberty Sun. There is no doubt that the threat of piracy is growing. In 2008, 111 merchant ships were attacked or hijacked off the Horn of Africa. We exceeded that figure in just the first five months of 2009.
The U.S. Navy, working closely with the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other allies, has done a commendable job in mounting an international anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden. However, there are a number of U.S. merchant ships - most of them carrying American aid - that are required to travel outside the transit lanes patrolled by this international maritime presence to reach destinations along Africa's eastern coast. Their voyages often take them through the heart of pirate-infested waters.
I have no doubt our military would respond immediately if another U.S.-flagged vessel were attacked. However, the timeliness of their response could be hindered if military assets are far from the scene of an attack.
Further, it is surely preferable to prevent an incident from occurring in the first place than it is to respond to a hostage situation, as the U.S. Navy was forced to do following the kidnapping of Capt. Richard Philips of the Maersk Alabama.
It has become clear to me since the Maersk Alabama and the Liberty Sun were attacked that more can and should be done to protect U.S. crews on U.S.-flagged ships carrying U.S. cargo. That is why I authored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would require the Department of Defense to place small teams of armed security aboard those few U.S. flagged ships truly at risk of being boarded when they carry U.S. government cargo through an area where there is a high risk of piracy.
Protecting both American lives and U.S. shipping on the high seas has been a core function of the U.S. Navy since its creation. Inexplicably, however, senior officials at the Department of Defense have repeatedly argued before Congress that the area in which Somali pirates operate is so vast they simply cannot prevent every attack.
This perspective assumes that the only way the military can protect merchant shipping from pirates is to stage vessels across the entire million-square-mile theater of operations.
The United States Maritime Administration estimates that approximately 54 U.S.-flagged vessels transit the Horn of Africa region during the course of a year. Of these, about 40 will carry U.S.-government food aid cargo, and 44 have the ability to carry U.S. military cargo.
Only a handful of these vessels - fewer than 10 in a three-month period - are estimated to be at serious risk of attack due to their operating characteristics.
Providing embedded military security teams on those U.S.-flagged vessels truly at risk of pirate attack would surely require far fewer resources than patrolling a million-square mile area.
Nonetheless, the DOD has responded to this proposal by claiming that deploying such security teams would impair other operational commitments. While our military is obviously fighting multiple combat operations at this time, it is hard to believe that the most powerful military in the world cannot find the relatively few military personnel required to adequately protect a handful of U.S.-flagged ships and their U.S. citizen crews.
My amendment, which has passed the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, enjoys the support of U.S. maritime labor unions and U.S. ship owners. As one union official said before my subcommittee, "When a vessel flies the U.S. flag, it becomes an extension of the United States itself, regardless of where in the world the vessel is operating." Surely, protecting U.S. citizens and property was the purpose for which our military forces were created.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings represents Maryland's 7th District. He can be contacted through his office, 410-685-9199.