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UK naval forces have stepped up anti-piracy operations and the use of force in the Indian Ocean. This could, however, signal an escalation and lead to a more dangerous phase in the battle against Somali pirates.
By Steven Townsley, RUSI.org
The boarding of the Italian bulk carrier MV Montecristo by NATO forces in the Indian Ocean could signal an important step forward in the UK's contribution to the multi-national counter-piracy effort. The operation itself, conducted flawlessly by Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Fleet Auxiliary personnel with US Navy assistance, demonstrated the effect that UK forces can deliver in fight against piracy. It has also shown a promising willingness by the UK government to undertake such a daring attack.
The operation began when the MV Montecristo was attacked by pirates on 11 October. The crew were able to withdraw to the ship's citadel - a pre-prepared safe room - and once safe, they were able to make contact with NATO forces in the region, leading to the RFA Fort Victoria and the USS De Wart making best speed for her position. Citadels have become more common with vessels transiting this area over the past two years, as they allow the crew to retreat to a hardened room from which they can remain for several days. The room also means they can stay in communication with multi-national forces, and ideally, control the ship and await rescue.
The crew were able to remain safely in the citadel for thirty six hours until the two NATO ships were in the vicinity and able to assist. In that time the pirates made an attempt at breaching the citadel and were successful in severing its communication link. This led to the crew being forced to throw a message in a bottle out of a porthole, in a rather old-fashioned way of communicating with the rescuing forces. Once on scene, a Royal Navy Lynx with embarked Royal Marine snipers hovered above the vessel whilst Royal Marines in rigid-inflatable boats circled in an overwhelming show of force. This ultimately led to the pirates surrender and the crew being freed unharmed.
The Montecristo operation was a first for the UK in this region. It appears the team from RFA Fort Victoria were preparing to board the vessel despite pirates being onboard and the crew in a safe room. This 'hostage-rescue' type operation is exactly the high risk endeavour the commandos were trained for. Furthermore, as more merchant vessels embark armed security teams (a move recently authorised for British flagged vessels) and adopt the best management practice of preparing safe rooms, this will probably not be the last opportunity the Royal Navy get to take the fight to the pirates.
The inherent risks associated with an opposed boarding of complex vessels like the Montecristo are significant, and that UK forces should attempt such an operation is a promising step forward in our counter-piracy effort. This comes as welcome news, especially after the kidnapping of the British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler in October 2009. A month after the incident it was reported that a British vessel was in the vicinity after their yacht was pirated but unable to assist. Although the Chandlers did make clear in their recent evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee that in their eyes the Royal Navy did the right thing, one cannot help but wonder if their 388 day detention in Somalia could have been avoided if the Royal Navy were able to intervene.
Of course with such an operation comes a significant risk. The chances of success must also be balanced with the likelihood that any hostages taken by pirates will most likely be released safely once a ransom is paid. Although there have been several examples of successful hostage-rescue missions against pirated vessels, a number have been unsuccessful. The SV Quest is a case in point; in February 2011 the US Navy were shadowing the yacht the SV Quest which had been pirated off the coast of Oman and contained four American hostages. Whilst negotiations were ongoing the pirates engaged a US Navy vessel, instigating a fire fight between the two, and once US forces had boarded the Quest all four hostages had been killed.
If multi-national forces in the region begin boarding vessels in a similar predicament to the Montecristo, this will present a significant problem for the pirates in the short term, as their ability to conduct business could be severely impeded. However, as in all forms of warfare, the enemy will attempt to adapt and overcome, possibly leading to heightened aggression towards counter-piracy forces.
Once on-board a vessel the pirates may also use explosives and cutting equipment to penetrate safe-rooms. We have already seen examples of this, with the pirating of the MV Beluga Nomination in January this year. The crew were able to remain in a safe room for forty eight hours; however the pirates were able to gain access and take the crew hostage. This demonstrates not just the clear danger with such operations, but also that safe-rooms will only delay pirates when rescue is not close by. In fact the European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) openly admits that the use of safe rooms does not guarantee rescue, and that in the case of the Beluga Nomination the nearest EU warship was over 1000 miles away.
The fate of the pirates from the Montecristo is still unclear, however at time of writing Italy has yet to decide if it has enough evidence to charge the pirates. About 87 per cent of pirates caught are then released, and it is unclear if they are at all deterred from joining another piracy gang in the future. This may explain why the pirates onboard the Montecristo were so willing to surrender, safe in the knowledge that in all likelihood they would be back in Somalia shortly.
Ultimately, the Montecristo operation was a success for the Royal Navy; however, with the increased use of mother ships - vessels used as a base to launch attacks - by pirates, coupled with the possibility of heightened aggression, there remain significant challenges for governments and navies involved in countering the threat in the region, with no end currently in sight.
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.
 NATO, 'NATO Successfully rescues crew of MV Montecristo', 11 October 2011, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/SID-474ABBFF-5FB7B05D/natolive/news_79242.htm
 BBC, 'MOD Vessel "watched yacht couple'", 13 November 2009, http://news.bbc.co.Uk/l/hi/8359575.stm
 Commons Select Committee, 'Piracy off the coast of Somalia', October 2011, http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/foreign-affairs-committee/
 United States Navy, 'U.S. Forces Respond to Gunfire Aboard S/V Quest', 22 February 2011, http://www.navy.mil/search/display.asp?story_id=58731
 EUNAVFOR, 'MV BELUGA NOMINATION pirated in the Indian Ocean', 25 January 2011, http://www.navy.mil/search/display.asp?story_id=58731
 Commons Select Committee, op. cit.