MANAMA, Bahrain — Finding pirates, smugglers, and terrorists in vast, lawless seas, where even the good guys carry AK-47s can be a daunting task.
But as with the counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, local knowledge is key for the sailors of the 25-nation Combined Maritime Forces. That means lots of time bobbing in the waves in small skiffs, speaking with local fisherman to learn the patterns of daily life on the seas around the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.
“It very similar in the ground campaign, to what you do with counterinsurgency,” said U.S. Navy Commander Doyle Hodges, captain of the USS Ross.
An American-led effort that covers 2.5 million square miles of water and a coastline longer than the U.S. eastern seaboard, the navies of the CMF are doing battle in an area roughly the size of Australia, in waters bordering countries where the political situations range from unstable to anarchic.
With 36 warships rotating in and out of the Manama-based forces, even at maximum capacity that means nearly 100,000 miles of water for each ship.
“As you can guess, what we see is a lot of water,” said Royal Australian Navy Capt. Vaughn Rixon, the chief of staff of one of three main CMF task forces.
While the broad mission includes humanitarian assistance and rescuing migrants and refugees from rickety boats, piracy is a top priority.
The ships of the CMF patrol waters that include one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, linking the Mediterranean Sea to the oil-rich Middle East. Part of that lane is the Gulf of Aden, between Somalia and Yemen. And where there are ships with cargo, there are pirates, who launch operations from Somalia, where the central government can barely hold control of a few blocks of the capital, Mogadishu, let alone monitor the vast coastline.
With Somalia’s government struggling, pirates have had free reign to launch from its shores. CMF sailors board ships and have battled pirates in a few much-reported altercations — always a possibility where even small-time fishermen often carry AK-47s for protection — simply keeping a high profile to deter piracy is a key tactic.
Finding vessels that don’t want to be found is a challenge in busy waterways.
“It’s easy to slip into the background,” Rixon said.
While a crew dumping rocket-propelled grenade launchers into the water upon approach by a Navy ship is a pretty clear indicator of nefarious intentions, there are other paraphernalia routinely used in piracy and not helpful for the average fisherman, though CMF officials declined to detail what they look for. The real key is using local knowledge to find out what normal looks like in the seas and spot unusual behavior before it leads to an attack, officials said.
Just coordinating among the disparate nations that make up the CMF can be a challenge. Walking around Naval Support Activity Bahrain, the base in Manama where the group is headquartered, are sailors speaking dozens of languages.
With navies from countries as far flung as Denmark, Pakistan, and Thailand, just greeting co-workers can be an exercise in linguistic acrobatics.
“In the morning, you can say ‘Good morning’ to people in more than a dozen different languages,” said Lt. Dom Veal
The sea makes strange bedfellows — while nations spar in the political arena, almost all agree that piracy is bad for business. That is why U.S. naval ships are in regular contact with ships from several countries outside the CMF who conduct unilateral operations in the region, including China, Russia, and even Iran.
“We all have a common enemy,” Rixon said. “The sea is a nasty mistress if you get on her wrong side.”
This story has been corrected from its original version.