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GAO report recommends new counterpiracy plan

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 9, 2010

STUTTGART, Germany — The U.S. government is not systematically tracking the costs or effectiveness of its counterpiracy activities off the coast of Somalia, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

Furthermore, a fresh plan is needed to confront the changing tactics of seafaring bandits who have expanded their area of operation, the report says.

The report, which evaluates the National Security Council’s “action plan” for counterpiracy off the Horn of Africa, recommends that several U.S. agencies better coordinate their efforts and modify a strategy that hasn’t been updated since 2008.

“Without updating U.S. government plans and efforts to reflect performance information and the dynamic nature of piracy, the U.S. government is limited in its ability to ensure that efforts and resources are being targeted toward the areas of greatest national interest,” the GAO reported.

U.S. and international officials also suspect that Somali businessmen and international networks could be providing financing and intelligence to pirate organizations in exchange for shares of ransom payments, according to the GAO. However, U.S. efforts to track and block financing of piracy is limited because of intelligence gaps resulting from the lack of government and formal banking institutions within Somalia.

Since 2007, piracy off Somalia’s coast has grown steadily and continues to vex the international community, which has deployed numerous warships to the region as part of an effort to contain the threat.

The European Union, NATO and Joint Maritime Forces and Combined Task Force 151, which includes elements of the U.S. Navy, all play a role in the shipping corridor, through which more than 33,000 ships travel each year. Despite the presence of warships, pirates have increased their attacks, expanded their area of operations into the Indian Ocean and taken more ransom payments from shipping companies, according to the GAO.

However, there have been some improvements. While pirate attacks increased from 30 in 2007 to 218 in 2009, the percentage of attacks resulting in actual hijackings decreased from 40 percent in 2008 to 22 percent last year. And in the first half of 2010, reports of attacks declined to about 100, 49 fewer than the first six months of 2009, the GAO said.

But challenges persist as the world’s navies attempt to contain pirates, who operate from land-based enclaves along Somalia’s coastline, which equals the distance from Maine to Miami.

“Analytic estimates from Defense officials show that full coverage of the area affected by piracy would require more than 1,000 ships equipped with helicopters — a level of support Defense officials say is beyond the means of the world’s navies to provide,” the GAO report stated. “With current resources, Combined Maritime Forces officials estimate 25 to 30 international ships conduct counterpiracy patrols in the Horn of Africa at any given time.”

Also, there appears to be no plan to target pirate sanctuaries on land.

“State and Defense officials report that no steps have been made to disrupt and dismantle pirate bases ashore in part because the President has not authorized this action, the United States has other interests in the region that compete for resources, and long-standing concerns about security hinder the presence of U.S. military and government officials in Somalia,” the GAO said.

Despite all the challenges, the GAO recommends four actions the U.S. government should take to get the most out of the National Security Council’s so-called action plan:

• Revise the action plan to better address evolving conditions off the Horn of Africa and their effect on priorities and plans.

• Identify ways to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of U.S. counterpiracy efforts.

• Identify the costs of U.S. counterpiracy efforts including operational, support and personnel cost.

• Clarify agency roles and responsibilities and develop information-sharing mechanisms across agencies.

A Defense Department response to the GAO report did not address the concerns over the lack of coordination among agencies, or the failure for those agencies to come up with a new plan to combat the pirates.

vandiverj@estripes.osd.mil