Industry Insights: What's So Hard About Stopping Piracy?


Apr 11, 2011

This commentary originally appeared in Earth Imaging Journal on April 11, 2011.

The recent killing of American hostages by Somali pirates perhaps has set aside any Robin Hood-like notions that some may have had about the intent, determination, and ruthlessness of modern pirates. Pirates, Somali or otherwise, are considered "enemies of all mankind" for good reason, as Amitai Etzioni explains carefully in the Winter 2011 edition of the Canadian Naval Review.

My RAND colleague Peter Chalk has written extensively that such murders and the ransom lure likely will increase in the future; we both believe that the best results maritime forces can achieve at sea is containment of a problem that arises from conditions on land. Yet containment at sea through the coordinated action of many nations may be the only option for many years. If that is the case, can modern Earth observation satellites and other detection systems significantly contribute to international law enforcement?

Piracy can be considered a symptom of a much wider malaise—that of persistent maritime disorder. This disorder may arise from the interplay of many factors that can be grouped under the broad headings of governance, society, and economy. Where there are imperfections in these factors or their interaction, persistent disorder can occur. This disorder can be exploited, and it is the intent and capability of the perpetrators that determines the crime. From this perspective, the problem of piracy is just one of the potential crimes that may occur at sea....

The remainder of this op-ed can be found at

Laurence Smallman is a defense research analyst at the RAND Corporation.

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