The past is present as U.S., allies gird for battle with Somalia pirates on the high seas

By John Keller

Posted by John Keller

There's a new presidential administration in Washington. The United States is locked in a global military and cultural struggle with Islamic extremists. Piracy on the high seas around the continent of Africa is a gathering menace to international maritime commerce , and the navies of the United States and other nations are under increasing pressure to intervene and put a stop to this scourge of the seas, which exists with backing of radical Islam .

Quick question: does this description refer to the year 1802, or 2009?

Answer: both.

Two months ago Somalia pirates commandeered a Ukrainian freighter off the Horn of Africa that contained 33 Russian T-72 main battle tanks and ammunition in its holds.

Just this week, Somalia pirates lurking off the east coast of Africa seized a Saudi Arabian supertanker loaded with 2 million barrels of crude oil worth an estimated value of $100 million. Also this week, just north of the supertanker attack, pirates hijacked a Hong Kong cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden loaded with 36,000 tonnes of wheat bound for Iran.

The latest news reports today have further reports of high-seas buccaneering exploits -- this time off the West Coast of Africa, as a Danish freighter with oil exploration equipment aboard was held for 30 hours by pirates near Nigeria.

Astoundingly, more than 200 years later, incoming U.S. President Barack Obama will face many of the international piracy issues that Thomas Jefferson faced.

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, entered office after the 1800 election with piracy off the coast of Africa as one of his top international affairs and national security priorities. The so-called Barbary Pirates were attacking ships in the Mediterranean off the coast of Tripoli, stealing cargoes, and pressing ships' crews to convert to Islam or die.



Jefferson had to do something about it, and he turned to his nation's glittering new warship USS Constitution , a 44-gun frigate that had first put to sea in 1798. By 1803, Constitution was the flagship of the U.S. Navy's Mediterranean fleet, and went into action against Barbary pirates who were demanding tribute from the United States in exchange for allowing American merchant vessels access to Mediterranean ports.

The American warship blockaded African ports and bombarded fortification until Tripoli, Tunisia and Algeria agreed to a peace treaty.

Today, it's as though we're entering a new golden age of piracy -- except this time the hunting grounds are primarily the seas off eastern Africa, not the Caribbean; the prizes are oil tankers and cargo ships, not Spanish galleons loaded with gold; the perpetrating cutthroats this time are not British and French expatriates, but are poor Somalis; and the weapons of choice are not cannons and cutlasses, but are fast speedboats and machine guns.

Thomas Jefferson would not let crimes of piracy stand against the U.S. and its allies. Barack Obama will soon have some choices to make. The USS Constitution put to sea to do battle against those who would exploit international shipping.

Today the U.S. Navy stands ready add more ships to the fight for international maritime commerce off the African coast. We'll see if the new President Obama gives the order.

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The Mil & Aero Bloggers

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell’s Aerospace & Defense Media Group, including Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence and Avionics Europe.  He’s a father of four, a runner, and an avid digital media enthusiast with a deep background in the intersection of media publishing, digital technology, and social media. He can be reached at ernestob@pennwell.com and on Twitter @aero_ernesto.

Courtney E. Howard, as executive editor, enjoys writing about all things electronics and avionics in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, the Avionics Europe conference, and much more. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics geek. Connect with Courtney at Courtney@Pennwell.com, @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Mil & Aero Magazine

January 2014
Volume 25, Issue 1
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