By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 26, 2011 " Pirates off the coast of Somalia are using bigger vessels to extend their criminal reach in a move that could prompt U.S. Navy forces in the region to intensify techniques for pursuing the lawbreakers, the top naval officer in the region said today.
Navy Vice Adm. Mark I. Fox, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the U.S. 5th Fleet, told a group of defense reporters here that pirates have begun commandeer large merchant ships and use them as mother ships " to put smaller boats into operation far from the coast and beyond the reach of the international forces arrayed against them.
This is the first time we`ve seen persistent and increased use of mother ships -- up to eight "pirate action groups` as we refer to them, disbursed throughout the region, " Fox said, calling this development a game changer. "
Such groups may include one or two mother ships that travel with a range of dhows, skiffs and other small craft to attack and hijack international commercial vessels.
Fox said the number of pirate hostages rose from 250 to about 770 between September and January. In response to this and to the pirates` evolving capabilities, we`re in a constant process of assessing the way we do our business here. "
The international force that works together in the region includes participation from the political alliance with the European Union, the military alliance with NATO, and military combined task forces that bring together nations from around the world to address critical security issues facing the region, including terrorism and piracy.
U.S Naval Forces Central Command is part of that mosaic, Fox said, and then we have independent deployers like China or Russia, who are also in the region looking out for the well-being of their ships. "
Everyone in the region has been too keen " to categorize some efforts as counterpiracy and some as counterterrorism, the admiral noted.
We`ve not used the same level of rigor and discipline in terms of [investigating] the counterpiracy piece as we have in the counterterrorism piece, " he said. The same techniques should apply to both, he added, including investigating the sources of financing for pirates` activities, equipment, relationships and supplies.
The fight against piracy and terrorism is a critical issue in the region but it has helped countries in the region work better together, Fox said.
Pirates are enemies of all, terrorists are enemies of all, and there has been willingness on the part of a large number of nations to come together and work together, where heretofore that hasn`t happened, " the admiral added.
This is real, no-kidding capability of regional partners developing their own capacity to take care of their own water space, communicate and effectively deal with a threat that they all want to be able to manage, " Fox said.