Late in December 2010, Somali pirates made an attempted hijacking of a Taiwanese and Liberian fishing vessels sailing in the Mozmbican Channel. A few days later, on December 27 2010, pirates successfully hijacked a Mozambican fishing vessel and took it back to Somalia, presumably to be used as a ‘mothership’ from which to mount further attacks. In March the following year a South African Navy (SAN) task force, consisting of the SAS Mendi, a frigate, Special Forces, and a maritime reaction squadron (MRS) all deployed to Pemba in Northern Mozambique, to begin a lengthy operation against piracy in Southern African waters.

At the time Somali piracy was a major scourge in the Indian Ocean, with billions of dollars in commercial shipping under threat on a daily basis. In this climate it was understandable to send military forces into local waters at the invitation of the Mozambican government. After all, the fight against pirates is a global one, and South Africa faced its own economic consequences for failing to secure its maritime domain.

But this is 2013, and instances of piracy in the Horn of Africa’s waters have been reduced to single figures. Meanwhile Operation Copper, the name of the SAN’s mission in Mozambique, has yet to result in the capture of a single pirate. Not because the pirates themselves are proving elusive, but because they are simply not there. Isolated instances of boardings and inspections of maritime traffic have occurred, but actual pirate activity is at a virtual zero. At this point, almost two years down the line, the question must be asked: why are these waters still being patrolled?

In the 2013 budget year, the SA Navy have faced almost the same degree of budgetary evisceration as the Air Force and Army, with several vessels undergoing lengthy maintenance and the frigates rotating in and out of Copper suffering expensive wear and tear on their engines. When purchased, they were not intended to be used as constantly as they have been (and indeed there were supposed to be a lot more frigates to use). With the cost of the mission reaching roughly R151m ($15m) for the past two years, defence planners must be wondering whether it should perhaps be called to a close.

For the Navy, the longer a mission fighting pirates continues, the longer they appear justified in needing vessel acquisitions and upgrades. After all, fighting pirates is hard to argue against, since the scourge of piracy has negative effects on the entire East African seaboard.

But the pirates are gone, and everyone in the navy ought to know this. A combination of large-scale naval presence in the Horn of Africa, ongoing stabilisation operations in Somalia, and an incredibly effective corps of Private Military Contractors (PMCs) aboard civilian shipping has reduced piracy in the region to virtually nil. In the Mozambican Channel the possibility of a pirate attack within the next few years is negligible. If SADC military planners and government officials are truly concerned about a cost-effective means of policing their waters, looking towards maritime monitoring and patrol aircraft/radar systems are far less costly. Disregarding political phobia for a second, the use of PMCs in a limited fashion would likely also yield the same military outcome as Operation Copper.

Although great training and experience in maritime security, boarding methods and overall counter-piracy expertise for the Navy, it is time for the operation to come to a close. This does not mean the SAN should shrink back into its former role of diplomatic party boats for hire. The South African maritime domain is a vast region of unsecured fishing grounds, needing constant monitoring and intervention. Refocusing back to these urgent requirements should be a priority towering over chasing ghosts in Mozambique.

Photo by Jim Sher.