ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, May 13, 2009 – With piracy generating big news in the Gulf of Aden, a far-less-recognized multilateral partnership has brought pirates’ swashbuckling days to a virtual halt in the strategic Strait of Malacca. Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, praised a partnership among Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and, increasingly, Thailand and the Philippines, that has boosted maritime security dramatically.

An estimated 40 percent of the world’s trade — about 50,000 vessels each year — transit the narrow passageway that links the Indian and Pacific oceans. Until three years ago, pirates trolling the strait had been launching almost 50 attacks a year, Keating said. Today, that number has dropped to fewer than five.

“That’s astounding,” he said of the decrease – one he attributes to the initiative of nations bordering the strait, with help from U.S. technology.

“In years past, the nations that border the Strait of Malacca were not nearly as willing as they are today to engage in multilateral, multinational operations,” Keating told American Forces Press Service during a flight to India. Not so today, as they’ve joined forces to increase patrols and to improve their collective maritime domain awareness and law-enforcement capabilities.

“They are sharing information. They are sharing a common operational picture. They’re passing information back and forth,” Keating said.

Congressionally approved “1206 money,” named for the section of the National Defense Authorization Act that authorizes the United States to help other countries build their military capacities, has gone a long way toward promoting this effort, he noted.

The funding covers the cost of highly sophisticated radars, radio capabilities and training, delivering them far more quickly than through other military programs.

“But the larger issue is the nations cooperating and focusing on the issue themselves,” Keating said. “More nations are saying, ‘We can do a better job ourselves, by cooperating.’”

While praising the effort, Keating stopped short of calling it a blueprint for cracking down on piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast. Piracy in that region has spiked sharply, with pirates successfully carrying out 42 of their 122 attempts in 2008, Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.

Beyond simple geography – the Somalia-based pirates operate in a region of more than a million square nautical miles — the challenges extend to the bordering countries themselves.

“The countries whose shores border the Strait of Malacca all have standing militaries, and they’re all democracies with firmly established procedures for observing and executing the rule of law,” so they’re able to prosecute pirates, Keating said.

“The situation is not nearly the same for all the countries bordering the Gulf of Aden, and that is a significant challenge for U.S. Central Command.”

Lack of a strong Somali government is a key part of the piracy problem in the Centcom area of responsibility. It provides “freedom of action” for pirates along the Somalia coast, Daniel Pike, the Pentagon’s acting principal director of African affairs, told the House Armed Services Committee in March.

The root cause of maritime piracy resides on land, Pike said, emphasizing the need for an international solution to address.

To better confront the problem, Navy Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, who commands U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, the U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces, stood up a multinational anti-piracy effort known as Combined Task Force 151 on Jan. 1. Task force members have national mandates to conduct counter-piracy operations and work together “to support our goal of deterring, disrupting and eventually bringing to justice the maritime criminals involved in piracy events,” Gortney explained as the task force became fully operational in mid-January.

CTF 151 operates primarily in and around the Gulf of Aden, but also in the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Red Sea. At any given time, 12 to 16 warships from the task force and from other nations are operating in the region.

“The international presence there is significant,” a Navy official said. “We are working with everybody who is there.”

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ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, May 13, 2009 – With piracy generating big news in…