The greatest challenge facing counter-piracy operations today could be managing success. The European Union's counter-piracy mission, spearheaded by its Naval Force (EU Navfor) but encompassing a range of economic, political and legal initiatives, has helped to sharply reduce the incidence of piracy off the coast of Somalia. As of March 12, only two vessels and 60 hostages remained in pirate hands. But a growing misperception persists that Somali piracy has been beaten, and with budgets under increasing strain, pressure will mount to stop funding a solution if people think the problem has gone away.

“We are conscious that the media is carrying this message that piracy is over,” EU Navfor's chief of staff, Royal Navy Capt. Peter Olive, tells Aviation Week. “I heard it on the [BBC radio's] Today program only a few weeks ago. On the basis of one report from one pirate saying he was giving up piracy, the whole piracy venture was over. That really does not stand up to any kind of factual analysis.

“The stats show [that incidences of Somali piracy in] 2012 [were] down on 2010 and 2011, but nowhere near down to 2008 levels,” Olive says. “The pirates are still at sea, they're still evolving their tactics, there are still attacks going on. Over the last six weeks alone we've transferred 21 pirates for prosecution to Mauritius and the Seychelles, so they're still looking to attack merchantmen who are vulnerable, and we're still continuing to operate to stop them. We still all need, collectively, to keep the pressure on.”

Current and former U.S. Navy officers share that concern, expressing worries that, once piracy is considered dead, resources will shift elsewhere, creating an enforcement void that pirates could be quick to exploit.

With the “Pacific pivot” pushing more Navy ships to Asia, for example, the U.S. presence in Somali waters could diminish, creating fertile ground for pirates to flourish again there. The U.S. likely will pull back from anti-piracy missions with the Pacific shift and increasing emphasis on ballistic missile defense, says U.S. Navy Rear Adm. (ret.) Terry McKnight, who, as commander of Task Force 151 was in charge of anti-piracy efforts off Somalia.

In his book Pirate Alley, about commanding the task force, and in later interviews, McKnight highlights the need for continued naval presence in pirate-infested waters, especially with the proper mix of ships, including fast and agile vessels combined with command-and-control platforms. The Navy is deploying its Littoral Combat Ships into coastal waters with antipiracy missions in mind, but McKnight contends they may lack some of the attributes needed for the job.

And while Somalia-centered piracy may be on the decline, similar concerns remain throughout the world. Pirate attacks have been a major problem since goods and people were first transported by ship, and the IMB Piracy Reporting Center reports 47 attacks around the globe this year, including three hijackings.

Even with the right ships and equipment available, anti-piracy work is a dangerous job. The pirates are launching more sophisticated and troubling attacks on the enforcers. In October 2012, for example, pirates off Somalia took the fight to NATO, attacking the organization's counter-piracy flagship with sustained volleys from sea and shore.

The Dutch warship HNMLS Rotterdam was attacked while conducting routine surveillance. “The pirates openly choose confrontation,” says Commo. Ben Bekkering of the Dutch navy, commander of the NATO task force. “This does not happen often, and it indicates that we are, indeed, impeding their operations and in doing so, pushing them to take more extreme options. It is obvious that the scourge of piracy has not gone away, and we need to maintain our vigilance.”

Meanwhile, EU Navfor's mandate is due to expire at the end of 2014. Operations have previously been conducted under fixed-term authorities that were renewed, most recently in March 2012, for the current deployment. Olive believes that despite the wider public perception of the problem having been resolved, decision-makers in Brussels who authorize and fund the Navfor operations appreciate what is at stake.

“The message is well-understood by the member states of the European Union who resource and fund us,” he says. “They understand that there's been great successes in the last 12 months, but it's certainly not a job done. The piracy model is very much fractured but not broken. We're continuing to enjoy good force flow from them at the moment—we've got six ships and that's going to rise over the coming weeks. But of course we have to keep talking to the member states throughout. There is a cycle whereby Brussels goes through the process of reviewing the future. But the dialogue is ongoing: it's a constant conversation between ourselves and our political masters in Brussels and member states.”

Some work is being carried out on new technology for counter-piracy missions. The U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) is funding a program to develop a fleet of “smart robocopters” to hunt down pirates in congested seas.

A new sensor carried by unmanned aircraft will be able to distinguish small pirate boats from other vessels. The Multi-Mode Sensor Seeker is a mix of high-definition cameras, mid-wave infrared sensors and laser-radar (ladar) technology, to be deployed on Fire Scout unmanned helicopters. The sensor prototype will include automatic target-recognition software enabling it to autonomously identify small boats, “reducing the workload of sailors operating the vehicle from control stations aboard Navy ships,” ONR says.

But resource constraints could still see some nations seek to exit the maritime policing role. Anthony Sharp, a British entrepreneur, believes that a private maritime counter-piracy capability could fill the gap. His new company, Typhon, aims to be first to market when it launches this summer.

“The only solutions from governments to the growth of maritime crime are to deploy warships,” Sharp tells Aviation Week. “So you deploy a billion-pound asset to take on a series of criminals in skiffs, and it's not the right tool for the job. What you really need is a close-protection system around you. [Navies] can't be involved in close protection, because that's not what government does. The time for international navies to do this is over. The chartering industry and the shipping industry must evolve to look after its own.”

Typhon plans to operate a 130-meter (426-ft.) close-protection vessel equipped with small fast-patrol boats and a crew of 60, recruited mainly from former Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel. The operational concept has the “mothership” escorting clients' vessels, with the fast-patrol capability available to intercept and, if necessary, take defensive action against suspicious craft.

The projected fleet will comprise commercial container vessels converted for the purpose, with the first fast-patrol boats currently being built. The company is “in discussions with two governments” over flag registration and arms licenses. “We'll be operational in May or June,” Sharp says.

Typhon will run two operations centers, one in London and one in the United Arab Emirates, and intends to create its own operational intelligence picture, using a proprietary tracking system and satellite coverage provided by Inmarsat. This intelligence will be made available as a commercial product, and shared at no charge with national and international counter-piracy bodies.

Sharp believes that shipping companies and multinational corporations that rely on safe passage of goods through pirated waters are ready to pay for a maritime close-protection service.

Typhon's board includes Simon Murray, non-executive chairman of Swiss-based commodities giant Glencore; Adm. (ret.) Henry G. “Harry” Ulrich, 3rd, former commander of U.S. Naval Forces-Europe; and former British Chief of General Staff Gen. (ret.) Lord Dannatt. Sharp also believes the potential market extends beyond shipping companies and their customers, and to areas other than the Indian Ocean. Nations without sufficient naval assets are ready to look to a private solution, he argues, and he envisions fast growth for Typhon's services.

The shipping industry “is already absorbing costs whether they like it or not,” he says. “It's costing them £7 billion ($10.5 billion) a year in extra fuel, in armed guards, in ransom payments. Oil thefts alone in the Gulf of Guinea cost the Nigerian government $1 billion a month—7% of its output of crude oil is being stolen.”

Sharp compares Typhon's service to the kind of close protection provided by private security companies to individuals, and sees no reason why a private maritime protection fleet cannot operate alongside navies or international alliances in much the same way that private security firms complement national police and security services.

“To a certain degree, it's not any of our business,” says EU Navfor's Olive of possible interaction with a private naval force. “It's for the merchant vessel industry to decide what measures it wants to take to mitigate the risks. We'd note that, to date, any vessel that has carried a private armed security team hasn't been successfully attacked by pirates, and that's to be welcomed. Private armed security is, to a certain degree, like a subcontractor—and the primary organizations we deal with are industry. So it would be unlikely that we would ever be dealing direct with any private security firms.”