USMC Boards Pirate-Controlled Merchant Vessel

Update by Sean Hannan

On September 9, 2010, 24 Marines from USMC 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) force reconnaissance platoon boarded the Magellan Star after it had been taken over by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. In what is known as a visit-board-search-seizure, or VBSS, the Marine raiders boarded the pirate-controlled vessel and stormed the ship, taking the nine hijackers into custody without firing a single shot. According to Captain Alexander Martin, USMC “As soon as the first stack [of Marines] made our way into the bridge, their hands were up, their weapons were down, they moved to their knees, and were very compliant.”1 The Marines launched from the USS Dubuque which was operating under the control of Combined Task Force 151 (CTF 151).11 A Turkish frigate had been the first to respond to the Magellan Star’s distress signal, and the USS Dubuque and USS Princeton subsequently provided additional support. The eleven Magellan Star crewmembers retreated to a safe room onboard as the pirates boarded their ship3 and White House and Pentagon officials decided to launch the raid after it was confirmed the crew was out of harm’s way.4 The successful VBSS of the Magellan Star marks the first time US military forces have boarded a ship actively controlled by Somali pirates.5

This should be viewed as both an encouraging incident, and a precedent for direct military action against Somali pirates. Permission for the force reconnaissance operators to board and retake the pirate-controlled vessel is reported to have come directly from Defense Secretary Roberts Gates.6 Consent for the mission was also developed in conjunction with other top-level Pentagon and White House officials.7 This suggests that top-level officials are aware of the type of response needed to quell incidents of piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Aden. Indeed, the United States has been the lead military force in taking direct action against Somali pirates, as seen by the Magellan Star boarding, as well the rescuing of Captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama by Navy SEAL snipers in April 2009.8 The United States continues to bear the burden of applying military force, and the United States Marine Corps has increased training in VBSS tactics in hopes of promoting readiness to conduct counter-piracy operations.9 Even before the Magellan Star incident, such training had taken place at USMC bases nationwide.10 East Coast-based Marine MEUs have been training in the use of VBSS from the air by boarding vessels using helicopters and MV-22 Osprey aircraft for fast roping onto ship decks. West Coast-based MEUs have been perfecting the art of seaborne boarding – the tactic used in the Magellan Star VBSS – using rigid inflatable boats. Both methods operate in conjunction with the US Navy, with sailors also taking part in VBSSs.11 While it is reported that the increased training is not a direct response to the number of piracy attacks off the Horn of Africa, it is a sign that more military intervention is expected.

While the root causes of piracy, such as underdevelopment and lack of domestic governmental control within Somalia, cannot be ignored, direct military action that defeats and deters acts of piracy will continue to be pursued by the United States operating under the jurisdiction of CTF 151. Military interdiction is necessary to fill the gaps while development and governmental control take hold in Somali. Hopefully, Somalis will desist from piracy as a legitimate economy develops. That development will take some time, maybe even decades to establish. The United States is preparing for a long fight. It can only be hoped that the fight is as successful as the retaking of the Magellan Star.

  1. Martin, Alex. “Pirates Beware: Force Recon Really Does Have Your Number.” U.S. Naval Institute, August 2010. (accessed September 14, 2010).
  2. “U.S. forces board pirate-captured vessel, seize control.” (accessed September 14, 2010)
  3. Ibid.
  4. Lamothe, Dan. “Conway endorses force recon after pirate.” Marine Corps Times. (accessed September 14, 2010).
  5. “U.S. forces board pirate-captured vessel.”
  6. Ibid.
  7. Lamonthe, “Conway endorses force.”
  8. “Captain freed after snipers kill pirates.” (accessed September 14, 2010).
  9. Ewing, Philip. “Marines increase training for at-sea boardings.” Navy Times. (accessed September 14, 2010).
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.