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Peter M. Swartz
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Counter-piracy operations: Lessons from history

Recent events off the Horn of Africa have once again involved the US Navy in counterpiracy operations. The Navy has been involved in operations against piracy since the 18th century. We quickly reviewed these operations and found several relevant lessons for today’s operations.

Piracy activities across the centuries

We identified three distinct eras relating to piracy: the era of privateering, the era of Western imperialism, and the era of terrorism.

The era of privateering: 18th and 19th centuries

Privateers were civilians licensed by their sovereigns to seize upon the high seas vessels, cargoes, and crews of other nations against whom their own nation was at war. Pirates also operated for their own financial benefit on the high seas, but with no government authorization, and against the ships, cargoes, and crews of any nation. The Law of Nations allowed the forces of any nation to capture, try, and hang them. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, it was often difficult to differentiate legal privateering from illegal piracy. During this period the American merchant marine became second only to that of Great Britain in size. As one of the world’s leading shipping powers, the United States had a vital interest in the safety of American ships, crews, cargoes, and profits. This was the principal mission set of the Navy through most of this period. This was the era of the Barbary pirates and the Caribbean antipiracy campaign.

The era of Western imperialism: 19th and 20th centuries

The nineteenth century saw an explosion of European and American global commerce, and a concomitant increase in attacks on that commerce worldwide. Some of these attacks were sponsored by political entities: decaying empires, petty states, local warlords, and insurgent groups. Others were clearly conducted by independent bands of true pirates. Western naval operations to suppress piracy usually involved landings and assaults ashore. These antipiracy   CNA Historical Paper Series (2006) ii operations were sometimes hard to distinguish—especially in the minds of local rulers—from the various other forms of European colonial land-grabs then under way throughout the world.

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CNA Historical Paper Series

CNA publishes documents in its Historical Paper Series to highlight previously unpublished works with historical perspectives that may be of use to current and future researchers. The content of this paper is current through its initial writing in 2006. It is presented in its original format.

DISTRIBUTION STATEMENT A. Approved for public release: distribution unlimited.


  • Pages: 24
  • Document Number: DIM-2019-U-022385-1Rev
  • Publication Date: 8/6/2021
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