Rear-Admiral Tyrone Pile, commander of Maritime Forces Pacific, delivered a keynote address to the Maritime Security Challenges 2010 conference in Victoria in April. Excerpts of his presentation follow.

These are troubling times at sea. Over the past eighteen months the international shipping community was roiled by one of the worst economic downturns in history. Freight rates plunged, iconic shipping companies suffered unprecedented losses and orders for new vessels were cancelled or delayed. A city of ships lay off Singapore as company executives struggled to adjust to the dramatic decrease in trans-oceanic trade.

Commercial shipping was also subject to that age-old maritime affliction – piracy. Traditionally, Southeast Asian waters were ground zero for piracy, but early in this century that region was supplanted by piratic activity off the Horn of Africa. The seas off the northeastern corner of the continent witnessed the convergence of two powerful phenomena: maritime traffic, as a hallmark of globalization, and illegal fishing as a hallmark of the new age of scarcity.

Despite the troubles affecting the shipping industry, the Red Sea-Gulf of Aden sea route, which connects the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, remains one of the world’s great shipping lanes. Roughly 20,000 vessels per year ply that route close to the desperately poor, strife-ridden, largely ungoverned African political entities of Somalia, Puntland and Somaliland. The fisherfolk who live there, on Africa’s longest coastline, have witnessed a steady erosion in their livelihood as foreign fishing craft vacuum up the sea. Thus, what appears to have started as indigenous efforts to discourage illegal fishing has been transformed into a highly lucrative piratic industry.

There is a certain excitement generated by piracy that resonates with distant publics otherwise largely indifferent to maritime endeavours. There is a curiosity – and in some cases a grudging respect – for the young Somalis who take down huge container ships far at sea. That process, of course, raises a host of questions. How should navies and coast guards respond to Somali piracy when only a tiny fraction of all the vessels transiting the Gulf of Aden, bound for the emporia of Europe or the oil fields of the Middle East, are attacked let alone captured? Should commercial shippers re-route their vessels at great expense in time and money in an effort to avoid seizure? Alternatively, should they look at ransoms for vessels and crews as simply the price of doing business? Should they arm their crews in an effort to repel Somali boarding parties? The jury is still out on these contentious issues.

And what of navies and governments? Should they attempt to retake vessels by force, thereby imperilling the lives of seamen held hostage ashore? Or should they try to prosecute pirates who fall into their hands? More troubling, will the Somali experience be replicated elsewhere as failed states become more common? How long can or should anti-piracy patrols be sustained? Is it the responsibility of the shippers or national navies to ensure the safe delivery of cargoes – the very lifeblood of the global economic system?

Whatever the case, we are witnessing a truly historic assemblage of naval vessels off the Horn of Africa: warships from the European Union, from NATO nations, and from the American-led naval coalition Task Force 151. In addition, there are naval vessels from Russia, China, Singapore, Iran, Japan, South Korea, India and Malaysia.

Their presence telegraphs a vitally important message: this is a century of seapower. This eclectic armada highlights the critical necessity for interoperability, for standard operating procedures, and for information sharing as warships from around the world attempt to secure the ocean commons. The leadership of the United States Navy has been forthright in its declarations in this regard, that no one navy can sustain the constabulary burden at sea. Maritime cooperation is not an option, it is a necessity.

Piracy, of course, is not the only source of concern for nations with maritime interests. Contemporary journals are replete with articles about the numerical and qualitative decline of the old frontline navies. The Royal Navy is frequently portrayed as struggling against insuperable budgetary odds to ensure that the fleet of the future contains aircraft carriers, ballistic missile submarines, and enough mid-sized surface combatants to ensure that these critical assets are suitably safeguarded. Similarly, the much vaunted goal of a 313-ship U.S. Navy has begun to appear increasingly illusive.

Navalists in the Euro-Atlantic community and elsewhere lament the continuation of what the celebrated maritime analyst Professor Geoffrey Till has called “Maritime Blindness” – that frustrating inability of navies and their supporters to educate publics, politicians and policymakers that now, more than ever before, the untrammelled movement of oceanic commerce and the flexibility, power, mobility and adaptability of naval power are essential keys to our wellbeing.

The same cannot be said for large parts of Asia, where economic vitality and self-confidence have given rise to nationalism and a new commitment to seapower. The formula is simple and irresistible: great nations have great navies. Thus, we have seen major players like China and India reorient their axes of national interest away from the interior of Asia toward the sea. Export-driven economies, not to mention those vitally dependent on imported energy, have come to see their futures denominated largely in maritime terms.

For the first time, we are beginning to hear seasoned commentators speak of a maritime arms race in East Asia. Even if this is not the case, the maritime environment in the Indian and Pacific Oceans is becoming more brittle. China’s offshore ambitions are increasingly at odds with those of Japan and the nations around the South China Sea. Naval gunfire has been heard too frequently off the Koreas and, more recently, the states that flank the Strait of Malacca have braced themselves for an oft-considered, but relatively rare development: a terrorist attack against trans-Malaccan shipping.

As the likelihood of set piece naval battles becomes increasingly remote, navies are re-examining two critical areas: capabilities and functions. If many navies, squeezed by budgetary pressures and unfavourable demographics, are destined to shrink in size, can they make up for fewer hulls with greater capability? And if the Battles of Jutland and Midway are things of the past, what should navies prepare for in the future? Certainly, navies face a daunting challenge as new naval technologies proliferate more and more rapidly.

Recent events have highlighted a critical shift in naval functions. Several years ago, in recognition of new realities, the U.S. Navy elevated Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) from a tertiary-level function to a primary consideration. This shift came on the heels of the massive earthquake and tsunami in late December 2004 that devastated northwestern Sumatra and the coastlines of many neighbouring Indian Ocean states, like Sri Lanka and India.

Recent tragic occurrences in Western Samoa, Indonesia, Haiti and Chile have underscored powerfully and graphically the vulnerability of coastal communities and the indispensable role played by navies in ameliorating appalling conditions ashore. The Canadian Navy assisted in the relief efforts in Haiti and in Chile. In the former instance, two Canadian warships, the destroyer HMCS Athabaskan and the frigate HMCS Halifax, took part in Operation Hestia, bringing assistance to the shattered Caribbean state.

Warships, of course, have unique capabilities. They can generate fresh water, provide medical support, serve as communications centres, use their helicopters to ferry wounded, and in the final analysis, serve as sources of raw manpower, shifting rubble, putting up temporary housing, and ensuring peace and good order ashore. This was the second time in recent years that the Canadian Navy undertook HADR activities in the Caribbean. In 2005, Canadian Navy vessels stood off flooded and storm ravaged New Orleans, providing relief following Hurricane Katrina.

There is a growing body of opinion that global warming will give rise to more intense and more frequent storms of the Hurricane Katrina variety. Thus, HADR operations seem destined to be a naval priority in the future. In addition, global warming will, we are informed, give rise to greater levels of desertification in societies as geographically removed as Australia and China. It will be increasingly difficult to feed the planet, particularly at a time when another 2.5 billion people are expected to swell the global population in the next 40 years. Refugees, already a source of concern in southern Europe, are likely to increase in numbers and levels of desperation. Some speak of climate wars.

Finally, are counterterrorism operations, to which we have become accustomed, likely to prevail or are they a passing phase? How do democracies sustain themselves in the face of discretionary wars with ambiguous outcomes? And how should navies reshape themselves to deal with the demands of terrorist attacks? Some of that reshaping is already taking place. Much, however, remains to be determined.