U.S. Admiral Mark Fitzgerald says commercial ships in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean should carry armed guards to help defend against Somali pirates.
"The area is enormous and we just do not have enough assets to cover every place in the Indian Ocean," said Fitzgerald, who commands U.S. Naval Forces in Europe and Africa.
While trying to open a corridor through the Gulf of Aden, some of the pirates have been forced into the Indian Ocean as far away as the Seychelles.
"There has got to be security on these ships in my opinion," said Fitzgerald. "Those security detachments that are on some of the large commercial ships have been very effective. It is up to the commercial industry to figure out how to deal with this. But I do not think that we can give them a 100 percent guarantee that we can protect them, nor should we."
Somali pirates have stepped up hijacking attacks in recent months, making tens of millions of dollars in ransom by seizing ships, including oil tankers, despite the presence of dozens of foreign naval vessels. They have been particularly active in recent weeks, and now hold about 20 ships with hundreds of crew members.
The U.S. Navy says it has five to 10 ships, ranging from speed boats to frigates, involved in counter-piracy efforts off the coast of East Africa.
Fitzgerald says Somalis enriched by piracy are buying up properties in the Kenyan cities of Nairobi and Mombassa, as well as in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He says the international community must organize a joint campaign to crack down on those who finance the pirates.
"We really need to go after, in my opinion, the money, the logistics, how are they being supported with ships, fuel, those kinds of things," he said. "And we really need the rule of law piece to be fixed so that when we do catch these pirates, we are able to bring them to justice."
The admiral says it is difficult to find countries willing to prosecute the pirates.
He says the U.S. State and Justice departments are working on a plan to prosecute pirates being held on board Navy ships.
The United States and international partners are helping to train African navies through what are called African Partnership Stations. According to Admiral Fitzgerald, the program focuses on enforcing a country's laws in its own waters.
"It is a lot cheaper and a lot more constructive to train the allies how to do the job and let them enforce their own territorial seas, their own economic exclusion zone, than for us to have to come down there in a shooting war," said Admiral Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald says it is unrealistic to expect a stable government in Somalia anytime soon, so there needs to be a stronger international effort to address the piracy problem.
The admiral cautions that naval patrols alone will not solve the dilemma because calmer waters are now allowing the pirates to operate thousands of kilometers off the African coast.