Sea Transportation: Somali Pirates Thrive On Pain



December 5, 2008: Efforts to use security teams, to protect  shipping operating off the pirate infested Somali coast, are not working out. The basic problem is that there are numerous legal problems with arming the security teams with rifles or machine-guns. That's because most ports have strict rules against guns on ships. Security firms thought they had a solution in the form of "sonic cannon" and other non-lethal weapons.

Three years ago, for example, a small (302 passengers and crew) cruise ship, 160 kilometers off the Somali coast, and headed for Kenya, was attacked by two speedboats full of heavily armed Somali pirates. The crew repelled boarding attempts using a sonic cannon (LRAD), one of the many American developed "non-lethal weapons" to appear on the market in the last decade. The cruise ship had a plan for dealing with pirate attacks, and successfully carried it out in this case, getting away with only minimal damage to the ship (several bullet holes, one passenger cabin damaged by an RPG rocket and one injured crewman).

LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) is basically a focused beam of sound. Originally, it was designed to emit a very loud sound. Anyone whose head was touched by this beam, heard a painfully loud sound. Anyone standing next to them heard nothing. But those hit by the beam promptly fled, or fell to the ground in pain. Permanent hearing loss is possible if the beam is kept on a person for several seconds, but given the effect the sound usually has on people (they move, quickly), it is unlikely to happen. LRAD works. Some U.S. Navy ships also carry it, but not just to repel attacking suicide bombers, or whatever. No, the system was sold to the navy for a much gentler application. LRAD can also broadcast speech for up to 300 meters. The navy planned to use LRAD to warn ships to get out of the way. This was needed in places like the crowded coastal waters of the northern Persian Gulf, where the navy patrols. Many small fishing and cargo boats ply these waters, and it's often hard to get the attention of the crews. With LRAD, you just aim it at a member of the crew, and have an interpreter "speak" to the sailor. It was noted that the guy on the receiving end was sometimes terrified, even after he realized it was that large American destroyer that was talking to him. This apparently gave the army guys some ideas, for there are now rumors in Iraq of a devilish American weapon that makes people believe they are hearing voices in their heads.

But in a recent pirate attack, the pirates simply took the pain, kept on coming, and got aboard the chemical tanker. The three man security team, sensing that the pirates might behave violently when they got their hands on the people who were operating the sonic cannon, decided to jump overboard. Fortunately, the helicopter from a nearby (but not close enough) warship that the security people had also called, arrived in time to haul the three security men out of the water. The pirates had already moved away with their newly captured tanker.

It's long been known that most "non-lethal" weapons don't work against people who are really determined. The Somali pirates, attracted by the potential for undreamed of riches, are often sufficiently determined.

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