Sea Transportation: The Pirates Have Evolved

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December 2, 2005: The issue of piracy is again a concern as it was in the early 19th century, when the United States went to war with the Barbary pirates on two occasions (1801-1805 and 1815). These were, for all intents and purposes, real wars - in some cases involving deployments ashore and blockade operations.

Modern pirates have learned from this. These days, the gangs rely on short-range speed boats and attack in places like the Straits of Malacca of off the coast of Somalia. These pirates are usually equipped with guns (including assault rifles like the AK-47) or knives. Piracy has also occurred off Bangladesh, Nigeria, Iraq (six attacks since April despite coalition naval units in the area), and the South China Sea. The latest circular from the International Maritime Organization (for the month of September) reported 29 attacks. In most cases with some measure of success, stores and equipment were stolen.

Pirates today have a few advantages. First, target identification is much easier. Warships tend to look very much like warships, while merchant vessels and civilian vessels also are easily identified at a great distance. Pirates also have the initiative. They decide when they will attack, and what their target will be. Finally, they tend to melt away into the coast when they heat is too high.

The current calls to send warships will not necessarily solve the piracy issue. First there is the fact that the pirates can tell that a ship is a warship at a greater distance than they could in the early 19th century. Warships today cannot masquerade as merchant vessels as was depicted in the 2003 film Master and Commander. Any pirates who might have been dumb enough to mistake a present-day warship for a merchant ship probably were killed off a long time ago.

So, how will the modern-day pirates be dealt with? Already, some merchant ships and ocean liners are being equipped with non-lethal weapons to make them tougher targets. In one recent incident, a sonic weapon was used in the successful repulsion of a pirate attack on an ocean liner. Ships will also sail as far away from the coast of hot spots as possible (pirates primarily rely on visual acquisition of targets - usually using small boats). Reducing the number of successful attacks will make it harder for the pirates to recruit new members and to get the supplies they need (pirates often will take the cargo and sell it, or they take prisoners and ransom them).

Surveillance is another option. UAVs can also provide a great deal of surveillance where pirates are known to operate. This can help cue in military forces to where the pirates are based. The problem is getting military forces there in time to take down the pirates before they make their getaway. If forces are not in the right place, all that will be accomplished is the ability to know that an attack has happened.

There is a third option. In 2002, pirates in the Strait of Hormuz mistook the USNS Walter H. Diehl for a merchant vessel and attempted to attack. They were driven away with machine-gun fire. This does lead to the possibility of using 21st-century version of the "Q-ship" to lure pirates in and to destroy them. Not only would this kill off pirates, but it would provide a deterrent effect (pirates would wonder if the container ship was really just a container ship, or if it was bristling with enough firepower to blow them out of the water).

Piracy has been a problem throughout history. Pirates have adapted their tactics to deal with changing times, and counter-piracy operations will have to do the same. - Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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