Tuesday, November 18

War at sea, continued: Is anyone still buying that "Somali pirates" are simple fishermen? Time to crack out the microwave guns

"Maritime security experts said they have tracked a southward spread in piracy over the last several weeks into a vast area of the Indian Ocean, noting with alarm that the area would be almost impossible to patrol.

"We remain deeply concerned because this attack represents a fundamental change in pirates' ability to hijack bigger vessels farther out at sea." (1)

October 27, 2008,
[Re October 24 Pundita post War at sea: piracy and the rise of private navies]

My guess, after taking a glance at Ukraine's navy, was that they didn't have one. A ship, that is. Practically all they've got are only suitable for near shore use."
Dave Schuler
The Glittering Eye

Dear Dave,
I apologize for my delay in replying; things have been tumultuous on my end for many weeks; I've posted to my blog very intermittently since then.

I do not know, and I am positive I do not want to ruin my day by knowing, the fate of that hijacked Ukrainian ship but when last I heard the hijackers were still on board.

Re your comment: good point; thanks for that. But even if that's the case then it was still madness to send that ship into pirate waters. 33 battle tanks unguarded except by a small crew with light arms. What was Kiev thinking?

I know there are 'outside forces,' shall we say, which been involved for years in covert attempts to help in southern Sudan and overthrow the government in Khartoum. That knowledge is open source, if one digs hard enough on the internet.

The point is that if Kiev knew those weapons and the tanks were really bound for southern Sudan, you'd think they would have rung up those outside forces and asked for help in guarding the ship if they didn't have an escort of their own to send.

And if they were so naive (unlikely) to assume the battle tanks were bound only for Kenya, why didn't they tell the Kenyan military to scare up an armed escort or no deal?

I'm not sure it would have taken a battleship to have guarded the Ukraine ship. Why couldn't they do the same thing the Somali pirates did, and send several speedboats armed to the teeth to escort the ship? At least a firefight between the speedboats would have given the Ukraine ship's crew time to crack open those crates and pull out heavy firepower.

So no matter how much I play around with the pieces of this story, it doesn't stack for me.

I have a really bad feeling about all this, Dave. The feeling got worse this morning, when the news hit the international wires that a brand new (read "state-of-the-art") Saudi oil supertanker carrying $100 million in oil was hijacked this weekend by Somali pirates.

The tanker is named MV Sirius Star; it is the length of an aircraft carrier and it can carry about 2 million barrels of oil. It's the largest ship that the Somali pirates have hijacked to date.

The scariest part is that the pirates completely circumvented the international coalition of warships patrolling the so-called "critical" zone in the Gulf of Aden leading to and from the Suez Canal. NATO and other nations put together that patrol, if I recall after the Ukraine ship was attacked.

The gulf is where most of the 80+ pirate attacks have taken place this year. The Saudi tanker, however, was seized far to the south of the patrolled zone, about 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya, according to the U.S. Navy.(1)

NATO warships bobbing around in the ocean while speedboats zip outside shooting range. There's a metaphor for the times, if I ever saw one.

Think of it; a few pirates in speedboats hijacked a ship the length of an aircraft carrier. I am beginning to wonder about these pirates. It looks as if it started out as a bunch of rag-tag fishermen just trying to earn enough to feed their families, but I am seeing greater and greater sophistication coming into these hijackings. Military-type sophistication.

I don't want to fling unsupported accusations, but if I see a bank robber gang hanging around a bank and the bank gets hit, I think I'm entitled to be suspicious. The Pasdaran speedboats have been getting bolder in harassing US and UK naval ships. These harassing activities are showing off the expertise of the IRGC with speedboats. And of course there's al Qaeda and kindred terror organizations to worry about.

My biggest worry is that I'm seeing the same kind of attitude from many shipping companies that made it child's play for al Qaeda to turn airplanes into bombs on 9/11. When passengers learned what was really going on they fought the hijackers. But the passengers on the other hijacked planes clearly followed the airline company protocols for responding to hijackers: don't resist, stay calm.

That attitude, when translated to ships at sea, invites turning the pirate speedboats into bombs. There are even more ominous things that can be done with bombs when you think in terms of having a big ship held by pirates that is docked. That's what happened to the Sirius Star. The pirates hauled it into harbor and docked it, can you believe.

I'm not the only person worried about these kind of scenarios. This morning I read a report by Lewis Page about a US admiral who is strongly recommending the use of microwave guns against pirate attacks. Evidentially the pirates are taking precautions against the LRAD (sound-blasters), but it doesn't seem there's any protection against the microwave guns:
Specifically, he'd like some variant on the (in)famous Raytheon Active Denial System microwave gun, which inflicts intense pain on its targets by heating up the outer layer of their skin. Raytheon say they've already tested the ADS against men in boats, off Florida in 2006, and it worked well.

However, just because Admiral Gortney would like some microwave rayguns doesn't mean he'll get them. Ground troop commanders in Iraq have been nagging the Pentagon for such weapons for years without any result, primarily because of the negative media perception of them.
Page ends with the sardonic observation:
The fact is, in general media coverage appears to be less damaging when western forces shoot or blow up local people, killing or crippling them in significant numbers, than when they propose deploying non- or less-lethal weapons.
They better set aside their fear of offending the public and come up with something, and fast, unless we want to close the barn door too late on these ship hijackings, as happened with airline security after 9/11.

Another point: I don't recall reading about gated communities and palatial villas springing up in Somalia, Lear jets parked in driveways and fisherman's wives going shopping in Paris. So where is all this ransom money going that the Somali pirates have collected? Two million USD here, five million Euros there; pretty soon you're talking real money. Where's it all going?

Okay, outlays for souped up speedboats and light weapons, but I think that would leave several hundred million USD still unaccounted for in recent years. Maybe a chunk of that is going to bribing officials and paying a network of spies to watch docks for interesting cargo and bribe ship captains. But it just seems to me that when this much money is sloshing around, governments can be greatly involved in the piracy, not to mention the involvement of terrorist groups and international crime syndicates.

Again, there's a relatively simple way to thwart the pirates but to date everyone has been too squeamish to deploy it. Let's hope that's changing. Of course no one likes the idea of a cruise ship armed with a microwave weapon. But I like even less a cruise ship boarded by terrorists that are assumed by the crew to be pirates.

It's time to start disabling any unfriendly bigger than a seagull that approaches a ship.

And every shipping company and government needs to ditch the policing mindset. This is not cops and robbers. This is war at sea.

This morning a reader sent me notice of an upcoming conference in London on piracy. My feeling is that events are moving faster than the conference's approach, but for what it's worth here's the information. Caveat: I know nothing about Quaynote and I haven't even visited their website:

Tackling Piracy at Sea Conference

18th and 19th March 2009, London, UK

Register now at Quaynote "dot" com

Somalia is now the backdrop against which increasing levels of piracy are seen. With both the frequency and violence of attacks thought to be growing, there is mounting pressure on governments, international agencies, and the shipping industry to tackle the problem.

Tackling Piracy is an international conference that will bring together all those concerned with or affected by piracy at sea to discuss what solutions can be found. As insurance companies offer kidnap negotiators under owners` policies, is it right for ship operators to pay ransoms to pirates in order to minimalise risk to crews and cargo? Or is their willingness to pay up encouraging piracy, with attackers motivated by their enhanced chances of commercial or political gain?

By examining a whole range of solutions, from improved international co-operation, the provision of greater naval protection or deployment of private security organisations, to looking at the effectiveness of preventative measures and the argument for industry to fund policing, Tackling Piracy will offer an ideal forum to both assess the problem and pinpoint some possible answers.

Conference Chaired by:

David Jamieson, former UK Shipping Minister

Speakers already confirmed:

Paul Agate, Swinglehurst
Stephen Askins, Ince & Co
Guillaume Bonnissent, Hiscox
Toben Janholt, Danish Shipowners` Assocation
Chris Moore, Drum Cussac
Pottengal Mukundan, International Maritime Bureau
Neil Young, Armor Group

For further details go to Quaynote

Telephone: 44 (0) 20 8348 3704


Alison Singhal
Quaynote Communications

1) Hijacked Ship Holds $100 Million in Oil
By BARBARA SURK, AP, November 18, 2008

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