Ahoy, Galrahn

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Galrahn weighs in with a provocative analysis of the situation at sea around the Horn of Africa and declares that the USN’s approach is working precisely because it’s encouraging other counties to deploy ships and work together:

The US policy has been to do nothing and allow the development of an international response. We are witnessing the slow and sometimes painful strategic gains of this policy, and it all good for the United States. Let it develop and feel good about it, because for once we are witness to our nations maritime strategy producing our intended national goals. It is obviously very difficult to stomach in the rapid information flow of the information age, but the desired result is not the United States to manage this problem unilaterally, rather we want to solve this very difficult problem in a multinational way, and we find ourselves on the verge of our desired national objective to dealing with this problem.

OK, but I question some of the logic along the way, namely:

Not a single US flagged ship has even been approached by pirates (one might say they are intentionally avoided), and not a single US mariner has been taken hostage. After a year of what is often described as sophisticated attacks, not a single action has been taken against the US due to the threat of US response. The United States still lacks any reason to get involved against Somali piracy, and has responded appropriately by doing nothing.

Well, that probably has more to do with the pirates’ lack of opportunity than any fear they have of the US. Bear in mind that US-flagged ships constitute just a bit over 1 percent of the world’s merchant fleet. That’s right: according to the most recent statistics, Old Glory flies over just 347 of the 31,477 vessels engaged in hauling goods. That said, we clearly do have a dog in the fight, as shipping companies are beginning to point out:

Frontline Ltd., which sails five to 10 tankers of crude a month through the treacherous Gulf of Aden, said it was negotiating a change of shipping routes with some of its customers, including oil giants Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP and Chevron, a move that could boost costs by up to 40 percent.

In case you haven’t noticed, the economy’s a bit fragile right now. Big increases in the cost of transport won’t help.

Meanwhile, in the good-news department, both the Russians and the Saudis plan to contribute more hulls to the overwatch force, and the Germans might join in later. The Indians, meanwhile, are enjoying the prestige that comes with having shot up a pirate whose occupants were dumb enough to have fired an RPG at a frigate. As Galrahn points out, however, they’re sensing a bit of a leadership vacuum at sea.

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Pirate Petri Dish

Josh Marshall, no military guru he, is nonetheless onto something as he looks briefly at the piracy situation:

Historically, the rising incidence of piracy has frequently, if not always, been a sign of the receding reach of whatever great power has taken on responsibility for policing the sea lanes. The decline of the Hellenistic monarchies in the Mediterranean before the rise of Rome. Caribbean piracy during Spain’s long slide into decrepitude and before England decided she lost more than she gained from it.

The Barbary pirates are an exception, given that they ran amuck when the Royal Navy was at the zenith of its ascendency in the Med, but, yes. And the fecklessness of the folks running today’s USN doesn’t help.

Getting Medieval

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Well, the Somalis are at it again, seizing yet another large vessel. Meanwhile, our JCS chairman is slack-jawed at the audacity of it all, pronouncing himself “stunned” that the pirates could range so far and wide for prey. One would think that our Navy hasn’t fought any ship-to-ship battles late … oh, right.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering if the US should reprise the Reagan-era tanker reflagging and slap Old Glory on a few of the tubs floating off the Horn. There’s also the old “letters of marque and reprisal” option that’s enshrined in the Constitution to permit the commissioning of privateers. For there record, here’s part of what the US Code has to say about dealing with piracy:

§ 382. Seizure of piratical vessels generally

The President is authorized to instruct the commanders of the public armed vessels of the United States to subdue, seize, take, and send into any port of the United States, any armed vessel or boat, or any vessel or boat, the crew whereof shall be armed, and which shall have attempted or committed any piratical aggression, search, restraint, depredation, or seizure, upon any vessel of the United States, or of the citizens thereof, or upon any other vessel; and also to retake any vessel of the United States, or its citizens, which may have been unlawfully captured upon the high seas.

§ 383. Resistance of pirates by merchant vessels

The commander and crew of any merchant vessel of the United States, owned wholly, or in part, by a citizen thereof, may oppose and defend against any aggression, search, restraint, depredation, or seizure, which shall be attempted upon such vessel, or upon any other vessel so owned, by the commander or crew of any armed vessel whatsoever, not being a public armed vessel of some nation in amity with the United States, and may subdue and capture the same; and may also retake any vessel so owned which may have been captured by the commander or crew of any such armed vessel, and send the same into any port of the United States.

§ 386. Commissioning private vessels for seizure of piratical vessels

The President is authorized to instruct the commanders of the public-armed vessels of the United States, and to authorize the commanders of any other armed vessels sailing under the authority of any letters of marque and reprisal granted by Congress, or the commanders of any other suitable vessels, to subdue, seize, take, and, if on the high seas, to send into any port of the United States, any vessel or boat built, purchased, fitted out, or held as mentioned in section 385 of this title.

It’s all there in Title 33 (“Navigation and Navigable Waters”), Chapter 7. Bottom line, this is one where the president doesn’t have to ask permission.

Good thing, too. In addition to possibly contributing to more economic turmoil, piracy could one day prove a genuine security threat:

Security specialists are concerned that pirates might someday seize a tanker carrying pressurized liquefied natural gas, or LNG, then blow it up or sell it to terrorists.

“If it was an LNG tanker seized, we’re looking at something potentially catastrophic,” said Candyce Kelshall, a specialist in maritime energy security at Blue Water Defence, a Trinidad-based firm that provides training to governments and companies combating piracy. “An LNG tanker going up is like 50 Hiroshimas.”

We Need Us A Convoy

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The blogs are a-twitter over the latest Somali-related act of piracy, the taking of an oil supertanker off the coast of Tanzania. Wired, EagleSpeak and Information Dissemination all have posts up. Most start by riffing off the Fifth Fleet news release announcing the seizure, which is mostly a declaration of impotence:

“Our presence in the region is helping deter and disrupt criminal attacks off the Somali coast, but the situation with the Sirius Star clearly indicates the pirates’ ability to adapt their tactics and methods of attack” said Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, Commander, Combined Maritime Forces.

The good admiral essentially repeats his appeal for shipping companies to hire Blackwater or an outfit of that ilk to provide armed security on their vessels. He and the folks who assembled the news release also make clear their view of the uselessness of patrolling, given that they tout the successes the USN and other forces have achieved lately in the Gulf of Aden while acknowledging a new problem hundreds of miles away:

To put the challenge into geographic perspective, the area involved off the coast of Somalia and Kenya as well as the Gulf of Aden equals more than 1.1 million square miles. That is roughly four times the size of the U.S. state of Texas or the size of the Mediterranean and Red Seas combined.

Question: Has anyone thought of convoys, or has our Navy gone all Ernie-King-in-January-1942 and in consequence dismissed the idea out of hand? Concentrate the targets, and you can also concentrate your resources on protecting them. It’s radical, sure. But I wouldn’t think you’d need a huge escort to make the exercise worthwhile — a couple of frigates per group should suffice. 

What is required, no matter what, is for navy types throughout the West to get their heads around the idea that they have to solve this. Gortney and his subordinates obviously haven’t:

“While a military force cannot solve the problem, the solution lies ashore, we welcome the assistance of additional forces,” said [Royal Navy Commodore Tim] Lowe.

Somewhere Horatio Nelson is rolling over in his grave.

Meanwhile, The Custodian at Info Dissemination sagely notes that this latest seizure “offers a somewhat disturbing opportunity for ecoterrorist extortion if it is carrying cargo [ed: it is] and if the pirates choose to take that route.” Everyone at all the blogs mentioned above agrees that as long as countries keep paying the ransom, the pirates will keep taking ships.

Intellectual Prerequisite

Galrahn has a mandatory reading list:

if you read this blog and have not read Ian Toll’s book Six Frigates, it is basically a party foul in the context of spilling your red wine on your boss at the Christmas party.

I wouldn’t go quite far, but Toll’s work is excellent particularly for his examination of the economic causes of early U.S. naval confrontations with France and England.

Sonar, Subs & Whales

Galrahn dives into the Supreme Court’s USN sonar decision. I haven’t read the opinion yet but respect G’s technical expertise. Start your research here. I will say I consider the opinion a good thing. You don’t want to go into ASW not knowing how to use active.

Unions Seek Piracy Crackdown

The USN’s indifference to the piracy situation off Somalia isn’t winning this country any friends:

If civil aircraft were being hijacked on a daily basis, the response of governments would be very different.  Yet ships, which are the lifeblood of the global economy, are seemingly out of sight and out of mind.  This apparent indifference to the lives of merchant seafarers and the consequences for society at large is simply unacceptable.

Absolutely right. Catch the seized ships, board them and shoot the g-d pirates. The Navy’s unwillingness to act is an expression of pure cowardice.

Hat tip: EagleSpeak.