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Dealing with the modern nautical piracy problem

It appears that the shipping insurance industry, taking increasing hits from the sheer volume of kidnappings by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, has decided to come up with some new responses to this. Market forces in action.

Watching a Channel 4 programme last night about a recent capture of a vessel and subsequent shootings, a figure came out that about 780 people hostages are still being held captive by these vermin. Kerist.

Here is a previous posting on the issue by Perry back in 2009. Here is another comment on this issue by yours truly, responding to a particularly silly claim.

Brian Micklethwait has also written on this issue over at his blog.

38 comments to Dealing with the modern nautical piracy problem

  • Letter of Marque and Reprisal.

  • Arrrrgh, you beat me to it JP. I just did a longer and more laborious bit about this.

  • Laird

    Indeed, NickM; that’s why they’re specifically mentioned in our Constitution. (Isn’t it funny how we can find such clever ways to weasel around the clear language of the Constitution when we want to subvert its intent, but then simply ignore a specifically granted power when we prefer not to take any action?)

    I heard on the news today that the US Navy stood by until an RPG was fired at them and the 4 US national hostages had been killed by the pirates. Only then did they open fire, killing 2 pirates and (reportedly) capturing 14 other for transport to the US for trial. What idiocy. They should have summarily executed the lot of them and sunk their ship.

    How about a return to the ancient concept of “outlawry”? Pirates have utterly rejected civil society and so should expect to receive none of its benefits. Anyone could kill an outlaw without penalty, and could also take all of his possessions. Seems pretty reasonable to me.

  • Philip Scott Thomas

    Letter of Marque and Reprisal

    Ron Paul has beat you to it.

    Britain, however, seems to have signed away that corsair of action.

  • Decoy ships. Unofficial, heavily armed yet temptingly disguised decoy ships.

  • John B

    This piracy is occurring in international waters. I would have thought any ship has the right (freedom) to defend against other vessels approaching them with evident intent.
    Any boat venturing into dangerous seas and not capable of repelling boarders would be there at their own risk. Like walking down a dark alley with a loaded wallet and wearing expensive clothes.
    Strange how piracy is back after a long time of absence. Pax Britannica/Americana is truly on the wane.
    The Barbary pirates mainly went out of business around 1820?

  • Seems to me there must be no shortage of playboys, mercenaries and other assorted thrill-seekers who would only be too happy to take to the seas and hunt pirates, were the rewards great enough…

    Why isn’t there a bounty for verified pirate smiting?

  • John B,
    Quite. Seen the current state of the RN though?

    a cutless, a plank, a yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. Absolutely. Fish gotta eat too. Piracy ought to be the shark’s chum.

    RP has a fair few good ideas (not all of them) but a fair few and this is indeed one of them.

    Exactly! Put a bounty on ’em! Where do I get my parrot?

  • Edmund Burke

    Q ships, yachts and fishing boats. Take no, repeat no prisoners. No publicity of any kind so it will need to be special forces. After a while, when people stop returning from their trip to the high seas, the message will get through.

  • Sigivald

    No negotiations, no ransoms, shoot the lot of them.

    It’s not like this hasn’t been worked out before, indeed for centuries.

    The way to stop piracy is to make piracy immediately unrewarding and ideally deadly.

    “Incentives matter”, as the economists say.

  • ‘A fishing boat’ – heh. They were fishing alright.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Somali Pirates? Somalians are mostly Mohammedans aren’t they? And wasn’t Mo a Caravan raider? I wonder if muslimes think that piracy is not a sin, because of Mo’s life and example?

  • Furor Teutonicus

    They would not be so keen to go off “a pirating”, if they started returning home to find their villages, families and friends had been napalmed whilst they were away.

    No damn guts to do ANY thing, the Governments of today.

  • M. Thompson

    At one point in time, government types understood their jobs were about insuring these types were permanently out of work.

    Now, they’re more interested in insuring their buddies get their palms greased. A pox on all of them.

  • Jen

    Pirates are everywhere. We can’t do anything about them.

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  • Jen

    Pirates are everywhere. We can’t do anything about them.

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  • Jamess

    The solution is blindingly obvious – it’s only politicians who are afraid of using force against force (though against unarmed civilians who, say, don’t want to pay such high tax, force is just fine thank you very much).

    However, does anyone know if there are alternative means to earn a living in Somalia? If there aren’t, likely death in the process of piracy will always beat certain death by starvation. Which countries allow Somali refugees? Is there anywhere better for them to go, or anything better for them to do?

  • Jamess: Somalia is “ran” by violent gangs. I haven’t checked, but I am willing to bet that these are the same gangs that go pillaging in the sea, after there is nothing left to pillage on shore. Obviously, there are no alternative means to earn a living in Somalia, but that is the result of the gangs’ violence, as much as it may have been part of the initial reason for it.

  • Andrew Duffin

    This problem will go on getting worse until we deal with it the right way – that is to say, as outlined by several commenters above: shoot the bastards.

    I wonder what Call-me-Dave would do if the Barbary Corsairs start raiding the South coast of England for slaves again?

    Wring his hands and start mumbling about Human Rights, I imagine. As he’s almost abolished the Royal Navy, it’s hard to see what else he could do.

  • llamas

    Regarding Q-ships – as one who knows something of the past history of vessels of this type, it should be borne in mind that encounters between Q-ships and their prey tended to be extremely violent and generally carried a high butcher’s bill – even for the good guys.

    One of the reasons that Q-ships worked well in the past, if you could stand the losses, was that communications were relatively-poor and one ship could trick multiple victims. But in this age of satellite communications, a Q-ship could show itself only once – after that, it would be ‘made’ and its future targets would know to steer well clear of it.

    Rather than try and meet these jackanapes at cutlass -length – all very Aubrey and Nelson and speaks to our desires for appropriate retribution – this is a situation where our technological advantages could be fully exploited. If a Chris-Craft full of pirates approaches an innocent vessel, the answer is not to drop the camouflage panels and start trading rounds with them – the answer (as I have said before) is that a JDAM they never see, from a plane they never knew was there, impacts just aft of the fish cooler and turns them and their vessel into a fine haze on the water. If they show up in a 200-foot ocean-going tender – from over the horizon, from a ship they never even knew was there, comes an Exocet. Or three.

    I use JDAM and Exocet as markers for (like weapons of like type). I’m sure that comparable Soviet-bloc weapons, operators and delivery systems are freely available for cash.

    We should stop seeing this as a contest of equals. We have the overwhelming technical advantage – what we need to work on is the political will.



  • Laird

    Here is an interesting Associated Press article about the most recent pirate attack. It contains two things I found especially noteworthy. The first is the statement by one person identified as a “pirate” that killing hostages, once a rarity, could become the norm. “From now on, anyone who tries to rescue the hostages in our hands will only collect dead bodies,” Abdi said. “It will never, ever happen that hostages are rescued and we are hauled to prison.”

    The other is that this has the reporters at least speculating about an escalation of the response to piracy. “But Tuesday’s bloody events are apt to leave U.S. military planners in a quandary: Do they go after the pirates harder? Do they attack their bases on Somalia’s ungoverned shores?” Of course, they quickly back off (“One maritime expert said it’s too early to tell”), but at least they seem to be floating a trial balloon. It will be interesting to see if anything changes. My bet is no.

    One side point. I don’t want to cast any blame on the victims here (who, after all, should have the right to sail wherever they wish to), but in this day of increasing and widely-known pirate attacks, why is anyone sailing off the east coast of Africa? I understand why cargo ships need to sail those waters (access to the Suez Canal, etc.), but what possible reason is there for pleasure craft to be doing so? There’s a whole world to sail in, and most of it relatively safe (from pirates, anyway). Any sensible person would avoid east Africa. Maybe now they will.

  • Midwesterner

    One reason is that the only alternative is to round Cape Horn. I had some friends sail east to west around Cape Horn and it was an interesting operation involving a lot of hiding in African ports until it appeared weather would be safe long enough to get to the next port. They did okay but they were sailing a rather fast trimaran. The other alternative is to get from the Indian ocean to Europe via the Panama Canal which would of course involve transiting the Straits of Malacca.

    The pirates in Somalia and the Straits of Malacca and elsewhere are hunting at the water hole, so to speak. The crop up in places that cannot be safely avoided.

  • Midwesterner

    Oops. Meant to say Cape of Good Hope. Duh. Not as bad as Cape Horn but still notoriously bad seasonally.

  • Midwesterner

    Here is some more on sailing around Africa to avoid the Suez Canal.

    And another point:

    Also worth remembering is that the pirates, using their motherships, have been attacking vessels hundreds of miles out in the Indian Ocean. A very large crude carrier, which had elected to go around the Cape from the Gulf with its cargo of Saudi oil for the US was 450 miles off the coast of Africa when it was seized, steaming along at slow speed to save fuel. Speed, it seems, is one of the best guarantees of safety, with the pirates only attacking slower ships, while leaving fast containerships, gas carriers and the like to speed past without any incidents. The wash big ships make at speed is their best protection.

  • From Jonathan’s linked article:

    Insurers’ in the City of London are finalising plans to set up a private fleet of armed patrol boats in the Gulf of Aden, in a new drive to stamp out Somali piracy.

    The naval protection force was conceived by leading figures in the Lloyd’s of London market. They have been working with ship owners, freight operators and governments for months, marshalling support for their plan.

    The anarcho-capitalist idea of insurance company owned police forces seems a lot more plausible to me now.

  • I think llamas gets the points. I would refine it a little. I thing MQ-9 Reaper drones prowling the skies and dropping the odd AGM-114 Hellfire might be a highly cost-effective method.

    What is thoroughly gay is that the RN (I suspect most Euro-navies as well) won’t take prisoners and yank ’em home in case they “seekie assylumie”. In a more enlightened age…

    It’s time to get high-tech medieval on their arses.

    Of course we could give Somalia aid. iDave is increasing aid to Afghanistan after all. This craven idiocy and the underlying concept that the poor can’t be scum too is enough to make Santa Claus himself vomit stools.

    Stools from IKEA.

  • I have trouble believing that the huntress from Alaska would be putting up with this if she was POTUS.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Piracy is a big crime, but i bet that, just like small crimes, the most effective deterrent will be found to be the likelihood of getting caught, or not getting caught. Here is a use for satellite surveillance! Track and trace pirate attacks, and identify the culprits, and then punish the guilty, and that would be the best disincentive you could implement.

  • Subotai Bahadur

    Start with one very busy night. 7-800 hostages in their hands. A number of vessels held in port. Most of the prisoners are being held inland. Most of them are lost. We just do not have the forces to hit scattered hideouts inland simultaneously, nor the intelligence data. Some probably are held near the coast. It would be nice if some were held aboard some of the ships, but that is not likely.

    Mention was made of Aubrey and Nelson. Toss in Hornblower too. At least for one night. They had “cutting out expeditions” where vessels would be taken from anchorages. So be it. Simultaneously, retake as many ships as possible [to deny the pirates resources] and rescue as many hostages as possible. Can’t do any more. The pirates have declared that any rescue means death for all prisoners, so after this takes place, there is no reason to hold back.

    There are 6 main pirate ports in Somalia, some with multiple anchorages: Mogadishu, Eyl, Hobyo (Obbia), Harardhere, Bosaso, and Alula that I know about. I assume that intelligence agencies know of others and can add them to the list. Each has a boomtown area of pirates and those who support them.

    After rescuing as many hostages as possible, and taking back as many ships as possible; the pirates will be screaming like ruptured Bann Sidh. Ignore them.

    There is a concept called ARC LIGHT from the Vietnam war. B-52’s in 3 plane cells at 30,000 feet dropping all of their bombs [30 tons per plane] in a precise and concentrated area. They fly high enough that they cannot be seen or heard, and there are no SAM’s in Somalia. In the middle of the night, one port area per night until they are all gone. On the 7th day, rest.

    The pirates require at least a minimal infrastructure. Destroy it. If they seize a ship, they have to bring it to somewhere to hold it and the crew. Make any such location a death zone.

    Repeat as needed.

    Eventually, you run out of pirates.

    No, I am not a nice person. Sadly, those responsible for defending the sea lanes are.

    Subotai Bahadur

  • Alasdair

    Sadly, the current US First Occupant (of the White House) seems mostly likely to consider that, if the hostages were killed on their US-registered yacht, that is US territory, therefore they *must* be arrested by US Police forces … with very few such in the area of Somalia, that makes ’em out of luck …

    One has to suspect that Navy Seals could have done something much more competent (and more likely to have gotten the hostages released with minimal harm to the hostages) …

    As for “the huntress from Alaska”, she would not be trying to emulate the worst parts of Carter the way Obama is doing just now … I would expect that she would have given the pirates a treatment very similar to that meted out by President Jefferson – especially since she understands the significane of the Marine Corps – which our First Occupant considers as the Marine Corpse (as evinced by how he pronounces “corpsman”) …

    Of course, just as a whole lot of stuff stopped when Reagan replaced Carter, and stopped when the planet realised that Dubya was serious (cf Libya WMD program), if, in January 2013, President Palin is sworn in, I would expect most of the planet to get a whole lot more polite all of a sudden …

  • llamas

    All this talk of ‘cutting out’ and other, quaint C18 naval strategies. . . . .

    No offence, but – most of this makes no sense.

    Screw the captured ships. Lloyds will pay. Don’t risk men and warships in futile ‘cutting-out’ expeditions – just bomb them until they have no value over $40 a ton. The pirates make their livings ransoming the hulls – simply render those hulls valueless.

    Don’t carpet-bomb the harbours or the towns – the majority of the Somali population has it rough enough already, why would you go and detroy what few ways they may have to make an honest living?

    The thing about pirates (unlike guerillas and some of the other COTW situations in this part of the world) is that you don’t have to go looking for them. If you wait long enough, they’ll come to you – and in a nice, open, simple AO where they are easy to find, easy to IFF and easy to engage with high-effect weapons with low risk of collateral damage. Why go all C18 on them? There’s no need. And if they don’t come to you – problem solved. It’s what Lucky Jack would do, if he were here.



  • Alan Fitzgerald

    Seeing Khadhafi employ African mercenaries to such widespread extent against his own people, surely Western governments could resort to such tactics in the fight against Somali pirates?

    I am sure there must be at least few thousand very eager Sudanese just waiting for the chance to (legally) let loose.

  • Wow.

    33 comments and not a single voice of Reason here.

    I dont have a one-size-fits-all solution, but star wars tech against speedboats and toothless desperate pirates isnt an effective answer.

    Nor is creating a privateer fleet. Privateers rapidly become the primary problem.

    I think a reform of international maritime law, specifically regarding a more liberal self-defense policy, will sort out this generation’s piracy problem. I havent heard a workable short-term solution however, so I expect that we’re just going to have to grit our teeth and deal with the issue for quite some time.

  • Subotai,
    I heard that trick with a vic (of B-52s) called “Rolling Thunder”. A tight formation of B-52s just unloads bomb by bomb. Yeah, it’s about ninety tons of ordinance (500 & 750lbs iron bombs) and everything is destroyed in a strip 3 miles long by a 1/3 of a mile wide. Or to put it another way you unleash a squadron of twelve and you got Hiroshima.

    But why so low tech. A wing of Super Hornets could flatten the gaff using thermobarics.

  • Chuck6134

    With the threat of lawsuits by killed/injured crewmen’s families hanging over their heads, never mind the hopefully dead pirates (anyone want to deny there aren’t lawyers ready for such a chance?) both the ship owners and governments are leery of using armed force.

    Naive me, I really was shocked to hear American naval forces had to get PERMISSION to even engage pirates. I had honestly believed that one of the primary reasons the Navy existed was to wipe out such creatures when found. I even more dumbfounded to hear the Navy was taking them alive to for trial/incarceration in the US.

    Pirates rating trials and naval forces not being allowed to destroy them on sight highlights just why the trade is thriving. Until the US and hopefully the UK starts sinking/killing these things on sight, piracy will continue to be a relatively low cost way of earning a living in that neck of the woods. Add in the fact that only non Muslims are adversely affected and its just all cream for those in that area…

  • Paul Marks

    If America is an “Empire” (of course it is NOT but I will play along with the “left libertarian” thing – for the fun of it) it is NOT Rome (will if it is it is “late Rome”).

    It is the Byzantine Empire – centralized and state dominated, with comanders having to get permission for everything from a “Byzantine bureacracy” (that is where the term comes from) that is often farical.

    As for the “legal” web cast round citizens defending themselves – that is Roman (Empire not Republic) it goes back to “Augustus”.

    “But what about Britain”.

    A nation that will soon have no navy or airforce left (and whose private citizens are so disarmed and sat upon that even Octavian would have been shocked) – I do not think I will waste anytime typing about Britain.

  • Paul Marks

    Before anyone points it out…..

    I know there were periods when the Byzantine Empire rejected centralized bureacracy (with the Emperor at the top – so wraped in ritual that he had not got a clue what was really going on, and a grand looking army that specialized in walking into abushes), and had something very like the decentralized (and armed) “feudalism” of the West. Otherwise the Empire would not have lasted so long.

    But such periods never lasted – the bad habits always came back. That is why the reputation for centralized Byzantine bureacracy and ritual is as it is.