15 April 2009
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What Mother Ship?

Oh No!

(CNN) -- As the Defense Department weighs options to prevent a repeat of the drama that unfolded on the seas this weekend, those who patrol the waters say pirates must be rooted out before they leave land.

International naval patrols have been stepped up in the Gulf of Aden following increased pirate attacks.

Pentagon planners are preparing a variety of options for dealing with Somali pirates, and a United Nations resolution gives them the authority to conduct operations inside Somalia.

"The ultimate solution for piracy is on land," said Vice Adm. William Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the Combined Maritime Forces.

Here we go again.  I would say that "nobody ever listens to me" but Gortney said his piece before I published mine, so he still has the opportunity.  Not land.  Sea.  Not land.  Sea.  OK?


Piracy is a word much misused nowadays.  Between the illegal but hardly life-threatening theft of media files and "Talk Like A Pirate Day," I think the average citizen is inclined to think of piracy as something less dire than it truly is.  I suspect even Wendy Waldman wouldn't recommend summary execution for someone who downloads one of her files without paying.  Reverting to the actual meaning of "piracy" and it's previously ineluctable modifier, "on the high seas," it's time we purge any thought of "benign" and "fun" from our cranial units.  Piracy is a scourge of civilization which affects trade among nations, raises prices, and costs the lives of merchant seamen who have enough hardships already.  The fact that the situation has progressed to the point that it has is embarrassing to the civilized nations of the world, and to me personally.  The fact that we're thinking of "rooting out" this problem is a good start; that we want to do it "before they leave land" is a mistake.

The Problem As I Understand It

You've got this nasty country, Somalia.  But the country itself almost certainly has innocent people in it, people who simply want to live their lives with as little hassle as possible.  I'm sure if an expeditionary force landed there, one or two could be found.  It also has a cohort of bloodthirsty warlords, child killers (i.e., children who kill), and quite the criminal infrastructure.  And, of course pirates. 

The piracy problem began when they decided to jump into little boats and attack the merchant ships sailing off the Somali coastline.  This worked for a while, until merchant ships started sailing farther out to sea.  This made them harder to intercept, but the pirates starting using "mother ships" to dispatch their raids.  Once you start going far out to sea, things get harder to find.  There aren't enough navy ships in the world to monitor the "million square miles" involved.  And so the pirates make their occasional forays, collect their occasional ransoms, and now, finally, suffer a few mortalities. 

Pirates are a very special, self-selecting group.  They are only active pirates when they're onwait for it"the high seas."  If you look for them on land, they can hide anywhere and blend into the miasma that is their benighted country.  If you look for them on the sea, they kind of stand out, no?  And if you decide to shoot at them, you're unlikely to hit an innocent.  So, instead of rooting them out on land, why not let them make targets of themselves?  I did just say the Navy can't monitor all that area, but I didn't mention the Air Force.  Neither did I mention satellites with synthetic aperture radar (needed to deal with cloud cover).  Nor have I mentioned the increasing fleet of Predator UAVs armed with missiles. 

Here's My Plan

If it were my navy and my air force (instead of, counting the U.S.A. only, about 1/300,000,000th mine), I would give them two tasks.  The first would be to track the pirate "mother ships" and to disappear them.  I haven't seen any pictures, but I suspect that they're barely seaworthy, and would respond well to even relatively inexpensive missiles, although using a few better ones for training purposes would be OK, too.  How do you know you've got the right ships?  Record their movements and those of the ships in their fleet.  Once you see a pirate boat attack a merchant ship, trace it back to the mother ship from which it was dispatched.

Next, if the pirates didn't quite understand that gesture, or maybe are of the belief that the ships disappeared by accident, just prevent any boats from sailing beyond a few miles from the Somali coast.  It's a long coastline, true, but not the vast area of the Indian Ocean the pirates are plying now.


Of course I attended the details of the capture of a U.S.-flag vessel more closely than I have followed the general situation.  I'm proud of my SEALs, the 1/100,000,000th of my one of the (presumably three) sharpshooters, assuming cumulative voting, and the political bravery of their commander in authorizing the action he did.  And I was astonished and rankled at the bizarre braggadocio of the pirate spokesman who has now vowed "revenge" on U.S. and French sailors, if they happen to capture a few.  I'd like to think that my plan to deal with this will be effective and promptly implemented.  The pirates, we are told, are resourceful.  But, at least on the sea, they are not invisible.

Q:  If you start shooting at boats off the coast line, won't you inevitably kill innocent fishermen?
A:  Not if they don't go out in boats off the coast line.

Q:  If you disappear mother ships, won't the innocent sailors on them be killed as well?
A:  And your point is?

This Just In

I wrote the above on the night of the 14th of April.  I just clicked on CNN to find this headline:

(CNN) -- The Liberty Sun, a U.S.-flagged cargo ship bound for Mombasa, Kenya, was attacked Tuesday night by Somali pirates, according to the company and senior U.S. military officials. Pirates attacked The Liberty Sun, a U.S.-flagged cargo ship, but were unable to board. "The pirates fired rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons at the vessel, which sustained damage," said a statement from New York-based Liberty Maritime Corporation, which owns the vessel.

Patience is usually a good thing, but not always.  Another thought:  Maybe Kenya, Ethiopia, and even little Djibouti could use some more territory.

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