Thursday, April 30, 2009

Arrgh! (Redux): Who Wants Some?

Interesting little news item:

The "hero" captain (IMO, frankly, just another goddam statistic in the loathesome "everybody is a hero!" sweepstakes the American news media seems to be running) of the Maersk Alabama testified today in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (although why Foreign Relations and not Commerce, I can't fathom).

"Commercial ships working pirate-infested waters should be protected by an armed corps of senior officers backed by the government, Maersk Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips told Congress Thursday"


But here's what I found interesting. His boss, the CEO of the Maersk Line, did too.

"Arming merchant sailors may result in the acquisition of ever more lethal weapons and tactics by the pirates, a race that merchant sailors cannot win," Maersk Inc. Chairman John P. Clancey said in his prepared remarks."

When we had this discussion over at "buggieboy" earlier this month, I said:

"Other potential issues with the Q-ships would be the immense potential for liability in arming the sort of crews that sail a lot of these vessals. The old days of the Western merchant marines is long gone. Most of the deck crews of these ships are what a Victorian Briton would have called "lascars": Sri Lankan, Indonesian, or Korean contract sailors - basically coastal villagers with a couple of weeks training. Handing out rifles and grenade launchers to these guys? Lloyds would scream like a wounded eagle.

The alternative would be for the shipping companies to hire contract gun crews. But picture the problems and expense that would entail. You have twenty container ships that transit the Horn every quarter. You lose one a year; 0.25 ships/quarter. The ransom is 10 million dollars, or $2.5 million/quarter.

Meanwhile, you're hiring 20 gun crews a quarter, four men at $1,000/day; $360,000 per ship per quarter, roughly $7 million per quarter or $28 million a year.

This makes no sense, economically. They're financially better off paying the ransoms, and the pirates probably know that as well as we do."

And here's the proof; confronted with his own employee talking about getting armed guards on merchies, the operators of the merchant shipping lines would rather encourage their engine room crews to take up juggling live torpedoes on their break time.

What I think this points up is the problem with taking complex real-world socio-polito-military problems and trying to reduce them to news-bite talking points. The Somalis involved in this stuff aren't one-dimensional movie villians. Their reasons for freebooting are complicated and difficult to solve; a couple of bombing raids, an Ethiopian invasion...these not solutions are, young padawan, Master Yoda would say. The bottom line here is there probably IS no single simple, elegant solution; political, military or otherwise. The best answer may well be a combination of guile, force, bribery and avoidance.

But you can't put that on a bumper sticker, or get a blow-dried newsreader to put it across to a viewing audience full of Diet Pepsi and Chee-tos. So chances are we will never have any sort of sensible debate on what, if anything, the U.S. should do about it.


The real bottom line is that talking about pirates lets me post pictures of sexy pirate wenches. Arrrgh! There's a sight to shiver me timbers, eh, buckos?

And not just for the lads - here's an equal opportunity cheese-and-beefcake cover for all comers.

As an aside, I've always gotten a bit of a chuckle out of the latter-day romantic image of the buccaneer. Back in the day they were categorized as what they are, the seagoing equivalent of a mugger or a carjacker. Dangerous, violent waterborne vermin that were the lawful prey of every decent sailor or traveller who objected to robbery, rape and wanton destruction. The contemporary accounts from the great Age of Piracy in the mid-17th to the late 18th Centuries were almost exactly the same as our tabloid press coverage of crime: fascinated but horrified, a sort of violence voyeurism for the safe in bed.

It was only AFTER the sea lanes were tamed that piracy became romantic and writers (and later filmmakers) started penning odes to the jolly roger.But isn't that the whole idea? I've always loved this definition of "adventure": "Someone else having a frightening, dangerous, difficult ordeal several thousand miles away."


Fasteddiez said...

Your posting makes sense only if the stats (vis-a-vis) pirate versus merchantmen remains the same. Remember, only the schlong remains the same (variation on a Zep Theme).

Seriousness aside, if the pirates increase their ops/success ratios, it might be prudent to add one "bad MOFO matelot" to the crew of typical "Pakis."

Of course, one man without proper gear is a waste of resources. Picture a 105mm canon as found on the latter day equivalent of the "Puff the magic Dragon" air automated 105 Arty piece firing a modernized Beehive person, one canon, one solution!

I know, I know, It's not exactly PC; but since when has that mattered?

Oh, on your Piratess, Awesome, but keep her away from the Skinnies.

Lisa said...

At least you are an EO sexist ;)

And what's with the fad to impute "heroism" upon everyone? I guess it delineates "good" from "bad" more harshly, entrenching the constructed divisions. It is so simplistic.

If the Hero Capt. is such because of his brave, "audacious" efforts to escape, one could then call the pirates audacious as well. There are always at least two sides, and I resent the sensationalizing of every event.

Susan the plain Idol singer is not a "hero"! I wonder about it all: is it that people feel so flatline they must get amped over these media set pieces? Is it that they are never calm, and everything is either super or a dud?

It is all so patronizing.

mike said...

I certainly understand the aversion to armed merchantmen. So I agree with you and with Captain Phillips' boss on that score.

But Q-ships are not armed merchant ships. And they would not be privateers or corsairs or Blackwater mercs. They would be commissioned Navy ships, manned by all Navy crews. Like their predecessors in the Royal Navy in WW-1, or like the German Kriegsmarine commerce raiders of WW-1 and -2, they would be disguised as merchant ships. What is the objection? Put a JAG officer aboard who is well versed in probable cause and Law of the Sea. Or get NCIS - the worst show on TV - off of the airwaves and put them on board. Hey, can I get a finder's fee if they air an episode on pirates?

As for Captain Phillips, I empathize with his frustration, but do not agree with his proposed solution. Although I believe he is speaking only of American flagged ships with American officers and crews and not those crewed by your "lascars". Still probably not a good idea. But I will bet that there are quite a few Glocks and Smith&Wessons being smuggled aboard by American merchant mariners right now, legal or no. And some ship's officers may be looking the other way or joining the parade to the gun shop.

Another idea, besides Q-ships, that has floated about: like Fasteddiez' MoFo matelot is putting a small armed naval detachment aboard merchant ships transiting risky areas. Yes, the cost is enormous if you do it for every ship. But why not do it for just the American-flagged merchant vessels? It is better than having a task force of frigates and destroyers cruising the area. Beat cops work but only when visible, and you would need the entire US 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 7th fleets to keep them visible in a region greater than one-million-square-miles. It is also better than convoying every merchant ship. And it has to be better for us than the ultimate solution of invading the pirate's den, which historically has been the only way to do away with piracy.

Let the foreign flagged vessels do what they wish and pay the ransom if they feel it is cost effective.

There is already a precedent. Many MSC (Military Sealift Command) ships have a Navy detail aboard. Others have Navy Reserve Officers in command. MSC was MSTS for you older guys. As I recall, an old acquaintance of mine, who was on active duty, got three days in the brig on bread and water at Captain's Mast by the civilian skipper of an MSTS troopship.

As for your piratess, that is fantasy, I'll stick with the Sea Hag of Popeye fame, at least until some Somali lady gives her some competition. She and her sisters, God bless them, can be found at a tavern near the waterfront in Norfolk, Charleston, San Diego, Bremerton, Naples, Piraeus, Yokosuka, and Olongapo. Almost makes an old man want to re-enlist.

mike said...

My favorite:

Ael said...

The USA has not ratified the law of the sea convention and is not bound by the silly rules that demand boarding a vessel first in order to prove that they are pirates.

Furthermore, the job of the US Navy is to protect us from pirates. They have more than half the warships in the world!

I see no evidence that they are taking this job seriously.

I suggest that we not get carried away with "innovative solutions" until the US Navy takes a serious whack at the problem.

FDChief said...

Fasteddiez: I think the point I came away with was that the people who OWN these ships would rather not have them getting into a fight, even a successful fight. After all, even if the 4" round (let's use the naval term for our 105) wipes out the pirate skiff, one RPG in the cargo and little winged dollar signs start flying away. Heaven forbid that war should eat into the profit margin!

Lisa: I have always held firm (shall we say) to the philosophy that everyone beyond the age of consent should have the opportunity to both gawk and be gawked at. Let's face it - each other's nude bodies have been the object of our graphic art since the first cavedweller carved a venus (or an adonis) our of reindeer bone.

And as for the "hero" business...pretty soon we're all going to be "heroes" every time we survive a paper cut, I swear. It's like the goddam Special Olympics.

mike: I think the problem with Q-ships was fairly well discussed over at the "Lawyers, Guns and Money" blog when we talked about this - the problem is that the more successful pirates are buying information out of places like Kenya about the schedules, routes and cargos of the merchies. Q-ships woud have a hard time fooling the computerized sailing schedules. Plus, I suspect they'd end up doing what the Q-ships in real life did - the pirates would start attacking at night, with RPGs, and firing first to clear the decks, kill the gun crews or disable the engines.

I think that they might be part of the solution - as would naval gun crews - but only in the "stop the bleeding" sense. You are right in that historically the only way to STOP piracy was to occupy and destroy the pirate communities. I don't get the sense that anyone, anywhere, has the stomach for that after the failure of the first UN Somalia mission.

Ael: I agree that the free passage of trade on the high seas is a crucial - perhaps THE crucial - mission of the USN.

What I see as the problem is that the Navy doesn't want this mission, hasn't trained for it and is doing its best to keep its particpation minimal.

Short of a massive fleet of coastal gunboats, the best answer to these guys I can think of (in terms of stopping the actual predation at sea) are guick-reaction air patrols; Seahawks and F/A-18s. But doing that would require the commitment of a carrier air group, and I don't see the USN hustling the one out of the Persian Gulf where it's performing a vital mission..ummm...errrr...threatening Iran! Yes, that's it.

So as far as I'm concerned the USN's reaction to this problem has been to send a coule of frigates - too big to get in close to the coast, too few to be evrywhere...

They're just putting lipstick on mike's Sea Hag. Sorry, but when I see a carrier off the Puntland coast I'll believe that we're seriusly trying to clear the sea lanes off East Africa.

mike said...


"The USA has not ratified the law of the sea convention and is not bound by the silly rules that demand boarding a vessel first in order to prove that they are pirates."

Agreed, my bad. However, our objections with the Law-of-the-Sea had nothing to do with the clauses on Piracy. The USA did not ratify because we did not like the way it treated Seabed Mining in international waters. But I understood that is changing and we are soon to sign, even George Bush 42 wanted to sign back four or five years ago.

"Furthermore, the job of the US Navy is to protect us from pirates. They have more than half the warships in the world!"

The first sentence is misleading and only partially true. I believe the second sentence is false. What is your source??? Sounds like Soviet propaganda to me, or maybe from US Army or Air Force budgeteers.

"I see no evidence that they are taking this job seriously.

They took it seriously when the Captain of the Maersk Alabama was taken hostage. Or are you suggesting that there were other US flagged ships that were taken by pirates?? If so, what US ship did they not protect? The Russian and Chinese Navies are doing it the least cost effective way by having their navy escort each of their flagged merchant vessels. The US is part of a coalition TF which includes warships from 14 nations providing convoy protection in the Gulf of Aden and show-the-flag ops to discourage piracy in the northwestern IO. There is no way we should send a US Navy warship to escort every merchant vessel in that area, regardless of whether they are Saudi or Panamanian or Onassis or whatever. We could possibly do it for American ships like the Russkies and ChiComs do.

"I suggest that we not get carried away with "innovative solutions" until the US Navy takes a serious whack at the problem."

Are you referring to Navy Q-ships and armed Navy detachments on merchant ships as innovative? I believe they both have been used as tools against piracy for centuries. But as FDChief mentions, there is no single solution. It will take a number of different efforts, all tried and true, none of them innovative.

Lisa said...


I am with you on both accounts.

I believe the roots of hero entitlement began with the gold stars given out in elementary school for putting up your food tray.

(And even if you do a poor job, you still get a blue star.)

Ael said...

Oops, I misquoted my original source (Columnist Gwynne Dyer) who claimed:
"The United States Navy has more than half the major warships in the world".

I don't believe that the USN is taking it seriously because I have heard no evidence of a major fleet presence off the horn of Africa.

As far as missions of the USN goes, isn't the *whole* reason why they got started was to deal with pirates? Didn't Mahan talk about keeping sea lanes open?

Also, I believe that keeping "neutral" shipping going is (or ought to be) a priority for the USN. Especially in our modern world where ships use flags of convenience to dodge regulation, but are, in fact, owned and operated for the benefit of American consumers.

sheerahkahn said...

I'm sorry chief, but I got to the sexy pirates picture and I've completely lost my train of thought.

A clever ploy of yours, Chief, and since it derailed my thought processes, I must go back to admiring, I mean, inspecting, uh, model, yes, model for some in, what is I'm checking for...ah, right, accoutrements, yes, thats it, I am looking for accuracy in the period accoutrements...yes...yes I am.

mike said...


Gwynne Dyer is as old as I am (really old!). Perhaps he is thinking of Nimitz's Navy. Or maybe he is thinking back to just before 1970 when Admiral Zumwalt reduced the Navy to 600 ships. BTW the count is less than a third of that now, roughly 190 surface warships and submarines. And a big percentage of that number is amphibians which are not considered major warships. How old is that article?

I will eat my hat if Mr Dyer's statement is true. Is he trying to tell us that the total number of major warships in Europe, Russia, China, Japan, India, Australia and others do not add up to 190? I call BS on Mr Dyer.

You ask if "the *whole* reason why they (the USN) got started was to deal with pirates?" and "Didn't Mahan talk about keeping sea lanes open?".

The answer is no and yes. The Navy was started during the revolutionary war by an Army guy who saw the need. George Washington commissioned seven cruisers to disrupt Brit logistics ships, without Congressional approval BTW. Later when they saw the light he added more ships with their full authority. The Royal navy called us pirates.

Although it is true that after the war, when Congress was broke they disbanded the Navy, but then they also disbanded the Army.

As for Admiral Mahan, he wasn't born until 50 plus years after the American Navy was born. His work "The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660 to 1783" did stress the geostrategy of keeping sea lanes open in time of war, but barely touched on piracy. And he did not publish it until 1890, more than a hundred years after the Navy was born.

According to the CIA Factbook, there are more than 30,000 merchant vessels that are over 1,000 tons. A significant percentage of those transit the waters off of Somalia.

We should do our part, but no more than our fair share, with the NATO task force off the Horn of Africa. In addition we should pay special attention to protect American shipping and our exports, and only those imports that are vital to national security. I do not believe that foreign governments or foreign shipping companies want us to try to rescue foreigners held for ransom by the pirates.

As far as American consumers go, I say tough titty. BMW and Lexus and Panasonic and Chinese made sneakers and bluejeans are certainly not essential to our interests. IMHO it would be good for America if we had to pay more for foreign made consumer goods. It might reinvigorate our manufacturing base.

Aviator47 said...

It's not a matter of what the Navy wants to do. To the best of my knowledge, the Navy has no authority to independently position, deploy or task warships. That's the job of the National Command Authority.

At least that's how it worked when I retired in 95, and I am unaware of any legislation changing that.


Ael said...

Gwynne Dyer did serve in 3 navies, so I would expect that he knows something about ships.

Also, is there an accepted definition of major warship? He may have been using it as civilian speak for capital ship. If true, then will you still eat your hat?

Here is a link to his article on pirates

mike said...

Gwynne Dyer is also a screenwriter, so I would expect that he knows something about dramatic license.

It all depends on how you define his choice of words: "major warships".

And his idea of an exclusion zone beyond the 12-mile limit is asinine.

Anonymous said...

PS - thanks for the link.

CML said...


Erik David Even said...

@CML: This is what I came here to say.

That's Molotov Cocktease the assassin. Not a pirate. The pirate is named "The Pirate Captain."