Sunday, November 23, 2008

Not Hardly Hollywood's Version Of Piracy

The days of the Hollywood-created images of three-pointed black hats with a skull and crossbones are long over. No longer are two ships locked together at sea while wailing on each other with cannon balls. Instead, today's pirates have a large mother ship that releases a small armada of fast and highly maneuverable inflatable boats and rigid-inflatable gun ships. They are armed with automatic rifles and grenade launchers and they can rule the sea because almost all commercial shipping is unarmed. On the open seas, where there is only international law, they could carry weapons. However, whenever they enter a country's port, they are subject to the laws of the country or local jurisdictions; and, that's the kicker. Most ports, especially in Africa, prohibit armed vessels from entering and docking at their ports.

Today's pirates, mostly from Liberia and Somali, are protected by the ruling Islamic radicals/terrorists who control the pirate's home ports. Their protection is guaranteed because those radicals/terrorists get a piece of the action. This symbiotic relationship is as old as the history of piracy.

This issue of piracy at sea is getting to be a serious one and no one government or collective groups of governments is capable of defending all the ships floating around the world's seas. The pirates are having a field day. Over the last two weeks, they have seized ships for ransom at a rate of almost one ship per day. The cargo of one of these behemoths can be worth millions of dollars. The annual losses due to piracy are now estimated at a staggering $16 billion and is growing by the year. A recently seized oil tanker had a load that was worth $100 million dollars; and, that's with prices at only a third of what they were just 6 months ago. Fortunately, that ship was rescued (See Full Story). Besides the value of the cargo, if this had been blown up by the pirates in some failed attempt to secure a ransom, it could have been an Eco-nightmare.

The boom days of pirate activities, from the 1600's to the 1800's, were killed off by the relentless pursuit by the British Navy and other countries. But, the boom might come back unless the international community takes action. We know that much of the pirates are Somalis. The international community needs to get tough with that country. Also, I believe that non-passenger cargo ships should be allowed to arm themselves. However, this would take a lot of treaty negotiations with numerous countries. Sounds like something the United Nations could do.

Beyond lethal weaponry, there are a number of non-lethal, but effective, defensive weapons that any ship-at-sea could use to fend off pirates. The cheapest is the water cannon, but it is slow and limited in range; and, the operator takes the risk of being shot. Another defense is to slather the sides of the ship with a very slippery foam to prevent boarding. But, under the duress of the ship being sunk, this might only aggravate the situation. Another method is to drag entanglement nets from the sides and aft of the ship. With these nets, approaching pirate boats would be fouled and become inoperable. The downside of this is that the nets cause drag on the ship. Thus making it slower and less fuel efficient. There are also some high intensity audio devices, called Long Range Audio Devices or LRAD's, that can be used chase the pirates away. These devices focus piercing sound waves at the intruders. The downsides of this defense are both the cost and the exposure of the operator to gunfire by other boats within firing range and that are not under attack by the LRAD (See Full Story). In addition, modified sound-deadening headgear might be able to defeat these systems.

Lastly, and also the most expensive non-lethal weapon, is the ADT or Active Denial System that emits a focused high-energy wave that produces intense heat and pain on the body of the intruder. It is sort of like the outside of your body being selectively bombarded by the waves of a microwave oven. The retreat is almost immediate (See Full Story).

Unless something is done and the world gets tough with these pirates and their protectors at their home ports, this problem will only get worse. At some point in time, a cruise ship will be taken and thousands of lives could be in jeopardy. If that happens and a ransom is paid, expect things to really get out of control with piracy entering a whole, new level of terror. Is this what we really want?

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