In which Paul reveals his ignorance of naval warfare

So, this piracy thing. Piracy’s not like terrorism or guerrilla warfare, right? Not, that is, like terrorism or guerrilla warfare in that terrorists or guerrilla fighters can hide among the population or under cover, can pretend to be normal citizens, &c. Pirates, by contrast, have to have boats. Boats that can be spotted on radar, that often are registered to non-failed states, that have to look at least a little bit suspicious going out of, e.g., fishing lanes. Am I right? Moreover, Somalia is one of the few countries where the militaries of the world basically have a politically free hand — nobody who isn’t already enraged at us is going to get more enraged by a little naval warfare off their coast.

If I am right, then to what extent could the pissed-off countries (the U.S. and France — participating in a joint military operation! In the rare instances when we actually pull this off, it tends to work…) simply blanket the seas around Somalia with radar, station a couple of aircraft carriers with fast and vindictive planes in the neighborhood, and say “any unidentified ship that gets closer than a mile to any legitimate and registered vessel will be sunk on sight?” For that matter, why not issue a few rocket launchers to the crew of any vessel going through the really dangerous bits? Really, this is kind of insulting to my vestigial national pride. How long would Jefferson have put up with this crap?

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8 Responses to “In which Paul reveals his ignorance of naval warfare”

  1. Steve M. Says:

    Why don’t the western navies do anything? Wikipedia to the rescue: It costs $160 million dollars annually to operate a Nimitz class aircraft carrier. That’s about $438,000 per day. As far as I know, the Somali pirates haven’t killed anyone yet (correct me if I’m wrong!). And as I understand it, the Somali pirates generally ransom their hostages for tens, and sometimes hundreds, of thousands of dollars. To read the news, it sure seems like there’s nothing but pirate hostage taking in the Gulf of Aden and surrounding waters, but the number of incidents seems small in comparison to what must be the enormous volume of shipping that goes through the area. Destroyers and the like will cost less than aircraft carriers, of course, but they will still be quite expensive, and the overall amount of money the pirates are extorting is small in the big scheme of things. Note that now that a group of pirates has taken an American citizen from his ship and refused to release him, a US Navy destroyer is steaming to the rescue. Let’s hope the pirates learn a lesson about the reputational interests of great powers — the US can ignore the pirate problem as long as it’s relatively small and people aren’t being hurt or killed, but one it gets too big, or death and injury become frequent, then it has to intervene.

    As for arming the ships, I still expect the expected value of arming the ships is small in comparison to the expected value of payments to the pirate. And even if not, what do you think the shipping companies’ insurers will have to say about it? And what do you think would be the public reaction here to a ship flying a Yemeni flag, manned by Pakistani sailors, and with a cabinet of rocket launchers dropping anchor in New Orleans? As far as I know, the shipping companies aren’t seriously exploring the arm-the-ships option, and I suspect they have good reasons.

  2. Steve M. Says:

    I guess you could give the rocket launchers to the ships at either end of the pirate infested waters. But (1) I would want to give firearms to dudes shipping fuel and (2) that would add some amount of time to the voyage of every ship that went through the Suez canal, which would in the aggregate be an enormous expense.

  3. Steve M. Says:

    (Obviously, a “not” is omitted from (1) above.)

  4. Paul Gowder Says:

    Huh, sensible enough. There’s, I guess, an equilibrium level of piracy at which it’s just barely cheaper for the western powers to let it happen than to deal with it.

  5. R Says:

    I think you’re basically right that we *could* do something if we wanted, but the other point I’m appreciating somewhat more, having thought about it, is that the sea is quite big, and distinguishing small powerboats in the middle of it is fast enough to do something about them is actually harder than it seems. Or, at least, so I understand.

  6. Kevin Says:

    I am not totally familiar with the particulars of our current case, but there are definitely legal issues about sovereignty. Many cases of piracy around those areas occur in what are arguably the territorial waters of Somalia. It wouldn’t be particularly easy to bring in armed ships to accompany every ship going through those waters.

  7. Steve Says:

    First, I agree with you – sooner or later it takes force to stop piracy. However, it’s not simple at all.

    (1) For the reasons above, an aircraft carrier (capital ship) isn’t the best piracy fighter in the world;
    (2) Destroyers, which are, don’t have that broad of radar coverage (50 miles?) – there is 50 million square miles of ocean in the area we’re talking about;
    (3) There are whole host of issues regarding arming the ships – insurance, port requirements, staffing, etc, etc; (4) Finally, the Jefferson argument, while true, ignores the timeline. We started paying tribute in 1783, like all other sea-faring nations. When Jefferson became Prez in 1801 he started the process of clearing them out. In 1803 he sent a fleet, and the frigate Philadelphia was captured by the pirates. In 1805, a larger fleet and a land force (“to the shores of Tripoli”) broke the war. However, the settlement included paying $60k per sailor held. It wasn’t until 1815 than the whole thing was cleaned up.

    It’ll be interesting to see how it’s dealt with.

  8. Jens Fiederer Says:

    “any unidentified ship that gets closer than a mile to any legitimate and registered vessel will be sunk on sight?”
    is a pretty bloodthirsty ultimatum.

    We are not always talking SHIPS when we talk pirates – more often than not we are talking about BOATS. There are thousands of perfectly innocuous “unidentified” boats traveling for purposes of pleasure, light freight, fishing – exterminating the whole breed is a rather drastic step to take.

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