Friday, April 17, 2009
Handling the Pirates of Somalia
The pirates operate in a zone that extends from the Gulf of Aden to the southern border of Somalia, and out to sea for about 600 nautical miles. They use trawlers as mother ships that are large enough to carry two or three speedboats. It is the speedboats that race to the target ship from the trawler carrying five or six men each that will board the ship and capture control. The pirates are armed with small arms, mainly AK-47s, and RPGs, but there have been light machine guns as well.
Merchant vessels and crews are not armed. This is by direction of their owners, who fear loss of insurance coverage for their ship and cargo. Many lawyers persuade the owners that this is the best approach, since resistance would create a loss of life situation and result in lawsuits against the owners by the families of the crews. Allowing the pirates to take control and sail the ship to Somalia, has resulted in the eventual release of the ship with its cargo intact and the crew unharmed. After, of course, the owners have paid a considerable ransom through intermediaries in various other countries.
A number of ideas to thwart the pirates have been suggested:
1. Assault Somalia.
2. Trace the pirate’s funds and seize them
3. Arm the merchantmen by law
4. Increase warship patrols
5. Employ drones for reconnaissance, surface picture building, and tracking of identified pirate vessels.
6. Employ drones acting as hunter/killers to track down and destroy the pirate vessels.
I rejected the idea of an assault on Somalia, because I believe that it would cost all of the ships’ crews their lives and all of the captured ships tied up there to be sunk. It is reasonable to believe that the captured ships and their crews are rigged with explosives that would be detonated at the first sign of an attack.
Tracing the funds and freezing them is a fine idea, but I do not know how. I will leave that idea to financial experts.
Arming the merchantmen is also a fine idea, if done properly. The first step is to mandate that all ships be armed, and thwart the lawyers. Have interested nations volunteer squads of trained men and a vessel or two to house them, nominally outside of the three or twelve mile limits near major ports of call. Place an 8-man squad on each merchantman, armed with their standard weapons, plus several 50 caliber machineguns, night vision equipment, and communications gear. Another weapon for this situation is a TOW anti-tank missile system, or similar, which would be capable of sinking the trawler and the speedboats.
An increase in warships is good, but very expensive to maintain. I’d say the situation calls for around six potent vessels such as our Bainbridge destroyer, primarily to use their intelligence, command and control, and communications capabilities for conducting the engagements of suspicious vessels in the area¸ using the combined surface picture generated by Reapers and other sources. On occasion, they might be able to take direct action against a pirate vessel as well.
Using drones of the Predator/Reaper/Global Hawk class, the area could be swept often enough to create a good surface picture, and an accurate track of all vessels. Flying at 50 to 65 thousand feet, each of these drones can cover some 40,000 square miles per day, and can use their SLR radar to image the vessels night and day. If we can integrate this coverage with that of satellites, recce aircraft, ships, and other sources, a more complete surface picture would result. Vessels suspected of being pirates could then be tracked and warnings issued to merchantmen in the path of the pirate. The pirate vessel could also be warned to steer off and cease their threatening approach to a merchant vessel, or else!
The Reaper is a relatively new version of the original Predator with a number of significant upgrades, notably the capability to carry 4 to 8 weapons of the GBU-39 type. The GBU-39 has a range of about 60 nm, and has a highly accurate guidance system based on GPS, and a terminal guidance system that can follow moving objects such as tanks---or trawlers and speedboats. Reaper can cruise at 50,000 feet for over 24 hours, contributing to the picture, until a suspected vessel needs closer attention as determined by the evolving surface picture. Then the Reaper closes on the suspect at over 200kts, and once in range, launches one or more of its guided bombs at the pirate vessels. End of the pirates.
My thought is that a squadron of Reapers would do a good job. I believe that would be 12 drones and three guidance units. That means there are six channels available for control of six drones at a time. The idea is to have four drones performing surveillance at all times, and two more in the air ready to perform the hunter/killer role, while helping form the surface picture in the meanwhile. This number of drones cannot form a complete surface picture of the approximately 600,000 sq mile area of interest on a daily basis, but, when combined with all other sources a workable and reasonably up to date picture could be created. Managing the drone coverage is a significant task that is best performed by one of our shipboard command centers.
I have seen reports that the Predator/Reaper has the capability of being put into a racetrack orbit and left there on autopilot until a controller takes over again. This would allow all of the six controllers to conduct tracking and engagement on demand, while the remaining orbiting drones keep up the surveillance patterns automatically for a period of time such as four or five hours.
Since the takeoff and landing of drones is conducted by a separate control system located at the home base, the drones can be fed into the surveillance orbits by the home controllers, and left there until called out for an attack by the forward controllers. Under this scheme, the 12 drones of the squadron could be utilized simultaneously, or nearly so, thus doubling the surveillance coverage to about 480,000 square miles per day.
However, a number of factors will reduce this coverage, such as the necessity for the drones to return to base for fuel, maintenance, and rearming. Still, this coverage is a substantial portion of the pirate’s operating area. Clever use of this coverage, plus the coverage gleaned from satellites and other sources could materially increase the probability that any pirate vessel would be detected, tracked, engaged, and destroyed before it could mount a successful boarding.
As a final point, the Reaper is far cheaper to produce and operate than warships would be, it would have a huge coverage area compared to a ship, and it would have a far faster response time and closure rate. The weapons available for Reaper are the most accurate guided bombs built that also have motion tracking capability, and a significant range.