Philippine Sea

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Pirates of Somalia: Asymmetric Warfare

Back in 2004, when the pirates of Somalia were small time operators, there was a perceived threat to world trade in the Strait of Malacca, where pirates were very active. At that time, there was a series of articles by Eric Koo (see here for links)which contained the conclusion:
Piracy and maritime terrorism are forms of asymmetrical warfare that non-state actors use as instruments in disrupting the peace and security of states. It is therefore necessary for navies to revamp and find new definitions for their role in the modern security context.
Recently the pirates of Somalia have been engaging in a form of economic asymmetric warfare in which shipping passing along regular shipping routes has been attacked and held for ransom. This has had the effect of interfering with sea-going commerce, raising insurance rates on shipping companies and even causing some shippers to re-route their ships on longer, more expensive routes to avoid these pirates. There have even been articles about how the pirates of Somalia may caused disappointment around the Christmas holiday as they are slowing deliveries of gaming systems...

Others, more malevolent in thought, have noticed that this is a form of warfare. For example, take a look at this, titled "Black Africans give world a lesson in Asymmetric Warfare:
Superpowers are in shock over the news that Somali pirates have seized a super tanker three times the size of an aircraft carrier off the coast of Kenya! Perhaps we should recall the destructive actions of the USA around the globe but particularly in Somali. The national economy is completely ruined; faced with starvation or slavery, Somalis have developed a lucrative sub-economy from the proceeds of piracy.

It is only fitting that a super tanker laden with precious oil and destined for America is taken. A HUGE ransom will no doubt be paid and perhaps idiot America may learn to fully assess the long-term consequences of its mindless, violent actions? In contrast, China continues to develop oil and other African resources in partnership with local governments. The question remains, will MORON, ‘Wyatt Earp,’ finally learn that INVADED PEOPLE HAVE A TENDENCY TO FIGHT BACK; NO ONE TOLERATES FOREIGN INVADERS AND MURDERING THIEVES IN THEIR HOMELAND, Doh! Think on these things when you are kicked out of Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, Uncle.

Somalis may also be sending a clear message to the new, black, puppet/slave American President – one need not serve or acquiesce to foreign imperial powers. I feel an identity crisis coming on, Barack! We take this opportunity to reinforce the notion that Obama is a ‘white’ man!

American ruling elites thought it expedient to keep their population ignorant and ‘dumbed down.’ The dumber America gets the smarter the world! Western naval commanders are in awe of the audacity and tactical sophistication of Somali seafarers.
Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the attack on the incoming U.S. president mirrors the language recently spat out by al Qaeda's alleged number 2, who referred to the president-elect as a "house slave", as al Qaeda is all about one of the major aspects of asymmetric warfare - propaganda. To the extent that the U.S. might be seen as a nation of opportunity, al Qaeda loses a major talking point, one it apparently wants back.

Be that as it may, the apparent ease with which major commercial ships are captured by pirates with limited weaponry is causing reasonable people to finally take notice of the threat, including the suggestion of the potential for terrorists to capture ships and use them for nefarious purposes, an inclination not yet observed in the Somali pirates, who seem to be all about the money gained in ransoming back the ships they capture. See, for example, this article from Canada's Globe and Mail which contains a warning about potential terrorists capturing big ships:
Unlike their Barbary Coast forebears, Somalia's pirates aren't even interested in selling ships or their cargo - simply ransoming them for millions. But a graver danger lurks. If a handful of pirates can seize a freighter, a handful of terrorists could hijack a cruise ship or perhaps a liquefied natural-gas tanker.

"What I worry about is the bleed from criminal pirate activity to terrorist activity," said Peter Brookes, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence who served in the U.S. Navy.

Nonetheless, as indicated in earlier posts (see Asymmetric Warfare: Terrorists, Small Boats, Explosives and Unarmed, Unescorted Ships, for example), terrorists grabbing a ship at sea and driving it toward a chokepoint could pose a problem, though not for the reasons you might think - taking a ship and driving it to the U.S. and exploding it in a harbor would be very hard. On the other hand, as was first discussed here by CDR Salamander, the threat to major U.S. ships is not just the pirate/terrorist who decides to blow himself up:
In a comment to another post, CDR Salamander wrote: "150,000-ton at flank speed; how do you stop it once it turns your way? If you are toddling around a 7kts and she turns prior to her 5,000yd CPA to port? Oh, lets be nice and say he is only going 20kts (sneaky fellow is he). Being simple men, lets round things down to a 20kt average combined closure speed when he turns prior to CPA (he then goes to flank and you respond by a turn to starboard and hit the juice....but you are on a LHD, not a nuke and it takes awhile to speed up). Using our handy "6 minute rule", you have about 7.5 minutes to react there shipmate. Mmmmm. Its the mid-watch. It takes 45 seconds for Seaman Farmer and the OOD LTJG PilotWashout to realize what is going on, and 15 seconds for brain-mouth-helm to do anything (oh, and don't forget to tell the Skipper-oh there he is, in his undies yelling his head off). Lets say you are in the Babara Mandral, um I mean Bab-El-Mandab Straits …."
As I translated then:
As I understand his comment, he is expressing concern over bad things that could happen if "bad guys" were to seize control of a Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) like the Yohteisan. He notes that a ship with that much mass presents difficulties to someone who wanders in its way.

If you are on another ship - perhaps a smaller warship, how would you try to stop the VLCC if it headed toward you or toward some ship that you were trying to protect? The second issue concerns whether you will be able to get your own ship out of the way is the VLCC suddenly was pointed at you... Suppose you are operating in a restricted sea lane (meaning a narrow area in which your maneuvering is restricted by the presence of navigation hazards, other ships or the like).

Due to some calculations, you determine that the VLCC, if it maintains its present course and speed, will pass harmlessly 5000 yards (2.5 nautical miles) off your port (left) side at its Closest Point of Approach (CPA). You are traveling at 7 knots (about 9 mph). The VLCC does something drastic, however, and does not maintain its safe course or speed. Instead, it increases speed (though it might take a while) and turns toward your intended path, so that the CPA now calculates to be a collision with you.

Now, there are people on watch on your ship, who might take a few minutes to realize that the VLCC has altered its course and speed. Given the distances and speed involved, you have about 7.5 minutes to do something to get out of the VLCC's way from the time the VLCC first makes its move (under the nautical rule of thumb that the distance a ship travels in 6 minutes (in nautical miles) is equal to the Ship's Speed (in knots) divided by 10 (the "6 minute rule"). Thus, if the closing speed is 20 knots, then in 6 minutes, the ships will close to within 1/2 mile of each other. That additional 1/2 mile will take 1.5 minutes. Thus, move to collision total time= 7.5 minutes).

Ships are not sports cars, and once the situation is developing, it will take some time for the ship to be able to react (which depends on the type of ship involved). Given the built-in human delays, mechanical delays, and all the other problems inherent in a crisis (such as effective communication -the "brain-mouth-helm" issue refers to the Officer of the Deck (OOD) (person on watch in charge of driving the ship at that moment having to figure out what's happening, formulate a plan to alter the situation and effectively announce that plan to the sailor who has the helm (ship steering wheel) so that the plan can be implemented by the sailor turning the wheel in the right direction). And remember that you are in restricted waters, so you might not be able to simply turn and "run away" in just any direction (in fact, in some cases the best course may be to turn toward the VLCC ...).

In addition, the situation may actually become complicated by the sudden arrival of your ship's commanding officer on the bridge as he tries to come to grips with the situation and formulate his own plan to get his ship out of the way of the VLCC. And matters can get really bad if you happen to be in, say, the narrow strait of Bab-el-Mandab, which has been categorized as a "chokepoint" . . .
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The net effect of not being alert and making bad decisions could result, as I was taught very long ago, "in a collision at sea that could ruin your whole day." And, in the right place, at the wrong time, the days of lots of other folks, too.
Now, there are a number of factors that might militate against terrorists being able to accomplish a collision between to huge ships, but if you are looking for worst case scenarios...

In a world of such possibilities, commercial interests do need to look at their own protective systems for their ships, there are not enough ships in all the navies of the world to protect all ships at all times in all sea lanes.

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