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History and Piracy, and other asymetric threats

HMS Mary Rose in a battle with seven Algerine ...

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One of the more unusual units I studied at University was an eccentric module entitled ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash: Outlaws at sea 1650 to 1800′. Although the title hints at a bit of a laugh, and possibly sounds like something starring Johnny Depp (or the talentless wonder that is Orlando Bloom), the lessons seem all the more startling when we consider how Piracy and other ‘low-intensity’ or asymetric sea threats are occupying the thoughts of naval strategists.

Two examples spring to mind initially. Firstly we have the stereotypical Pirates of the Carribean – Blackbeard et al. They roamed a large tranche of the West Indies, principally hunting Spanish treasure ships. Initially this was sanctioned by HM Government as privateering, but I digress. The big lesson is, that no matter how cunning Pirates are, they will need to land every now and then to take on supplies, off-load their wares, exchange crew members and maintain their ships. And they can only do this if there is a regime – or a vacuum - that allows them to do so. In the Carribean this was Port Royal in Jamaica, a veritable Vipers Nest of cutthroats. Port Royal was only neutralised when it was swallowed up by an Earthquake. Once Port Royal was gone and the Pirates were denied a base, piracy dwindled.

The second  example is that of the Barbary Corsairs. North African seamen sailing out of modern Day Morrocco, Algeria and Tunisia, they paid nominal allegiance to the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul.  Long before times of Bin Laden, Khomeini and Infatadas, the Barbary Corsairs sailed actively against Christian shipping, and on a number of occasions even landed in the South West of England and the South of Ireland and carted off whole villages into enslavement. The Barbrary Corsairs would not have been able to operate if the Sultan in Constantinople had taken them under a tighter rein, nor if the North African states had not actively encouraged them. Eventually raids by the Royal Navy culminating in the early 19th Century seriously dented the Corsairs. The privations of the Corsairs on US shipping also led to the formation of the US Navy around the same time.

The overall lesson, in my opinion? That it is all very well to float around in troubled waters chasing after miscreants, but that is only treating the symtoms and not the cause. But to treat the cause of piracy – ie, the states and ports that sustain it – ultimately you need to land and fight. Which is not something that Governments are willing to do, especially after the Iraq debacle. The irony being that dealing with piracy in somewhere like Somalia is more achievable than anything was in Iraq, but because of poor decision making back then, we are hamstrung now.

So, limited to treating the symptoms rather than the cause, what do we learn from the past?

With both the Carribean pirates and the Barbary Corsairs, the wooden walls of the Royal Navy were hardly suited to dealing with the fast, nimble ‘now you see them, now you don’t’ tactics of the Pirates. A vast, floating 74-gun ship of the line was no match for smaller, faster craft. In essence, large battleships honed towards pouring tons of metal at French and Spanish ships were hardly ideal for tackling smaller less conventional targets.

One useful example of how authorities changed tactics – and procurement – to deal with a problem is in how the Customs and Excise men tackled smugglers in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries. Smuggling cheated the Exchequer out of fortunes, and more often than not was linked to other organised crime – not unliked drug dealing and smuggling nowadays. The smuggles operated small, fast craft in a clandestine manner, after dark and out of sheltered coves, inlets and harbours. Faced with such a problem, the revenue men fought the smugglers at their own game, employing fast cutter style craft, and working in what was virtually a ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ approach, the idea that to deal with such a clever foe, you have to beat them at their own game.

It strikes me that military forces – including navies – are not particularly good at getting into the minds of enemies and threats that do not fit exactly into their staff college exercises. In the same manner, it took years for conventional forces to work out how to deal with terrorism, and how to keep the peace. But surely, if we have to deal with the threats that face us rather than the ones that we would like to face,  then threats HAVE to be dealt with, in the way that enables it to be resolved as effectively, as cheaply and as succesfully as possible.

So, if we are faced with fighting pirates in small boats in the Gulf of Aden, or swarm attacks and suicide boats, why are we lumbering on focussing solely on our big ships? It reminds me of the example of the Iran-Iraq War, when during the 1980′s rush to expand the US Navy, no-one thought to develop a Minewarfare capability. Any coincidence that Minewarfare ships are small and unglamorous? The US Navy eventually did a good job of dealing with the Iranian Navy in the late 1980′s by setting up Mobile Sea Bases – anchored platforms – to launch helicopters and small, fast but heavily armed boats to patrol the Gulf. Might it be better for us to work in this manner, from semi-permanent bases or floating motherships such as the Bay Class, than sending Frigates and Destroyers – the modern equivalents of the 74-gun ship of the line? All an escort vessel can do is launch a couple of RIBS – and something more flexible and substantial than that is needed.

Something tells me some of our regulars here might have a few things to ponder…!

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