History and Piracy, and other asymetric threats

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

Image via Wikipedia

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…!



Filed under debate, Navy, Uncategorized

50 responses to “History and Piracy, and other asymetric threats

  1. John Erickson

    Don’t forget that the campaign against the Barbary Pirates also gave birth to the US Marine Corps, immortalised in their anthem in the line “To the shores of Tripoli”. 😉
    There is a 20th century answer you neglected to cover – the armed merchant ships, as used in WW1 and WW2 convoys against surface and submarine threats. A large number of “civilian cargo” ships carried at least a handful of anti-ship cannon, as well as smaller carronades (or whatever the light guns/hand cannons were called) for small boat and heavy anti-personnel fire – in addition to numbers of muskets and pistols. While the crews were not naval-quality gunners or heavily drilled in infantry firearms, if alerted in time the crews could fight back, often with enough ferocity to scare pirates off to look for easier prey.
    Perhaps a return to the US Merchant Marine of WW2, with commercial sailors trained by the US Navy to use machine guns and light cannon, along with heavy MGs and some light AA/ASu cannon in the 20-30mm range, would go a long way to deter the Somali pirate threat. (Of course, there’s always the chance of an escalation campaign, but where the Somalians have an entire hierarchy to pay, I don’t know if they’d be willing to go that way.)

  2. James Daly

    This post was motivated very much by something x was saying in a previous discussion, about how RIB’s are not up to fighting at sea. Also the book I reviewed recently about the US involvement in the Iran-Iraq War. Witness also the recent exercise involving the RN’s P2000 patrol boats in the Solent. They can’t cost too much, surely? You could base a handful of them off a Bay Class I should imagine. Or at least something along those lines.

    OK, having consulted the interweb the P2000 class is defined as a river and harbour patrol vessel – might need scaling up. But the principle is the same. With a bigger engine the hulls are designed up to 45 knots. Is a 20mm cannon big enough? Again with a bigger hull maybe you could add a bigger main gun and some more kit. You could base a flight of helicopters on the mothership, like the US did from the MSB’s in the Gulf – to provide surveillance and air cover.

    It seems like navies always, always go for the biggest, most expensive and most technological – and most glamorous – solution to any problem. And then insist on jamming square pegs into round holes. And we have politicians without the breadth of understanding of history to reign in the Admirals.

    • John Erickson

      It’s the curse of military procurement to go for “bigger, stronger, faster”. As we were discussing in the previous thread, LCS was supposed to be the “latest thing”. Look up the stats for the US DDG-1000 – the USN wants that ship to do everything from a CL to a WW2 Swan-type corvette, and everything in between. I’m not sure about the UK, but the US got hung up on “quality vs. quantity” when we figured out we couldn’t outbuild the Soviets in number, so we grabbed for tech as a crutch.
      Both the RN and the USN could use ships like the M4 Sherman – not dripping with high-tech, but a number of good, solid, SIMPLE designs. Why kill a “rowboat with an outboard” with a million dollar missile, when a 5 dollar shell does the trick? If LCS were built without the “swap on the fly” modules, just simply built to one of (say) two or three variants, the ship’s spaces could be optimised, a more or heavier weapons could be fit, and the cost would be lower per unit. Mind you, a little bit of high-tech would help, if the helo suite were set up for unmanned Firehawks – but that’s a bit into the future.
      And yes, there is definitely a role for something between an RIB and a frigate. There is some talk over here about doing something with the larger USCG cutters, but the mothership concept seems to belong to the pirates for now. Me, I like the sci-fi concept of some game systems, where your mothership has the stardrive and your smaller ships do the fighting. (NOT Battlestar Galactica! 😉 ). Perhaps the WW2 sub/DD tender is the best example – albeit using, say, USCG WMECs with a bit more firepower. And, as you said, James, let the tender/mothership also fly the air wing, be it helos on a small ship, or even VTOL/STOVL on a bigger one. (Provided the US doesn’t kill both AV8B and F-35B!)

  3. RIBS arn’t for fighting….

    • John Erickson

      WEBF – Can I get your input on something? I know it’s a sci-fi concept (sorry, that’s a great love of mine), but what’s your feeling on the fighting ability of hovercraft? I know maneuverability is a potential problem, but what about them for a high-speed, close-to-shore (or on-shore, even), good-size platform? (Don’t worry about too much detail, just your main points pro and con.)
      And thank you, WEBF, and X, for sharing your naval experience and learnings with a humble land-based civilian! 🙂

    • James Daly

      I think the point I was trying to get at is that RIBs are used for more than they should be. I wouldn’t want to go on the high seas in one – I’ve been fishing in the solent on boats bigger and sturdier than the standard RN RIB and that can be hairy.

      Funny how the RM now have plenty of small boat experience, even if it’s mainly littoral, the skills are there.

      On a similar note has anyone seen the SAS/SBS stealth small boats that have been around Pompey and Poole recently? Anyone know much about them or are they still secret squirrel?

      • x

        A friend of mine who had in the past been in passenger in aeroplanes doing aerobatics found being out in RIB on a lumpy sea more frightening. Like all tools a RIB is good for what it is designed for and shouldn’t be pushed beyond.

  4. John Erickson

    Here’s an interesting story from the US-based Military.com. It talks about current testing and future deployment of “energy weapons” such as lasers, microwaves, and all that good “Star Trek” type stuff! 🙂
    The link looks messy, but is virus free. Enjoy!

  5. x

    It really isn’t a question of kit. It is a question of ROE and human rights. When a pirate subjects his AK47 to a float test he becomes a Somalian in a boat; in simpler times he would have been hung without a second thought. Detain him and there is a good chance he will claim asylum. In about 5 years times he will be costing us a few thousand in benefits. During 13 years of Labour government over 2.5 million entered the UK, some actually put the finger at twice that, and unsurprisingly the vast majority of them aren’t doctors, engineers, scientists etc. but unskilled. So 2 to 5 million multiplied by a minimum of a thousand that is some load on stretched medical and social care budgets; remember the UK is increasing its overseas aid budget too.
    And if I maybe so bold our former pirate will probably also start contributing to the main growth industry amongst Somalis, crime.

    If the West, China, and India wanted the Indian Ocean to be swept clean of pirates they could do so easily.

  6. John Erickson

    (Gasp!) X, are you intimating that not every last one of those noble Somali seafarers are disenfranchised neurosurgeons simply looking for greater challenges? 😉
    I’ve been intrigued, since the start, by the over-arching humanitarianism shown towards these pirates. Considering that the few brought back to the US have spent more time in the legal system, and get off lighter than, mothers sending their children “illegally” to better schools, I can’t help but think back to sentences for pirates in the past – usually a rope or a sharp blade. Based on frequency of attacks, the best deterrent I’ve seen lately was when the US Navy SEALS dropped the bunch on the Maersk Alabama! Although how you can miss a pirate “mothership” from the air, even given their civilian origins, is beyond me. Maybe the navy patrols need to be a whole bunch of those cheap helo cameras advertised on TV, for some cheap airborne surveillance! 😀

  7. x

    John the older I get the more the philosophy of “it walks like a duck, it talks like a duck, it therefore must be a duck” works for me.

    Being some who spends a lot of time in the past I understand that there are tipping points. Just because the UK has enjoyed 66 years of relative calm doesn’t me things will stay that way. Actually I think because of the length of this period of calm when something does happen it will be pretty catastrophic.

    I think James was wanting a discussion on ships, helicopters, and marines……..

    • John Erickson

      Yes, X, but isn’t it better he learns “you don’t always get what you want” from his friends, BEFORE he gets married? 😉
      Okay, how about this? What’s your take on UAV helos like FIrehawk? They’re small, need less ground crew, and (following the line of our “container” chat) could be deployed from cargo containers, bird and weapons in one, remote control command centre in the other, and flown from civilian cargo ships. Or replace the manned helos on LCS, DD, and FG at least partially, using the saved space for either more helo time on station and heavier weapon loads, or for more weaponry on the carrying ship. Or does this fall into the “danger of unmanning” category, with threats of collateral damage or friendly fire incidents? Whaddaya say, from one old fart to another? 😀

      • x

        Yes I like the idea of these UAV helicopters. But I think we are missing a trick. Our great-grandfathers used to do this sort of thing with some success,

        Imagine getting the chap who designed the MV22’s folding wings to have a go at something that fits into the same hanger space as a SeaHawk (for you) or Merlin (for us.)

        Talking of helicopters what about this from Sikorsky?


        With modern engines, materials, and without the need to accommodate a pilot I think a UAV seaplane would be a useful addition to our navy’s air fleet. Modern helicopters are good, but they still really can’t compete with fix wing for endurance. It seems silly to limit yourself to a postage stamp flight deck when surrounded by a few million acres of potential (but wet) runway.

        • x

          Of course I am on about sticking UslAV onto destroyers. This would suit the US better as the later blocks of Burkes have twin hangers. Indeed the new-ish National Security Cutter has twin hangars too. I am still trying to figure out how BAE designed an 8100t destroyer with a huge flight deck (check out the pictures on this website’s home page) yet only find enough hangar space to accommodate one Merlin. Just because you have two hangers doesn’t mean you have to fill it with helicopter….

  8. That was a classic MOD *** up! Honest? Annoying too when you see how big the Type 45 flight deck is.
    See: http://www.pprune.org/military-aircrew/205675-type-45-destroyer-embarked-aviation.html

    • John Erickson

      This isn’t on the main tack of this thread, but congrats, WEBF, on putting up with the abuse. I’ve had some conspiracy-mad twit on another blog trying to justify his claim the US is planning to steal Libya’s water (HUH?) by accusing the US and UK of bombing Japanese and German cities in WW2 without provocation. (Double HUH?) And his response is full of “bollocks” and “arse-licker” and various other obscenities. That’s why I really appreciate you gents – even if I make a REALLY stupid statement, you guys don’t resort to obscenities I TRULY appreciate the civility. OK, now back to the show!

    • x

      I have actually been onboard Dauntless last Navy Days in Pompey. Flight deck is so huge I got lost half way across. T45s are so big their flightdeck is at the same level as a T23’s bridge wing.

      I am going to be brave now and read that pprune link.

    • x

      Remind me again WEBF why you put up with those prats over at prune?

      That is a nice picture of the Saunders-Roe SR.A/1.

      Me thinks they forget that without seaplanes there would have been no Spitfire.

      Mitchell (who was born and went to skill just over the hill from here) would be turning in his grave at their ignorance.

      • x

        I think what really annoys me about the pro-air power (for all purposes) bunch is that considering that they were once the leading edge of transport technology they aren’t that forward thinking and are very ignorant of things outside their own field. Oh well……..

  9. Well, someone has to fight the Dark Blue case.

    • x

      I thought many of the comments were just childish bullying.

      It is a perfectly reasonable question to ask about hangar provision on such a large warship.

      During GW1 they successfully managed to operate two Lynxs from one T42. I don’t think when the T42 was designed anybody even possibly imagine that happening.

      The modern warship and its helicopter are an interdependent system. Any measure to ease and maximise helicopter use afloat should be employed. Especially a simple and cheap measure like using a small amount of steel to increase hangar space. As I said an extra hangar doesn’t mean having to buy an extra airframe. But in an emergency or if there is an operational need that extra space could prove useful.

      You should come over to Think Defence.


      The only crackpot whackadoodle over there is yours truly.

      • John Erickson

        X- Do you think they’d accept a lowly Yank, civilian, and landlubber? (Yeah, I’m pretty much the triple threat. 😉 ) That way, you’d no longer have to be the crackpot whackadoodle of record! 😀

  10. x

    I make must stuff up as I go along. I used to be really good at it. Now, sadly, I struggle to be adequate….. 😉

    • John Erickson

      Tell ya what, X. I’ll check it out, lurk around for a bit, then I’ll drop a post or two. If nobody talks about sending a hit squad after me, I’ll cover your 6. Deal? 😉

    • John Erickson

      Um … I just checked out ONE thread, and if I’m gonna join you, X, is there an acronym dictionary for that site? I saw more acronyms on one thread than in the 4 years I worked for the US telephone company Ameritech, and every 3rd word at Ameritech was an acronym! HELP!! 😀

  11. Brevity demands that TLAs are used by SMEs in order to keep it short – IAW the KISS principle.

  12. x

    TLA – three letter acronyms
    SME – system maintenance engineer
    IAW – in accordance with

    • John Erickson

      I thought SME was Subject Matter Expert. Or they could be interchangeable. I would’ve NEVER gotten “In Accordance With” – then again, I speak American, and my British-to-American translator isn’t too good. 😉
      Oh, and if TLA is “Three Letter Acronym”, what do you use for “Two Letter Acronym”? And is FLA “Four Letter Acronym”, “Five Letter Acronym”, or just a US postal code for Florida? 😀

      • x

        Oddily enough we once debated this at work. It is the sort of thing mainframe bods used to do…..

        Our conclusion was in general usage TLA was a catch all term for any acronym as there appears to be more TLAs than any other type. So…

        • John Erickson

          Mainframe? As in computers? Might I ask in what business and language?

          • x

            I worked in local government and then for a large regional retailer. I was trained on the ICL 2900 and 3900 series. Actually they were made in the factory just over the hill from me (not far from the first home of one R Mitchell.) And then I worked on Sun and IBM AIX servers.

          • John Erickson

            IBM 370-style Mainframes running Cobol for me. A little under 4 years for one of our telephone companies over here, a year at a variety of spots, then 10 years doing credit cards for a small branch of Sears that ended up under Citicorp (bastards – sorry). Plus the obligatory spreadsheets, documentation, and letters on Windows. Last of the “big iron” massive data processing boxes. Now they do it all on networked PCs, and my training is as valuable as an 8-track tape recorder! 🙂

  13. SME: Subject Matter Expect – the person the politicians ignore…

    • John Erickson

      Well, shoot, they don’t need SMEs. Don’t you know, when every politician is elected, they are IMMEDIATELY infused with all the knowledge in the Universe? That’s why they’re paid so much!:D

  14. Woulgn’t mind them getting loads pay if they did!

  15. I’ve found the paper that I was looking for – it proves that even assymetric threats demand investment in technology;


    • James Daly

      Looks interesting, hopefully I will find time to have a proper look sometime!

      If anybody comes across any interesting papers like this, feel free to post in a comment or let me know – might be interesting to build up a bit of a defence knowledge bank.

  16. Perhaps I ought to say sorry for posting what is basically a technical paper…

    Here’s another one:


    • John Erickson

      For my two cents’ worth, bring ’em on, WEBF. The more the better! (And yes, James, I need to take time to read them properly as well! 😉 )

      • James Daly

        agreed, bring em on! That presentation from dstl is great, puts it in laymans terms. Nice to know what goes on up at Portsdown West nowadays – I can pretty much see it from my bedroom window! I know they used to have a test tank up there for various things…

  17. This one should show why low tech warships are no good: http://hormuz.robertstrausscenter.org/weapons

    About 18 months ago, I prepared a short presentation on asymmetric maritime threats, from terrorists, pirates, and the link, and possible methods of attack. This was very much from a maritime force protection viewpoint, and in addition to discussing terrorist attacks (successful or otherwise) against maritime targets, I tried to make the following points:

    1. Terrorists will use any weapon they can. This has included light aircraft (Tamil Tigers), stealthy suicide craft (Tamil Tigers), improvised mines, suicide torpedoes and mini submarines (various groups), and the use of all sorts of vehicles or vessels as weapon platforms or for suicide attacks.

    2. Countering these threats demands technology and people. The attack methods may be fairly low tech, but out countermeasures cannot.

    3. Asymmetric activities may be done by the armed forces (eg Iranian small boats attacking tankers with machine guns and rockets during the tanker war) or intelligence services or hostile nations, or on their behalf (eg the Argentine plot to attack UK vessels in Gibraltar during the Falklands War).

    Thus far, the Libyan regime has used converted light aircraft to mount an air raid, used small boats for minelaying, and now attempted to use a large boat IED.

  18. And the issue of non state players using increasing sophistiated tactics and weapons is discussed here: http://www.informationdissemination.net/2010/05/open-source-warfare-navy-style.html

  19. That should give you guys some reading…

  20. Here’s another link – this time it’s about using cheap rockets (with some sort of seeker added) from a helicopter as a weapon against swarms of small boats:


    Still need a proper warship for command and control though…

    • johncerickson

      There’s a TV show over here on Discovery Channel called Sons of Guns. Last season they made a manually controlled “mini Katyusha” for some gent who wanted it for his ships. (I have no idea what company he worked for, or even what kind of ships.) It fired non-spinning fin-stabilised rockets – little more than model rockets with a time-delay fuse that would make them pop like fireworks. Not the least bit deadly (barring a VERY lucky direct hit), but definitely scary! (The buyer emphasized “show” over “go”, i.e. scare factor over damage potential.) Something you might want to try to dig up off the Net.

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