Pirate Defenses

So, I was thinking about this while driving to the post office and back. It seems to me that the hardest part of defending a large vessel with a small crew is the inability to detect them before boarding. If the ships don’t show up on radar, the crew needs some other warning system, with a proximity alarm that gives them time to demand hail friend or foe, or blow them out of the water (or off the side of the ship if they’re already climbing). Assuming that they are willing to arm themselves (it doesn’t really take that much to take out one of these pirate boats give sufficient warning), and it’s legal, the only missing element would be the warning system.

So how hard and expensive would it be with today’s technology to rig cameras around the ship with motion detectors, and software to filter out waves? It seems like a pretty easy problem to me. I’d think that most modern digital cameras are smart enough. Give them IR capability, and they’d work through fog.

22 thoughts on “Pirate Defenses”

  1. Perhaps a better choice would be to select a better radar frequency to detect the boats and/or the weapons onboard. The standard ship borne radars aren’t sensitive enough to pick out really small targets because they’re designed for avoiding other ships. I think a short range (< 5 miles) radar with sensitive receiver, Doppler processing, and a frequency high enough to detect weapons sized (e.g. AK-47s and RPGs) would work better than an optical system. One problem with either proposal would be reducing the number of false alarms.

  2. I suppose cameras would work. However, from what I’ve read, the crew spent several hours trying to fend off the pirates before they got aboard.

    It’s a multi-part problem. You need detection, avoidance, active defense (AKA “shoot the SOBs”) and hunter-killer groups to run down the motherships once identified.

  3. However, from what I’ve read, the crew spent several hours trying to fend off the pirates before they got aboard.

    That’s because, from what I’ve read, they had no weapons other than firehoses. Gun control at work.

  4. Acoustic would be my choice. Take advantage of water’s ability to transmit sound for long distances. I bet a compact low power system that had some automated analysis and feedback software would provide enough warning out to a modest range. Even having just enough time to lock down the hatches would be a good start.

  5. Missile-guidance radar can detect small targets (e.g., incoming missiles), but I gather their energy levels make it uneconomic to use them except pointed toward the target during an attack that’s already expected or underway.

  6. From what I understand it is illegal under international maritime law to arm merchant vessels.

    Well that’s pretty stupid. A few ship-mounted guns of sufficient caliber to deter these little speed-boat pirates would be of no consequence at all to any Navy vessel (not just the USN, but any Navy ship of any country commissioned in the last 50 years I suspect). It’s hardly an “armed vessel” merely because it has a 50 mm gun or two and an arms locker for the crew. Without armor, missiles, or guns with calibers measured in inches, what threat could it really pose?

    I was thinking about how the crew should be trained in the use of its weapons and defense of the ship, and I think that in addition to an hour or two in a range of some sort the best thing they could do would be to play video games on their off time. Imagine if a game such as Call of Duty or America’s Army was loaded up with an accurate layout of the merchant ship as “the level” to be taken over or defended. They could have teams and stuff and alternate taking or defending the ship.

    I mean, compared to the cost of losing the vessel and all its cargo, the cost of a few Playstation 3’s and TVs must be minimal.

  7. I’ve only worked on smaller ‘tramp freighter’ type ships, but the bulkheads and hatches themselves would be serious obstacles if any of them actually had locks on the inside. Even the ‘fire exit’ type.

    Securing the bridge and engineering isn’t that tough.

    The guys working out on the deck would still be at risk, but hijacking shouldn’t work without helm control.

  8. The guys working out on the deck would still be at risk, but hijacking shouldn’t work without helm control.

    The problem is that simply having hostages on the deck might give them effective helm control. That’s the whole problem with the modern approach to terrorists. We value human life much more than they do, and they know it. That’s why we haven’t simply blown the lifeboat, and the other pirate vessels approaching it, out of the water.

  9. I should add that this is also the problem that Israel has with the Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank. As Golda Meir said, the war will end when the Arabs love their children more than they hate the Jews.

  10. What about Javelin missiles? They would do a pretty good job at long range against the pirate dingy.

  11. As someone pointed out elsewhere: Swatting wasps is a futile exercise. You have to get the nest.


  12. Gun control at work. Unfortunately, you are correct. One would think incidents like this would lead gun-controllers to re-think their position.

    One would be wrong.

  13. Historically, piracy has been controlled by finding the villages and towns that harbor them, and destroying those bases and their inhabitants.

  14. Historically, piracy has been controlled by finding the villages and towns that harbor them, and destroying those bases and their inhabitants.

    Yes, well, there are many things with which we don’t want to deal the way we dealt with them historically (like lawlessness and terrorism in general), because now we are more “civilized” (and we ignore the fact that the enemy is completely uncivilized and so takes advantage of our new-found “civility”). And so we are in a never-ending war.

  15. Well, Rand, one possibly effective half-way house is to make a public change of policy (and of course carry it out): any ship or boat found being used for piracy will be sunk with all hands. This policy to apply to the mothership as well, if there is one.

  16. You would think this would be a business opportunity for some outfit like Blackwater: for a $X you get a team and their equipment on your ship for the duration of the voyage through pirate waters. If the port you’re going to won’t allow arms on the ship, the company would be happy to take them off before you dock.

    The problem is that piracy doesn’t cause that much damage, and almost all of that is economic damage. From the point of view of the shipping companies and their insurers, it’s cheaper to deal with it in economic terms, and pay the ransom.

    Of course, this is merely feeding the lion in the hopes that it will keep ignoring you.

  17. If this continues, and if it escalates (as the latest bluster from a pirate leader may portend), I expect we may see an active blockade of the Somali coast. Just sink any small vessels that stray too far out of port. Now, this would no doubt harm innocent fishermen, but then that’s what happens in de facto warzones.

  18. Rather than protecting the ships in the open sea, interdicting all traffic into and out of known havens countries would do it. There appears not to be the political will to impose that yet. That’s less thorny than invasion, but still requires operational the equivalent of a war declaration. Seems warranted. The entire coast line of Somalia could be interdicted not to stop small craft from getting out, but large craft from getting in. A passive, always-on solution such as mines would make it much more difficult for a hi-jacked ship in open ocean to become a hijacked ship in a pirate harbor.

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