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Retro piracy - Should the Royal Navy kick arse?

Tackling the freebooters of the 'Gate of Tears'

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Going on from there, the idea that the navy is providing "half the manpower and airpower" for the current Afghan war is a bit more debatable. It's true that 3 Commando Brigade, which has just taken over in Helmand province, is largely made up of Royal Marines. It's true that the Harriers of the Naval Strike Wing have made a serious contribution to air support there, as has the partly-naval Commando Helicopter Force. But "half the manpower" is pushing it - a quarter would be a more appropriate assessment, as the commando forces and strike wing aren't fully naval and rotate through Afghanistan one tour in three at most.

In any case, neither the commando brigade - a land-warfare formation - nor the Harriers would be much use for catching pirates, and we would have them anyway. Afghanistan is no excuse for the navy's failure to drive the freebooters from the Gate of Tears.

Nor is lack of frigates and destroyers, in fact. These ships are a wildly inappropriate way of dealing with lightly-armed enemies in speedboats close inshore, notwithstanding the bold bluster of Northumberland's boarding team and Tuesday's success.

A frigate, if it is designed for anything, is designed to hunt submarines. A destroyer is meant to shoot down enemy warplanes and missiles. Both these jobs are extremely difficult to do from a surface ship, and thus require enormous amounts of expensive equipment and specialised weaponry: combat computers, sonars, radars, missiles, torpedoes etc. The bulk of the crew are highly trained to operate and maintain all this equipment - or to perform supporting functions like operating and maintaining the ship itself, cooking the food, doing the paperwork etc.

Sure, the ship has a part-time armed boarding team which practices as such now and then: but at least half of it is made up of cooks, technicians, deck apes etc. Only a few will be marines, gunmen by primary trade - often none at all. Such a boarding team is allowed to conduct only "compliant" boardings, essentially inspections where a vessel permits itself to be visited without opposition.

Ordinary warship crews aren't allowed to carry out "opposed" boardings, where armed resistance is expected. A specialist team of Marines must be used. These troops could be based on more or less any ship - there's no need for a colossally expensive, highly specialised frigate or destroyer with a crew of maritime-warfare specialists two or three hundred strong.

Why can't normal sailors be used in serious boardings?

Well, the days when you could issue any random Royal Navy sailor a weapon and expect him to give a useful performance in close combat seem to be pretty much gone - in large part, perhaps, because the days when you could do that with any random Brit plucked from the population are gone. Close-in fighting is a specialist's game these days, just as much as anti-submarine warfare.

A typical modern day sailor - say a radar operator or a cook - for all that he is the heir to the almost unstoppable cutlass-swinging Jack Tars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, may be little handier in a face-to-face fight than a civilian, or even a member of the RAF.

Whatever the reasons, the rules are sensible ones: the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have lately shown just how foolish it is for ordinary frigate sailors to tangle with reasonably well-armed thugs in speedboats, and how little useful support their ship can typically offer them in such a situation.

A frigate or a destroyer, then, is a very poor way indeed of dealing with pirates - and yet it costs a huge amount in money and manpower. The ones now being delivered cost more than a billion pounds each. HMS Cumberland carries a crew of three hundred. So actually, piracy off Somalia is a very poor argument for buying more such ships. Yet it is being used to argue for that very thing almost every day at the moment, by politicians and journalists who don't know what they're on about - and by naval officers who are basically being dishonest.

And let's not forget that all of this assumes that piracy in the Gulf of Aden is a big problem for the citizens of UK plc in the first place. All of this assumes that piracy is a big problem in the lives of merchant seamen, too.

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