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Retro piracy - Should the Royal Navy kick arse?

Tackling the freebooters of the 'Gate of Tears'

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This is actually a rather odd idea, when you look at it.

There is almost no British merchant fleet any more, so our ships and seamen aren't significantly affected. It's true that Blighty still depends on seaborne imports and exports, but by no means all of them move through the Bab el Mandeb - and even of those that do, carried almost entirely by foreign ships and foreign crews, very little gets pirated.

In fact, some 22,000 vessels pass the Gate of Tears annually - the odds of getting shipjacked are about one in a thousand. That's about the same, according to marine insurers' figures (Word doc), as the odds of any merchant vessel over 500 tons being lost in a wreck each year.

Those sort of accident rates wouldn't be tolerated if it were Western sailors drowning, of course, but it mostly isn't any more.

If we're happy to let mainly Third-World sailors run a serious risk of disastrous shipwreck to move our stuff more cheaply - and we are apparently quite happy with that, have been for a long time - it's difficult to see why we care about them running similar risks of being pirated. If we care about poor sailormen's safety, we might do at least as well to crack down on the shipowners' use of flags of convenience and poorly-paid, poorly-trained crews.

One might find a clue to the current UK press outcry in the fact that most of the world's shipping deals are still struck in London's financial centres, but arguably the majority of us who don't work in the City have no great reason to spend our money and our servicemen's time in order to make life easier for the Square Mile's many shipowners, brokers and insurers.

But let's ignore that - let's assume that even though our economic choices (and our financial industry in London) tend to send poorly-trained Third World sailors to sea in dangerous unseaworthy rustbuckets, we'd at least like to preserve them and their cargoes from the added danger of piracy.

If that's what we want, buying more frigates and destroyers is an extremely expensive and ineffective way of going about it. HMS Cumberland's success this week as a base for a Marine boarding team shouldn't obscure that fact - the ship herself played almost no role in the takedown.

What would actually be useful would be reaction forces of helicopters and Marines, based at sea (there are few safe shore bases in the area). Nice cheap helicopter-carrier vessels would be excellent for this job - the navy has just one, HMS Ocean, which cost less than half what a modern destroyer does. Or indeed, even cheaper civilian-manned fleet auxiliaries would be ideal.

Helicopters are necessary because surface warships struggle just to keep up with pirate speedboats, let alone overhaul them. You can also scan a much larger area of sea with a high-flying radar than you can with one on the mast of a ship. By the time a CTF 150 or NATO or EU frigate can get anywhere near a reported incident, the pirates can almost always flee into Somali territorial waters - perhaps taking a captive ship with them. Cumberland was unusually fortunate in being able to catch up with the pirates on Tuesday while they were still on the high seas, and she had to cooperate with a Russian warship to do so.

International warships generally have no rights to act against pirates inside someone else's 12-mile limit. Even if a special-powers deal could be negotiated in the case of Somalia, we certainly can't get into pursuing pirates and their prisoners ashore on a large scale. In any case there are other poorly-policed territorial waters in the region, for instance those of Yemen and Djibouti.

Western forces need to deal with pirates out at sea, where the merchant ships to be protected are, where the raiders are weak and the international forces are strong. Hence the need to react fast, by air.

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