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Retro piracy - Should the Royal Navy kick arse?

Tackling the freebooters of the 'Gate of Tears'

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And, much though I'd love to believe as one who spent many happy years in minehunters that they could "be handy" against pirates as Ms Purves suggests, it isn't true. Minehunters are even slower than frigates, they don't carry even the single helicopter which is all a frigate can boast, and their boarding teams are smaller still. (Though I would definitely argue that small-ship sailors have lost less of the Royal Navy's former adaptability and aggressiveness than their big-ship counterparts.)

Helicopters, though, go at least four times as fast as a frigate or a speedboat, eight times as fast as a minehunter or a dhow. They can be on scene fast, over a large area. They are much better for searching large areas in order to find target vessels, as an unnoticed British anti-pirate success a couple of years back demonstrates. Whirlybirds can carry weapons which easily outclass pirates' AK47s and RPGs, and can deliver strong teams of well-armed Marines who really are trained and ready for close combat.

If the pirates raise their game and start carrying shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, that's no problem: there is a British naval helicopter missile specifically designed for blasting small fast boats from beyond portable-weapons range. And you could buy at least three or four fleet auxiliaries full of helicopters and troops for the cost of just one, single, largely useless destroyer. Extra marines and choppers would also be tremendously useful in just about every war we are realistically likely to fight in future; as opposed to subhunters and antimissile ships, whose performance has often been embarrassing even against the very rare enemies they are actually designed to fight.

Yes, the pirates seized might well have to be tried and punished in the West - handing them over to local justice would see them either set free or summarily put to death, though the Foreign Office is trying to find some way of putting them ashore locally after capture.

So let's assume, worst case, that pirates captured on the high seas would need to be brought to the UK for trial. There may be some legal difficulties with deporting them after their time in UK jails, but in the case of convicted pirates it ought to be achievable. Anyway, compared to the costs of capturing them in the first place the expense wouldn't be significant even if they wound up on benefits for life.

So sure, the UK could easily tackle piracy if we really felt like it. As we've seen, though, it seems odd that we suddenly care about Filipino or Ukrainian or even Danish sailors being seized and held to ransom, when we haven't cared for decades about them being shipwrecked (and often enough drowned) by the hundred every year.

Certainly the Royal Navy would strongly resist any serious pirate-fighting plan. It has no real interest in having more marines, helicopters or fleet auxiliaries. None of these offer chances for a Royal Navy officer to become an admiral, or even a captain. The navy is only going on about pirates in an attempt to justify some more of what it considers to be proper career-enhancing warships - frigates and destroyers - or at any rate to preserve the ones it already has.

Any move to cancel destroyers and spend the money on actually fighting pirates effectively would be bitterly resisted.

Maybe one day the Royal Navy will finally understand what Admiral Fisher foretold before World War One - what was conclusively proved again and again in World war Two, and proved again in the Falklands - that surface combatant warships themselves are no longer a good or cost-effective way of controlling the seas. Maybe one day the navy will realise that surface ships are almost always most effective when used as bases for aircraft.

Until then "naval power" will have very little relevance to any sort of real-world modern maritime problem. Until then the UK's ability to actually do anything about piracy will be fairly limited - assuming that it wants to, which as we have seen is a relatively curious thing to want. ®

Bootnote

*All Royal Marines - except the marching bands, mostly employed on ceremonial duties - are nowadays Commando qualified and wear the green beret. In the UK forces this signifies elite-light-infantry status, similar to that of the Airborne forces: it doesn't imply membership of secretive special-ops units as the shorthand term "commando" often does in America.

Lewis Page served for eleven years as a Royal Navy officer, variously as navigator, mine clearance diver, bomb-disposal operator ashore and first lieutenant (among other things) at sea. After a lengthy period of vicious bullying, the Royal Marines awarded him the green beret of the commando forces. He has transited the Gate of Tears, but nobody would let him chase any pirates.

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