Retro piracy - Should the Royal Navy kick arse?
Tackling the freebooters of the 'Gate of Tears'
Analysis As everyone knows, runaway piracy is a terrible threat. Unchecked, pirates might destroy the very business models which underpin much of our economy, bringing legitimate commerce to a halt - with devastating consequences both for those who make things and for those who use them.
That may or may not be true on the internet: but just lately, a headline featuring the word "piracy" has actually been more likely to refer to the hijacking or looting of ships at sea, as in the pre-digital era. Specifically, most of the recent coverage has been focused on modern-day freebooters operating from the lawless coast of Somalia.
This is one way of chasing pirates
Just this Tuesday, in fact, Royal Marine Commandos* in seaboats got into a gunfight with the crew of a small pirate dhow which had previously attempted to seize a Danish merchantman not far away. Having been fired on by the foolhardy freebooters as they approached, the Marines killed two of the pirates and the rest surrendered smartly - but this doesn't signal the end of piracy in the area. Indeed, the following day, even as the news of the success broke, a Turkish tanker was seized in the very same waters.
Somali and Yemeni buccaneers are a particular problem for international trade as they are ideally situated to prey on traffic passing through the Bab el Mandeb ("the Gate of Tears") - the narrow strait at the southern end of the Red Sea, which carries all the traffic between the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean. Wherever there's a maritime chokepoint like that, and a poor or lawless region nearby to act as a safe haven, you get piracy. Another well-known hotspot, for instance, is the Singapore Strait.
So the Bab-el-Mandeb has been a somewhat risky area for peaceful mariners time out of mind, and riskier still since the collapse of any effective government in Somalia. Nowadays piracy off the Somali coast is endemic, with gunmen in speedboats seizing entire ships as often as once a week - then often holding them for ransom in the infamous pirate port of Eyl. (So far there isn't all that much reselling of ships and cargoes, apparently. Ransoms are seen as simpler and more profitable.)
There's been a good deal of arm-waving about all this in the British press lately. For instance, this remarkable effort from Times columnist Libby Purves, headed: "It's time to take on the gangsters of the sea - We run down British naval power at our peril. Without it we would have little food, fuel, or goods - or safety". (Emphasis mine.)
Purves has plainly been having a chat off the record with a serving or former Royal Naval officer or two - as also seemed rather likely in the case of the recent Lloyds List piece which sought to place the blame for the Navy's failure to stamp out piracy in the region on political-correctness-gone-mad at the Foreign Office.
Ms Purves tells us that the Ministry of Defence has "finally" agreed to deploy HMS Northumberland, a Type 23 frigate, to Somali waters "after years of pathetic indecision". But that doesn't satisfy her and her unnamed source:
The Royal Navy that once cleared the seas of pirates (and before that, of slave ships) has until this meagre deployment been made powerless ... the Royal Navy has been cut savagely in recent years anyway, and is currently crippled by supplying half the manpower and airpower for landlocked Afghanistan ... For all the ignorant sea-blindness of this island nation, the cold fact is that without sea trade we would have little food, fuel, or goods ... Our force of destroyers and frigates has - in ten years - shrunk from 35 to 22 despite promises that it would not slip below 25. The number of smaller vessels, minehunters, decreases annually (they could be handy in this work) ... air cover is crippled, with one lot of planes gone and the next not ready.
There are some grains of truth there - it's a fact that the Royal Navy far more than any other organisation in the world was responsible for wiping out the seaborne slave trade in the 19th century, for instance. It's also a fact that the number of destroyers and frigates has fallen as described.
This gets you there a lot quicker
It's true too that HMS Northumberland is now off the Horn of Africa, and patrolling against the Somali pirates is part of her mission. Actually, though, she was sent on that task two months ago - well before the current media rumpus. The RN has been routinely taking part in the CTF 150 international security taskforce in those waters ever since 9/11, in fact. The ship's website makes much of its armed boarding team, all set to pile aboard a suspect vessel - and in the event of any resistance from scurvy buccaneers "armed with automatic weapons", more than ready to "return fire and take down the aggressors".
Also in the area is HMS Cumberland, another frigate, patrolling as part of a NATO taskforce. Again, Cumberland's presence was planned months ago. The Marines who dealt with the buccaneer dhow crew so briskly on Tuesday were based aboard the Cumberland, in fact.
As Ms Purves and her unnamed puppeteer suggest, Blighty can't spare any more frigates for this sort of work. But one thing the Royal Navy is never ever short of is admirals - so we've decided to send one of those instead. According to MoD spokesmen:
UK Defence Ministers have recently offered to provide the EU with a British Rear Admiral and an Operational Headquarters to lead a European mission to counter piracy.
Presumably someone else will provide the actual ships. (Good luck with that - other European countries mostly make our navy look massive. The only exception is the French, and they have plenty of admirals of their own.)
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.
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.
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. ®
*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.