Monday, November 17, 2008

Supertanker Piracy

In A Beginner’s Guide to Small Arms Proliferation, published by OneWorld in March 2006, I wrote the following in the opening of the book’s Prologue:

“Life in prehistoric times was anything but a fairy tale. Yet
somewhere within this “once upon a time” hunter-gatherers
learned that hurling ordinary objects such as stones and
pieces of trees could stun or even kill outright the animals
and fish that were their food.

“They also learned that the same objects could be used to kill
other hunter-gatherers.”

The rest of the written and – where it had been captured – oral accounts of the exploits of a society’s leaders and heroes against powerful, sometimes even supernatural opponents through the aid and advice of friendly spirits, a talisman, special potions, and above all else, simply out-thinking and out-maneuvering any and all who stood in the way of the society’s advancement.

As technology extended the range, rapidity, and overall destructiveness of the weaponry employed in warfighting, military leaders and theorists adapted the manner in which troops moved both in battle and in travelling to encounter or to retreat from the prospect of a set-piece battle. Unfortunately, this also meant that they also forgot that the previous “best” weapons were still in existence, were “standard issue” in the armies of developing countries, and might also be in the hands of criminal syndicates, operating from ungoverned parts of failed states,
that are capable of holding hostage other countries if not the globe.

That is where the United States, the United Nations, and a number of other countries with warships in and around the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden are presently trying to figure out how to recover a Saudi Arabian supertanker seized by fast speedboat- equipped pirates off the coast of Somalia –significantly off the coast. The world’s best navies are reduced to watching as what appears to be a non-political, non-ideological, straight-forward act of 21st-century piracy unfolds.

The warships dare not fire at the supertanker for fear of blowing it up. But that is not the only risk. One should expect that these same navies would be able to identify how the pirates were able to get aboard the supertanker in the first place. Similarly, there is at least the same if not a greater probability that the pirates have taken steps to avoid being surprised themselves by a boarding party from one or more coalition navies in an attempt to free the crew and cargo – another scenario
in which disaster occurs.

As of now, the pirates are moving the fully loaded supertanker closer to the Somali coast, a dangerous maneuver if there is no pilot on board who knows the both the depth of the coastal waters and the displacement caused by a fully loaded supertanker. Indications are that the pirates will demand money for the crew and money for the oil.

Beyond the normal distaste for negotiating with criminals while having no intention of paying ransom (the U.S. preferred position), there is always the danger of military-mission creep: that anti-piracy will become just another responsibility of forces engaged in the “global war on terror.” Yes, armed ships are needed to fight modern pirates just as they were needed in the 19 century in the Caribbean and along the Barbary Coast. But today this mission is within the purview of a Coast Guard as a law-enforcement challenge, just as the events of September 11, 2001 were mass murder and not a cause for military retaliation.

Maybe the Obama administration will get it right.

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