Now Hear This

By Lieutenant James Drennan, U.S. Navy

By refitting USNS or Military Sealift Command ships (or simply using actual merchant hulls), we can bait pirates into attack, giving commanding officers clear authority to use lethal force in self-defense. The very existence of these decoy vessels can act as a deterrent, particularly after a few pirates have been "burned" by the deception. Pirates may be a little more hesitant to attack a container ship if they know it might be filled with highly trained Marines with guns instead of valuable cargo. Decoy vessels can also provide useful surveillance capabilities, since they would blend seamlessly into regular merchant traffic. They can observe the vast majority of pirate activity that occurs far from any gray-hulled warship.

Although the potential benefits of decoy vessels are clear, some argue that adaptation by pirates would render them ineffective. If, for example, pirates know that large container vessels may be decoys, they might just shift their focus to tankers. This adaptation is actually an intended and desirable effect. Not only would lives and money be saved if pirates no longer attacked container vessels, but counterpiracy operations could be focused on the remaining targeted vessels.

Opponents also argue that an aggressive counterpiracy strategy will lead to escalation in force by pirates. But pirates are constrained by their objective to hijack a vessel and hold its crew and cargo for ransom. They must ensure that a target vessel remains operable, while minimizing cargo damage and personnel casualties, during a boarding attempt. There is a limit on the amount of force they are willing to apply. Since targeted vessels are not constrained by the same limit, any escalation would favor the defenders.

The use of decoy vessels is only one part of a necessary shift to a more aggressive, comprehensive strategy against piracy. When the USS McFaul (DDG-74) sent ten captured pirates back to Somalia in May because the United States could not find a country willing to prosecute them, the need for a functional legal framework in the war against piracy was made crystal clear.

Still, while the global community recognizes the need for cooperation between various nations, agencies, and organizations, the primary role of the world's navies seems to be getting lost. Since the days of the Barbary pirates, the U.S. Navy has recognized the need to eradicate piracy from the world's oceans and waterways. Yet today, when our technological capabilities extend into space and our power is projected around the globe farther than ever before, our Navy remains ineffective in fulfilling one of its oldest missions: securing sea lines of communication. If we do not find a solution, the corrosive effects of piracy on an already unstable economy could lead to catastrophic results.

Lieutenant Drennan is currently studying systems engineering analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is a surface warfare officer who has conducted operations in the Somali Basin.
 

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