Tuesday, April 14, 2009


The previous post, Tripoli, has generated some questions, both via email and via comment. Additionally I’ve gotten a number of questions in a private military forum, where Tripoli was reposted (without permission initially, but I believe we now have that squared away. Folks, please, if you’re going to repost my work, either give me credit and a link, or ask me via email first, otherwise I have to get all soggy and hard to light. Thanks).

Anyway, it seems I should have been more clear.

A number of folks asked if I was advocating opening a third war in Somalia, and a) if so, are you fucking nuts? Or b) if not, what exactly are you proposing with your wild talk of military action, pirates, and dead men?

Fair enough.

Allow me to expand:

Short answer: No, I am not proposing that the US declare war on or in Somalia – though I do think that something needs to be done there, sooner rather than later. But, I am strongly in favor of doing something forceful about the pirates now, up to and including blowing them the hell out of the water as a first option. Thank you and good night.

Longer answer:

First: a question, do you, Jim, approve of how Obama handled this situation?

Answer: Huh?

Folks, the President didn’t handle this situation. He did what any good CINC does, he deferred to his advisors, i.e. the people who are experts and professionals in this area – the Joint Chiefs including the Chief of Naval Operations, the CIA, the Secretary of Defense, and so on – then he issued the proper orders and delegated all decisions to the on-scene commander by saying publically, “I have authorized the use of deadly force.” This is a code, sort of. As an order it is completely unnecessary, the use of deadly force was already authorized, as it always is when American lives are in danger. This is what we in the military do. This is our job. This is why we exist, of course deadly force is authorized, it is always authorized. It was authorized the minute Captain Castellano of USS Bainbridge received orders sending his ship into harm’s way. We operate under standing rules of engagement and a concept called command by negation. If the president had said, Whoa! Slow down, Rambo. I hereby order you to unload your weapons and under no circumstance are you to use harsh language - well that would be an actual order and command by negation (it would also mean that you’re under United Nations control and you’re about to get slaughtered, but I digress). By saying, “I authorize the use of deadly force,” what the president was actually saying to the on-scene commander was this, “I’ve got your back, do what you need to do, everybody else shut the fuck up.” You may not understand this, but the military certainly does. And this is precisely what the President should have done. It’s not strictly necessary, but it is a whole lot easier to do your job when the Chain of Command backs you all the way to the top. Cuts down on mid level flunkies getting involved.

So, yeah, I do approve of President Obama’s “handling” of the situation – he did precisely what he should have. He turned it over to the experts and got on about his business. This wasn’t the only crisis last week, other Americans were in danger too.

Second: Somalia.

It’s not our problem.

It’s not. Somalia is one of many, many trouble spots around the world. We can’t fix them. No, really, we can’t.

Folks, it never works.

OK, it usually never works – Military intervention in Panama and Grenada and maybe one or two two other piddly places excepted. But then there’s Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Lebanon, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, The Congo, Liberia, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, El Salvador and right down to Iraq and especially Afghanistan – and we could do this all day. It doesn’t work. It never works. We spend shitloads of money. We send food. We send blankets. We send soldiers. We die. But people who are hell bent on tearing themselves apart are going to do so until there is nothing left but corpses and scorched earth and either one serious motherfucker of a warlord takes over and ends the war, or one side manages to kill every goddamned body on the other side. Period. You can piss and moan and cry and plead and pray and wish in one hand and shit in the other, but that is how it is.

We’ve been to Somalia.

And we didn’t have the stomach for it, just like Lebanon.

So we got out.

We can’t go back, the American pubic won’t stand for it right now. Two miserable wars in progress and the memory of dead Blackhawk pilots being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Folks, it ain’t happening – even if it is the correct, ultimate, and moral thing to do. We didn’t make this mess (Oh, yes, it could be argued that we made it worse, but we didn’t make it in the first place. The Somalis themselves did that). And to be frank, nobody gives an Ebola infested fuck about Africa, there is no support for going in. None. Sorry, but there it is.

Fixing Somalia is an exercise in nation building. That’s the United Nation’s job. They suck at it, for a large number of reasons, not the least of which is that in order to fix Somalia you’re going to have to conquer and pacify it first, i.e. you’re going to have to kill a lot of people and then you’re going to have to stick around for a good long time. Good luck and don’t forget to write.

So, now we have to live with the consequences. Piracy is one of those consequences.

Third: Piracy.

This is our responsibility.

At least as far as protecting American interests goes. That includes protecting American flagged vessels which the Navy is legally and honor bound to do, and American interests – which are in our best, er, interest (example, though you may not realize it, piracy in this part of the world has a direct impact on world oil prices – this affects all Americans - even those who live in hippy communes at one with nature and don’t use gasoline … or soap. What affects Americans, affects the rest of the world, especially places like, oh, China).

What I am strongly advocating is that the Navy be assigned to fulfill its primary charter, i.e. ensure America's unrestricted and safe assess to the sea lanes. This is the Navy’s first and foremost responsibility as a military force, it is why it exists in the first place. This why you pay for it.

A couple of points first:

- The Navy spends way too much time doing the Coast Guard's job vis a vis the Goddamned endless "War on Drugs." There is at least two major combatants, cruisers or destroyers, in the south eastern Pacific right now, chasing drug smugglers. There are at least three more in the Caribbean, and another in the Atlantic. Along with dozens of aircraft and ground assets and thousands of military personnel. That mission accomplishes nothing, it is an endless unwinnable feel good public relations boondoggle and has almost zero impact on the drug trade. Turn it over to the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security and send the Navy assets to the Horn of Africa – they shouldn’t be doing law enforcement anyway, and they especially shouldn’t be working for those morons in the DEA.

- UN Sanctions. The Navy spends way too much time supporting UN Sanctions. Don't get me wrong, supporting UN sanctions is fine - providing you've got the time and assets and nothing else to do, but it's not our primary responsibility. Protecting US interests and citizens on the high seas is. First, foremost, and always.

- We're robbing Peter to pay Paul, we're building hi-tech ships with no missions and decommissioning ships like Ticonderoga, Yorktown, Valley Forge, Vincennes, Gates, and the FFG's in order to pay for it. Those five cruisers and the FFG's were only halfway through their service life and were more than suited to the mission of protecting US shipping. Perfectly suited in fact, since Frigates were specifically designed as convoy escorts and in fact were initially designated as "Destroyer Escorts." But in typical Pentagon logic, because those ships didn't have Vertical Launcher capability and couldn't fire the latest generation of missiles (both AAW and Cruise) they were worthless (and more importantly they didn’t keep Congressional constituents employed). And yet, there is no need whatsoever for advanced anti-air capability in 99% of the force projection situations we face at the moment - like pirates, or the anti-drug mission, or force projection in places like East Timor. Not every ship needs to be an advanced weapon platform capable of engaging the Mythical Soviet Union that Could Have Been If Only It Didn't Collapse Fifteen Years Ago and Become Our Ally. We don't need either SM3 satellite shoot down capability or Tactical Tomahawk capability to take out a couple of assholes in a plastic skiff. What we need are cheap fast light patrol craft, exactly like the FFG. Strip away the sonar dome, and take the AAW missile systems off and gut the ASW torpedo bay and load them up for littoral combat. Simple, cheap, quick and the taxpayer gets the benefit of having already paid for it.

Of course, that's not how it works. Congress will bitch about hi-tech, hideously expensive weapons – but what they are really complaining about are hi-tech, hideously expensive weapons built in somebody else’s district. Republicans, Democrats, Conservatives, Liberals, Moderates – it doesn’t matter – they all talk about fiscal responsibility and then run right out to spend billions on whatever they think the military needs.

Let me give you an example: USS Bainbridge is an Arleigh Burke Class Destroyer, which is one of the most advanced weapons systems in the world. You need to take down a hundred inbound targets, she's your ship. New to fire a salvo of Tomahawks fifteen hundred miles inland? She can do it. Need to run down a couple of dicks in a plastic skiff? You're screwed. It's like killing a gnat with a atomic bomb.

The problem is that the DoD, Pentagon, and Congress are obsessed with Bigger, Shinier, Faster, high-tech Pie In the Sky. These are the people who think flying a billion dollar invisible bomber on a 36 hour round trip mission against a country that doesn't even have an air defense system is a good idea and we need more of it! I suspect that these men are the ones who buy Viagra in bulk lots from Mexico.

Bottom line. We have time tested tactics for dealing with pirates. We have everything we need. We don't need anything new.

Here’s how you do it:

1) Until the pirate problem is eradicated, convoy American and allied shipping in the east Indian ocean. Dispatch a CG and a couple of FFG's (Or stripped down FF’s) or PC's to escort and patrol. Just as we did in the gulf during the Tanker war. The Navy already has tactics and procedures for this, so do the merchant carriers. Put the plan into action. If you can get international assets to assist, fine, do so.

1b) Arm the merchantmen - the shipping companies need to take some responsibility for their own defense, just as any business does by hiring guards and putting up a fence. Now there are definite issues here, you can’t just give the Merchant crews guns and drop them off at the pier. First the insurance companies would have a cow. Second, the union would have another cow, sideways. Third, the merchant seamen aren’t Marines and didn’t sign up for armed combat and I don’t blame them for being reluctant to get involved in armed conflict. I wouldn’t want to either. But, just as companies hire armed guards on land, they can do so at sea. There are any number of security outfits that can supply maritime security personnel, which can embark each ship in the transit zone and then transfer to other ships as necessary. It’s important to understand that I’m only talking about four or five man teams, not an army. And that’s all that’s necessary, the pirates are not coming alongside in 300 man sloops of war with cutlass and grapple, they are four teenaged dicks with rusty AK47's in a plastic skiff. Six maritime security guys with decent small-arms could hold a pirate assault off. Especially if the Merchant crew is assisting with a couple of 3" fire hoses and the main DC pump (trust me here, try to climb up a grapple line with a 400psi stream of 3” water from a main fire hose pounding on your noggin, really not happening, the advantage is with the defenders. Always). Combine that with some standard ship security modifications like security doors on the pilothouse, engine, and rudder rooms with a couple of safe rooms for the crew and you can hold them off until the Navy helos show up and vaporize the bastards with the minigun – and the cost of carrying the security bubbas and making the modifications would be offset by lowered insurance rates.

2) Form up a task force, built around an LCC which acts as homebase, air field, and command and control. Break a couple of Aries class hydrofoils out of mothballs, or fast Patrol Coastals, or better yet a couple of USCG 210 fast cutters and whatever international support as is provided. Load up the LCC with a couple of assault helos and UAV's and Marines - then go hunting. Basic policy as follows, heave to and prepare to be boarded, or get blown out of the fucking water. Period. You get one level 3 query, one level 1 warning, 1 shot across the bow, and then as many HSMST salvos as it takes to turn you into a smoking hole in the water. Thanks and come again. Trust me on this, the Navy is very, very good at this.

2b) you can base this task force out of Mombassa, Kenya. That's Kenya's contribution to their own security. They get to pay for the fleet support in return for protection. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait can contribute the fuel, since it’s their tankers we’ll be protecting. Everything else is just window dressing. The ships involved come from the standard West Pac/Gulf rotation. You detach them for a month from Gulf Duty and let them go chase pirate, they’ll love it. Gulf duty sucks. Killing pirates rocks.

Optional Steps:

3) Give the pirates two weeks to free all prisoners and vessels. Then storm the harbor with a full assault force and take those ships at gun point. Whatever it takes. Give the countries who own those vessels the opportunity to participate under our Aegis - this is not a UN operation, but it could be a NATO mission - or to pay the ransom before the assault, their choice. But when time is up, it's up. Each country could retake its own vessel, and we provide support and protection while they do it – that way if the hostages onboard die, it’s the respective country’s look out. While the assault is going on, use airpower, manned or unmanned, and special forces to take out every single boat that looks like it could be used for piracy in the harbor, i.e. every plastic hulled skiff with a rack of outboards. Fishing trawlers and such aren’t fast enough to catch a freighter or outrun the Navy, they get to live and be used to feed people. Unless we catch them later engaged in piracy, in which case they get blown the hell up. We don’t set foot on land.

4) Then clear Somali waters and impose an absolutely strict blockade. Nothing gets in, nothing gets out. No aid, no relief, no help, no nothing. Somalia wants help, they can form a government, liquidate the pirates by whatever means they deem proper and petition the UN for aid after the country is secure.

Have a fine Navy day.


  1. Especially if the Merchant crew is assisting with a couple of 3" fire hoses and the main DC pump...::snort::

    This is the first thing I thought of when this first started.

  2. Seems obvious, doesn't it? Especially to anybody who's been through shipboard force protection training.

  3. Fascinating post, Jim. I know dick about Navy operations, strategy, tactics, war, or pirates. You taught me a lot in this post. Must digest... And perhaps speak with TheHusband, who knows more than I.

  4. Okay, we can sink as many ships as we want, but as long as the pirates have their support from the shore, they'll find new ships to launch from. Also, that plan works well for commercial shipping but what about the yachts and other pleasure craft that are being prayed upon (normally the crews/families are raped and killed, the ships stripped and sold or converted to pirate use)? WIthout dealing with the problem, the Somali failed state, we'll just be back there again and again.

    And the piracy, while not directed by Al Qaeda, is useful to their aims. If we can neuter the ability of these pirates to strike, it is a blow (indirectly) to Al Qaeda. If we can remove Somalia as a potential refuge, even better. Al Shabat isn't affiliated at this point, we should make sure they never are. Of course Al Qaeda's gambit in this is Napoleon's axiom, "Never interrupt your enemy while they're making a mistake."

    Although I do agree with changing the rules of engagement. But then, I also approach the equation with ruling out that all hostages will be returned safely, collateral damage will happen. That includes the deaths of innocent Somali's whose ships are commandeered by pirates. But then, I also thought that FBI negotiation wasn't the way to go once we had a ship on scene. It should have been a "surrender with the captain alive and you'll see trial, everything else ends with us sending the life-boat to the bottom." And then back it up, even if that meant the loss of the civilian captain. We have to change the equation from piracy = fast cash to piracy = excellent chance you'll be dead. We've started that action, but with the prolonged negotiation there is some glimmer of hope the pirates might harbor. They should have the mind set that once we're in site, they've lost, surrender and live, fight/flee and die.

    And I also agree, the use of the Navy to interdict drug shipments is a waste. Long hair teams are slightly less of a waste. Actual Green Berets on the ground doing full liaison missions works better.

  5. Sorry, should be "We can sink as many boats as we want." I keep forgetting my manners.

  6. Good post overall, but a few technical quibbles. You are proposing a war - limited, do-able and necessary, but yes, a war. And you are correct in your identification of our mis-use of Naval resources.

    Regarding Steve's questions, first, nobody is under the illusion that this will be a "one-and-out" deal. We'll be playing pirates and Navy with these guys for a while. But, just like in a land-based insurgency, you first need to establish a credible military defense.

    Once piracy becomes more difficult, you can then negotiate with whoever appears to be in charge in the local ports, and cut a deal. Call it the "Sons of Somalia" program, much like applied in Iraq.

    Yachts and pleasure craft are going to have to make some tough choices. Either they get with a convoy or they stay away. And you will have to have slow convoys as well as fast convoys, so guess where the yachts go.

  7. Chris,

    Well, I suppose we could quibble about it, but then you'd be arguing with a CWO and that would just be foolish on your part ;)

    Kidding aside, I suppose you could consider the convoy operations and campaign against pirates in international waters a limited war to some extent, though I'd simply call it part of our charter. Whatever you do, please don't call it "The WAR on Piracy!" and appoint a Czar to manage it. Thanks. Really.

    I'd consider a raid on Mogadishu harbor or into Somalia waters to be an "Operation" not a war. But like you said, that's just quibbling.

    And concur, until the underlying causal situation in Somalia is resolved, and that will be years from now, this will have to be a sustained effort.

    In the mean time, Convoy wise, yachts and such independents would have to either avoid the area, take their chances or join a convoy.

    As I said in the post, there is really only one way to resolve this situation permanently. It's the elephant in the room. Somalia, and the rest of the Horn for that matter, has to be rebuilt into a functioning, self-sustaining, and successful civilization.

    But as I mentioned in comments yesterday, good luck with that. Everything, every thing, is against it. Everything from the taint of colonialism and the Crusades, to entrenched racism, to lack of world resolve and funds and assets, to the perception of the West invading yet another Islamic country, to drought, famine, and plague, to the warlords and the technicals and the gangs, to the collapsed infrastructure, to American's memories of Blackhawk down, and so it goes ad infinitum.

    As I said in yesterday's post, we have to do what we can actually do, fight the pirates on the high seas, convoy, and live with the consequences.

    Either that, or put on the big boy pants and wade into Somalia.

  8. I was talking about this with my Hot Sister yesterday, and our wholly depressing conclusion was that Africa is basically a horrible, horrible place, and is likely to remain so. That's what happens when no one really cares, other than in a "oh, that's too bad" kind of way.

    Reality sucks.

  9. please don't call it "The WAR on Piracy!" and appoint a Czar to manage it.I won't - I hate Czars.

  10. Alright, I'm gonna sound off on this a bit here. And while I think the Warrant's right, I think in the near term, this is too big a problem to resolve for two reasons that can be summed up in two words: quantity and space.


    There are a lot of ships out there, transiting the Western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. A metric ass-ton, if you'll pardon the vernacular. And ain't no way we're going to be able to queue them up like cattle and run the gauntlet without some of them slipping the herd and getting caught. Additionally, anyone want to take a guess how many little pirate boats there are out there? Yes, your basic run of the mill fishing boat isn't going to be able to overtake a merchant that's trying to evade, but these pirates aren't entirely stupid (though the Alabama incident doesn't speak well for their after-we've-boarded decision-making)--they're going to slip up at night, with the engines low. Sure, piracy will be decreased in terms of quantity of events, but that's just going to make what they view (wrongly) as further infringement upon their entitlement to seize and ransom ships more aggressive when they're successful.


    Quantity also applies here, too. X number of naval assets attempting to defend Y number of merchants, yachts, etc, over Z amount of space. Did anyone see and get an idea of perspective when CNN and Fox were tossing those graphics in front of us of the amount of space these pirates are operating within? Hence Jim's recommendation for assault helicopters. There's no way even the ships he's suggesting be brought out of mothballs or recommended saving from decommissioning are sufficient to cover all that space. And before anyone says it, an aircraft carrier isn't going to be the magic wand it might seem to be. You ever try to read someone's t-shirt blowing by them on a freeway? Multiply your velocity by ten, and that's what the fighter pilot's going to see on approach of a suspected pirate skiff. No way to confirm weapons unless the idiots start shooting, and sooner or later that means LT Brownshoe ends up ventilating a legitimate fishing boat.

    Quantity and space this manifestly more difficult when you factor in that some of the other nations there are strictly looking after their boys and girls, and not really giving much consideration to being a helpful neighbor.

    But, on a lighter note: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2009-04/14/content_11184581.htm

    Maybe we can get Flipper and (a lot of) his friends to help out.

  11. Jim, I realize this is an old post, but there are a few points I'd like to address as a Merchant Marine officer (Engineer - I make the ship go, the weirdos up top make her go in the right direction.)

    1. Arming the ships: MSC (the Military Sealift Command) and MARAD (the US Maritime Administration, which maintains and operates - or contracts for operation - the US-owned, US-flagged, gray-painted ships that get the military its supplies in a hurry when we go to war) added small-arms training to the employment requirement for crews over a decade ago. Doesn't work all that well. (A close friend of mine - who was one of Jim's contemporaries in his particular field, though I doubt they know each other - was the guy who volunteered to stand duty on the ship while the macho idiots were off playing with .45s. His reasoning was, "I know this ship better than any pirate. I know where to hide. I know how to make a weapon of a dozen common items on this ship. And I know where to hide bodies. And I know that 75% of you assholes will get yourselves killed in 90 seconds if you try a shootout with the common pirate - and I know that you're stupid enough to try it.")

    2. Convoying and escorting ain't gonna work. Commercial ships are all about speed and saving time - a ship at the pier, or holding for armed escort, isn't making money. Disgusting as it is, one ship getting pirated (meaning the loss of the vessel, her cargo, and most likely the lives of every man and woman aboard) is an acceptable loss to most companies: yeah, the insurance rates will go up - amortized over the entire fleet - but past that, and the settlement to the shippers for that particular cargo, there's not much injury to the company. (Under US law, if your ship is blown out from under you, your employment ceases at that moment unless you live. If you survive, the Company is required to pay your medical expenses; otherwise they owe virtually zero to your family, except maybe the value of your possessions that were on board when the ship went down.)

    3. My education also included a minor in maritime law. Piracy on the high seas - i.e., not within Somalia's territorial limit - under international law, is A) a Stateless crime, meaning that the perpetrators can be tried ANYWHERE, not just in their home country, and B) punishable by death if the arresting/convicting Nation has that option. (I'm not fond of the death penalty - I'd be just as happy to send them to the growler for the rest of their natural lives - but I occasionally think that a bit of pour encourager les autres might not be a bad thing.)


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