Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Shotguns and Tsetse flies

I don't usually comment here on national and international events. But like many other people, I've been following the news of the dramatic rescue of an American merchant captain from Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa. What I've found most striking about the whole affair--aside from the incredible luckiness of three simultaneous head shots into a covered boat bobbing on the ocean--were the story's correlations to two other news stories that it nearly drowned out (sorry about the pun) in the U.S. Media.

One of those was about Defense Secretary Robert Gates' decision to direct U.S. funding away from weapons systems designed for the Cold War, such as the super-expensive Raptor fighter, and toward systems more in line with current threats, such as as guerrilla fighters, terrorists and pirates armed with relatively primitive but highly effective weapons such as AK-47s, RPGs, improvised land mines, suicide truck bombs and small speedboats.

The pirate standoff was a classic example of the problem. The primary adversaries were four pirates with small arms in a lifeboat versus a U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer. Look at that again: a guided missile destroyer. I toured such a destroyer when it visited Hilo Harbor two or three years ago. The Arleigh Burkes are 506 feet long (my guide that day claimed his ship was nearly the size of a World War II cruiser, but that's a slight exaggeration; most U.S. cruisers in WWII were over 600 feet long. On the other hand, WWII destroyers was usually only about 350 feet long). They carry an awesome array of vertical-launch and cruise missiles, and a Phalanx Gattling gun for defense against incoming missiles--but their only standard armament useful against a pirate speedboat would be a single five-inch deck gun. U.S. Navy ships used to carry marine snipers on board--but according to one news report, the Navy seals who finally took the shots that ended the pirate standoff had to be parachuted down to the Bainbridge.

According the the Bainbridge's own Web site, the missile destroyers were "originally designed to defend against former-Soviet aircraft, cruise missiles, and attack submarines"; now, "This higher capability ship is to be used in high-threat areas to conduct antiair, antisubmarine, antisurface, and strike operations. " This ship was not designed for this job. 

So why are we hunting tsetse flies with a shotgun?

The flies apparently realize the folly of our approach. The day after sniper rifles did what guided missiles couldn't, Somali pirates seized four more ships and raked a second U.S. container ship--which, ironically, like the Maersk Alabama, was carrying emergency humanitarian supplies--with RPG and automatic weapons fire. I didn't see any stories about whether the pirates were abetted in their efforts by the fact that at least two U.S. warships (a guided missile frigate ironically named the U.S.S. Halyburton reportedly joined the Bainbridge) were tied up watching a lifeboat.

I'm no defense expert, but it seems to me that unless we plan to start nuking towns along the Somali coast, we'd be a lot more effective in the region if we were using the equivalent of coast guard cutters, or or maybe something along the line of WWII PT boats (After getting the PT 109 cut in half, John F. Kennedy commanded a PT boat that had been rearmed as a gunship. A modern equivalent might actually be able to catch a Somali pirate who didn't somehow get himself stranded on a lifeboat.) And we could build a batch of them for the cost equivalent of one guided missile destroyer.

The other article that caught my attention was about the origins of the piracy problem. The story was widely publicized in Europe--BBC's "World Have Your Say" based an entire one-hour program to it. It seems that after the Somali national government collapsed, big commercial fishing vessels began moving into Somali coastal waters and gobbling up all the fish, in violation of international treaties of the seas. This, of course, devastated the local fishing industry. The out-of-work local fishermen started launching vigilante operations against the interloping fishing fleets, and then escalated to general piracy.

It seems to me that if our Navy ships are going to attempt to catch the pirates, we should also use them to go after illegal trawlers, which a destroyer probably could catch. Then the local Somalis would have less reason to go pirating. They might even actually like us, and let us send them surplus American grain without firing at our ships.

No comments: