Copyright 2013 by John T. Reed

I have been interested in the Somali pirate issue for a number of years because it is somewhat military and it is yet another case of grade-school dropouts in flip flops making fools of the U.S. military. I have read several books about it, attended a panel discussion about it at the World Affairs council in San Francisco, and seen some documentaries and a movie about it.

Pirate Alley is written by Terry McKnight, a retired admiral who commanded the anti-pirate multi-nation naval task force.

It is a rather unsatisfying book. It basically says this is a mess because of lack of necessary laws, proper rules of engagement, politician timidity, merchant marine acceptance of the pay-ransom status quo, etc.

Consumers paying the ransoms

The really big picture is that the consumers of the world are paying extra for the stuff carried in the merchant vessels. That money goes to insurance companies who charge higher premiums because of piracy and ransoms. The insurance companies pay ransoms out of the premiums albeit the ransoms only total about one fifth of the premiums. That suggests that the most profit from piracy is going into the pockets of the insurance companies and that they do not want piracy ended.

Admiral Mcknight is a VMI grad. I think he said he studied political science or some similar college major—not business. A businessman would have asked what part of the premiums collected by the insurers stem from the heightened pirate hijackings. Whether insuring against pirate attacks is profitable would require calculating the incremental premiums from pirate concerns then subtracting the costs of paying the ransoms. The way McKnight stated it is suggests piracy is enormously profitable for the insurance companies.

In 1797, France, yes France, demanded a $10,250,000 tribute (bribe) to stop attacking U.S. ships on the high seas. A famous quote came out of that demand. The quote, "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute," was made by Robert Goodloe Harper as a toast at a dinner shortly after France’s demand became known.

Millitary too inept and inefficient to handle piracy

Well, that is a great political slogan, but not good business. Paying extortionists is not good business either. The problems is defense is run by the U.S. military which is one of the most wasteful. inefficient organizations ever known. (I was on active duty in the U.S. Army for 8 years.) In other words, having the U.S. Navy and Marines try to stop piracy sometimes produces satisfying results—as in the case depicted in the Captain Phillips movie—but the costs of having the Navy do anything are extremely high. Talk about asymmetrical warfare: Half-naked morons in skiffs versus billion-dollar Navy ships commanded by guys who are all tied up by bureaucracy. It probably cost the American taxpayers about $2 billion per pirate to have those Navy SEALS shoot them. Stupid.

In other words, the solution to Somali piracy is somewhere between “Tell it to the Marines” and pay them millions in ransom.

Cannot allow payment of ransoms

I say, and it is in the book, that ransoms must not be paid because they mean more hostages and ships will be taken in the future. Paying ransom is obviously shortsighted. It is obviously “out of sight [future hostages] out of mind” which is an infantile way to analyze and handle the situation. The book sort of said you can’t not pay the ransom because you feel bad about the current hostages. Bull! Feel bad about the far more numerous future hostages if we keep paying.

Paying extortion, including ransom for hostages or hostage ships, is simply and obviously stupid.

This is a similar dynamic to refraining from military action out of fear of hurting hostages or human shields or of causing collateral damage. Such rules of engagement accomplish nothing but making our enemies always locate their personnel and matériel in the midst of children, seniors, hospitals, orphanages, puppy kennels, and so on, which, in turn, nullifies our military strength.

We should ignore the safety of hostages, human shields, and collateral damage. Just use the smallest munition that is available and adequate for the mission and kill the bad guys. Tell the others to get out of the way. If they don’t or can’,t they get hurt, as do the hostage takers. Eventually, the bad guys will stop using hostages and human shields and locating next to or in hospitals because it is not doing them any good.

Same applies to paying ransoms for ships and their crews. McKnight seems to rule out not paying although at the end he seems to advocate going after the insurance companies who pay the ransoms.

Obviously, it is or should be a violation of public policy to allow merchant mariners to insure against kidnapping and for insurance companies to pay ransoms. Obviously, it encourages piracy. Indeed, it is the entire raison d’etre for piracy.

Merchant mariners will refuse to sail

McKnight says sailors will refuse to sail if ransom paying is outlawed.

Good. It’s about god-damned time for someone in this mess to use some common sense. If ransoms being outlawed causes sailors to refuse to sail, the executives who pressure Washington not to outlaw ransom paying can crew their own damned ships. If outlawing paying ransoms causes the ships to stop sailing, that will produce far greater, and no doubt far more effective, pressure to end piracy.


Insurance companies

There is no question that action must be taken to criminalize paying ransoms against mainly the insurance companies paying the ransoms—and profiting from selling such policies.

You cannot sell a liability policy (unrelated to piracy) that insures punitive damages because then they would not have the intended deterrent effect. By the same token, you must not be able to sell a policy that pays ransoms because it encourages future ransom paying which encourages future hostage taking.

Financiers of the pirates

Similarly, action should be taken against those who receive the ransoms—now paid in cash dropped out of a plane next to the ship that has been captured. The recipients include a bunch of people in Somalia as well as financial backers in the U.S. and other countries. The book says you are wrong to assume this is already being done. It is not. Treasury and Justice cannot be bothered, which makes them complicit.

Somali piracy takes place in the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and the portion of the Indian Ocean directly below the Arabian Sea north of Madagascar. The Gulf of Aden is between the Horn of Africa (Somalia) and Yemen. The Gulf of Aden is between Somali and India south of Iran and Pakistan. The Indian Ocean is between Africa and Australia/Indonesia. Here’s a map of the Somali piracy area.

Too much area for surface navy to handle

The piracy area is too big to use navy surface ships to guard against piracy—somewhat smaller than the continental U.S. Navy ships move at about 25 miles an hour. Can you imagine trying to stop car hijackings on the continental U.S. land mass with absolutely no law enforcement other than a couple of dozen police buses that cannot exceed 25 miles an hour? Actually, that would be easier because cars generally have to stay on roads. The ocean is like a huge, empty parking lot for cars to drive around in, not a place where you can only drive on roads like the U.S.

The body of water in question also tends to be flat, that is, very calm, thus rippy-dip little boats with outboard motors can go out hundreds of miles from shore.

Money, money, money

There is nothing to understand about it other than it is a profitable business for the pirates and their backers. They whine about illegal fishing in their waters and pollution, but those are obvious lies.

An old public-service announcement made famous the slogan, “Crime doesn’t pay.” If it didn’t pay, crime wouldn’t exist. Piracy pays. It will stop when it stops paying.

Armed guards on the ships

Another obvious, relatively cheap solution is to put armed guards on the merchant vessels when they pass through the piracy area. Actually, that costs about $50,000 per trip. The insurance premiums may be cheaper than that. No ship with armed guards aboard has been hijacked. Essentially, the pirates will not even try to hijack ships with guards. I surmise that they sometimes find out by attacking and abandon the effort instantly when fired upon. I don’t know what weapons the guards use but I would recommend .50 cal machine guns. Those have a range of about 1,500 meters compared to about 300 meters for the pirate AK-47s. Pirates also have RPGs which have a similar rage to a .50 cal, but what are they going to do from 1,500 meters? Sink the ship? Who will pay them for that?

I heard the whining, illogical, tradition, explanations of why it took so long to use the armed guards at the panel discussion. They are also in the book. Don’t even waste your time reading it. The need for, and low cost and effectiveness of, the guards is obvious.

Russian flag

Another way to protect your ship is to put a Russian flag on it and make sure there are lights illuminating the flag. Is that legal? No, not unless you are a Russian ship. Why does it deter? Apparently, when the Russians capture a pirate, they make him walk the plank, only without the plank. The informal statement of the Russian’s policy, which apparently violates international law, is “It’s a very big ocean out here, and it gets very dark at night.”

Should the U.S. do that? After the appropriate law is passed authorizing it, yes. At present, pirates love being caught by everyone but the Russians because the Marquis of Queensbury treatment required by Western law is like a free trip to Club Med for the Somalis.

The problem is you cannot apply, say, New York City law enforcement procedures, against pirates. How do you assemble witnesses to testify? You must have Somali interpretters present to read illiterate Somali pirates their rights. At what expense? Where is the court? Where is the jail? Who pays for the court and jail and defense lawyers? How do you let lawyers pulling all their tricks get the proceedings delayed again and again requiring the witness to travel ten thousand miles or more again and again? Pirates should be treated like spies once were—summary execution. When Benedict Arnold’s British spy Major Andre was captured by the Americans, dressed as a civilian, he asked to be killed by firing squad, not hung, because he was a gentleman or some such. They hung him on the spot. To do anything else with pirates would cost millions and take years. They are not civilian criminals or even prisoners of war. They wear no uniforms, sign no treaties, and follow no international laws. They have murdered hostages. Treating them like POWs turns what they do into a risk-free business. That, in turn, means that capturing them has no effect whatsoever on recidivism.

Murderous surrenderers

At present, pirates will kill crewmen who try to keep them off the vessel without hesitation. Once they were on board the Maersk Alabama and other ships they blasted away wounding and killing crew members. But the moment they see they will not get their ransom, they throw their weapons overboard, thereby destroying the evidence and raise their hands and swear their innocence. And, in almost all cases, get released without any meaningful punishment, certainly not enough to deter them from doing it again.


They have no fear of death. Their are fatalistic Muslims. Inshallah. (If they die, it was because God decided it so it cannot be prevented.) The only thing they fear is not getting a ransom or being embarrassed in front of their tribe and enemy tribes.

So why have them walk the plank? It “deters” them by eliminating that particular pirate. It also prevents them from getting any ransom. Perhaps most of all, it saves the capturing organization from having to “adopt” them, thereby becoming obligated to provide them with food, housing, medical care, etc.

The skinny who got sentenced to 33 years in federal prison in Indiana for Maersk Alabama will come out then, fat and healthy, and become a cab driver in Chicago. Literally. Somalis literally see being captured by Americans or Europeans as their only way to get a sort of permanent residence permit in Europe or North America. It’s in the book.

Warning shots and loud noises

Firing shots across the bow of the pirates has no effect. It just confirms their belief that we are operating under rules of engagement that mean they have no downside. Shooting extremely loud noises at them does not deter them.

I love my career as a bureaucrat trapped in a Kafkaesque, Catch-22, nightmare

Mcknight seems to be one of the many airhead lifers who can cite instance after instance—as he certainly does in this book—of Kafkaesque, nightmarish military and other government bureaucracy that makes a mockery of all efforts to try to do your job—yet in the next breath he tells us how great it was to put up with this bullshit and chickenshit for 31 years. He also has a breezy, Am-I-cool-or-what, fighter-pilot type conceit. I don’t know why. He was just a bureaucrat out in the ocean being told no, no, no, no by his far-away, higher bureaucrat superiors.

He spends a gerat deal of time telling us about how he invited Russian and Communist Chinese navy ship captains onto his ship for lunch then later went to their ships for lunch. He said this was one of the “hallmarks” of his career. He means high points. Zat so? Let me see. He goes to a military college, joins the navy, whose job it is to use violence to kill enemy military personnel and destroy their equipment and infrastructure, and the high point of his career is hosting and attending diplomatic lunches? He also speaks fondly of doing similar things on land when he was stationed in DC. Indeed, I think he managed to spend his whole 31-year naval career hardly ever doing anything naval other than a little chasing of barefoot, Somali teenagers.

Yet he is thrilled with his “naval” career and with what a warrior stud he is.


Hey, Terry, see a psychiatrist—a civilian one.

Alfred Thayer Mahan RIP 1783

McKnight keeps citing Alfred Thayer Mahan who wrote a super influential book about sea power. I am not surprised that Navy people love Mahan. But I wrote an article saying the surface navy is obsolete except for beating up on third-world countries. I have not read Mahan’s book, but I would expect it is also obsolete. Mahan died in 1783! That would be somewhat before the weapons that rendered the surface navy obsolete: the airplane, the bomb, and the missile. There has not been a ship-to-ship naval battle since Leyte Gulf in 1944. And there has not been a carrier-versus-carrier battle since the Battle of the Philippine Sea in 1944.

Argentina, I repeat, Argentina, sank six British navy ships in the 1982 Falkland Islands war using French Mirage jets and French Exocet missiles. That’s 31 years ago, around when McKnight became a navy officer.

World War II in the Pacific reenactors

The U.S. surface Navy is a bunch of World War II in the Pacific reenactors just as the U.S. Army is a bunch of World War II in Europe reenactors. With regard to piracy, the U.S. Navy is the equivalent of using a zillion-dollar missile for killing roaches. I think the Navy’s main interest in piracy is it is another reason to justify their 60-years-past-their-usefulness existence.

McKnight has a lot of airhead bureaucrat thinking. Example: page 180 “The only way we’ll avoid conflict is to talk.” Yo, Terry, put down your book written in the 1780s and read about a conflict called Pearl Harbor. We talked to the Japanese right up until they bombed us. That conflict was neither prevented nor ended by talk. It was ended by our killing three million of them because we killed three million of them. They would not listen to any reason when we tried to talk to them. Some people only use talk as a delaying tactic. Some people only understand force or, in the case of the pirates, money. They will only talk if they think it is the path to money.

Sri Lanka had an insurgency called the Tamil Tigers. They ended it bySri Lanka literally killing every single one of them. The last to die was the Tigers’ “leader.”

Throw their tool in the ocean

Simple solution in some cases: throw the pirates’ ladder or grappling hook into the ocean when there is no pirate in the boat holding onto the other end of it. Think about it. Both are made of metal. When they hit the water, they go to the bottom. That would even be true if there was a pirate on the ladder or holding onto the rope if he was not secured to a pirate in their skiff. If the pirate tries to hold onto the ladder or hook, he will go to the bottom with it. Or just keep it on the merchant vessel for evidence or a souvenir. Once the pirates have no ladder or grappling hook, they’re done.

They have been shooting water at the pirates with fire hoses. Not every effective. More recently, they shoot steam at them. Golly! Might that singe them or perhaps damage their clothing? Isn’t that too brutal and common sense to be a U.S. pirate solution? Does steam work? I assume it does unless there is a gap in the steam coverage.

Throw magazines in the ocean

The pirates also have nothing if you take their magazines out of their AKs and throw the magazines overboard. Alternatively, and this would be better because it would also eliminate the bullet in the chamber, grab the AK, point it at another pirate or toward an open area, and hold the trigger down until it jammed or became empty. What is a pirate with an empty AK-47? After he throws it overboard to get rid of the evidence, a mere applicant for Club Fed and asylum in the U.S.

Inches from impotence

For all their bluster and menace, the pirates are one stopped outboard motor or one ladder or one grappling hook or one magazine per pirate away from total impotence and abject surrender.


Another solution is to build a “citadel” on the ship. Safe room would be a more accurate description of it. If the crew is safe in the citadel, military forces can board the ship and kill the pirates, who would probably surrender as soon as they saw the military coming, throwing their weapons overboard and claiming they were innocent.

Remote control

And how about this which was not in the book but strikes me as an extremely simple solution. Let the ship owners be able to take control of the ship away from the captain and any pirates. Crew hides in citadel and ship turns toward the nearest Combined Task Force navy ship. Pirates can neither hurt the crew nor can they steal the boat. No ransom.

Attack Somalia

Another solution is to attack the pirates in Somalia. Yeah. Sink all the high-speed boats in the country. Would that unfairly hurt their fishermen? According to the book, Somalia has no fishermen. Indeed, it said calling a Somali a “fish eater” is an extreme insult, one of the worst. So strafe all their boats with AC-130 gunships. I understand that almost all the motor vehicles in the country were paid for with ransom or other criminal money. So put a smart rebar through the engine block of each and every one of them.

We can fire a missile down a sat phone beam. Declare war on them and do it. Declaring war would make the head pirates command and control legitimate targets. Call it Operation Blackhawk Up.


How about missile-armed drones? They blow the pirate skiff out of the water when it is closing in on the ship. Okay, but the elapsed time between spotting pirates and them being on the ship is typically five to ten minutes says the book. How many such drones would you need to be able to hit any target in the continental US within five minutes? That’s how many you would need to stop all Somali pirates.

The book says a lot of calls from ships about pirates are false alarms about innocent skiffs. It was not explained how. Either they are coming at you at top speed or they’re not. If they are fisherman charging at a U.S. merchant ship in a pirate area at 20 knots, they are too stupid to live.

U.S. flag and crew

I thought the greedy maritime unions had wiped all U.S.-flagged ships—which have to be crewed by U.S. unions I believe—off the face of the earth. No. The Maersk Alabama was one of the U.S. flagged ships. There is a Marine Security Program in which 60 ships are sort of on standby while carrying their normal cargoes on normal trips to serve the U.S. navy in an emergency. The ships must be American flagged and U.S. citizen-crewed and their owners get paid to keep them that way and available for U.S. Navy duty. Maersk Alabama was one of those.

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions.

John T. Reed