Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Non-Lethal Protection

As everyone knows, pirates (!!!!) are the worst existential threat this nation has faced since sometime last week.

What to do? If you've browsed the comments sections on popular blogs and news sites, you're probably aware that "KILL 'EM ALL!" remains the acme of sophisticated strategic thinking in many circles. This plan is usually recommended as though it's the easiest thing in the world to do, and the hardest thing to imagine doing. Its advocates always seem very proud that they know something the experts don't...just as their forebears did when they leaned against the pickle barrel with their thumbs in their suspenders, and offered a one-step solution for the nigra problem.

You'd think that this resolute optimism would make equally short work of every other problem we face. But if you scream "INSURE 'EM ALL!" or "PAY 'EM ALL A LIVING WAGE!" you'll be astonished at how quickly these folks develop an appreciation of nuance. (I suppose it's possible that these positions are actually consistent, in that they're both informed primarily by bone-deep sadism...but honestly, what are the odds?)

Anyway, there's the "KILL 'EM ALL!" school of anti-piracy. And there's their great enemy, the "Offer the Pirates Aromatherapy and Jungian Analysis While Holding Hands and Singing 'Kumbaya'" school, which comprises everyone who doubts that screaming "KILL 'EM ALL!" really makes you the new Clausewitz.

And then there's the reasonable, centrist Third Way, which is spearheaded by defense contractors and theorists; its motto is "kill some of 'em; torture, burn, blind, poison, electrocute, detain, or starve others; threaten the rest of 'em; and eventually become rich and influential enough to drive US policy towards your preferred high-ticket weapon system." This approach has the support of conservatives and liberals, so you know it's much closer to correct than anything on the extremist sides of the argument.

Apropos of which, Rep. Joe Sestak wants us to deter pirates with the Active Denial System, or "pain ray." David Hambling begs to differ.

Theoretical studies for the maritime tests showed that reflections from the hull could produce "hotspots" with twice the normal energy density, while reflections off the water could be three to four times the baseline....

The whole point of the ADS is that it is not supposed to cause harm. If you zap a boatload of suspected pirates and some of them jump into the water while others keep coming, do you cease fire? Continue firing until you cause real damage ("Ha ha, let's fry 'em!") and legally you might as well have a machine gun. If you're forced to stop, then how useful is the weapon?
Good question. Since the whole point is to avoid making merchant crews feel like they're in a real-life game of Area 51 or House of the Dead, the pain ray does seem like a nonstarter. Fortunately, Sestak is not out of ideas:
According to Rep. Sestak, a barrier might be what's needed to protect merchant vessels. One maritime security company makes an electric fence called Secure Ship. It's linked to a sophisticated alarm system and provides 9,000 volts of non-lethal protection which completely blocks access to the ship. Plus, it has the added benefits of preventing stowaways or thieves from getting on to the ship when it is in port. However, for obvious reasons, Secure Ship only recommended for vessels with a non-flammable cargo. And determined pirates will probably eventually get through it – if they remembered to bring wirecutters and insulated gloves. Despite the shortcomings, the fence might buy the crew valuable time while they call for help.
If the fence had three layers, it'd buy the crew even more time. And as always, the perimeter should be patrolled by drones or militarized animals (unless the Minutemen are willing to trade their pickups for speedboats and redeploy to the Indian Ocean, which would give us the best of both worlds).

Still, these are all stopgap measures. I think it'd be best to enclose each ship in a huge metal sphere filled partially with water, and let it travel over the bounding main like a hamster in a ball, thanks to a rotary apparatus at the prow. It could even be spiked all over, like an enormous pollen spore (isn't biomimesis all the rage these days?).

I imagine David Hambling will have some petty objection to this scheme, too, so I'll just launch a pre-emptive first strike on his pet idea:
Instead of going after the pirates, why not disable their boats? Something like the Running Gear Entanglement System -- or "James Bond Harpoon"-- might do the job. It releases a high-tensile line which snags on the boat's propeller. This would allow the pirates' target to escape, leaving the stranded pirates to be dealt with by the nearest warship in due course.

An entangler has a number of advantages over other options. One is the low cost, which should be thousands of dollars, rather than tens of thousands for LRAD or millions for ADS. Given a suitable launching system, it should be possible to deploy an entangler at a good range. And its method of operation means nobody gets deafened, blistered or blinded by friendly fire if it all goes wrong. Of course there's a risk of entangling the wrong small boats, but that's not the same as the risk of leaving people injured for life.
The thing is, there's also a risk of entangling whatever birds, fish, and aquatic mammals have managed to survive years of toxic dumping and overfishing. I'm not convinced that choking and strangling and drowning what's left of Somalia's wildlife is the best way to deter regional piracy, in the long run. As I've argued elsewhere, we only have one planet, so it's essential that we find sustainable, eco-friendly ways to thwart, cripple and destroy the subhuman filth who threaten our way of life.

All of which makes me more certain than ever that my giant metal sphere is the only feasible solution to Somali piracy. If anyone from Raytheon or BAE wants to discuss this further, you'll find me lying in the gutter in front of the Alibi tiki bar on Interstate Avenue.


jaytingle said...

Piracy, which was vanquished from the earth in 1800, is upon us again in full force. As pirates and their victims fall into the sea, sustenance for sharks is provided, by default. Such an uptick in nutritional inputs leads directly to population growth and the eventual explosion of shark attacks occurs. We haven't seen anything like that since the summer of 2001.

Phila said...

Good're right.

Scratch everything I said about the entanglement strategy. If it will reduce the risk of deadly shark attacks like we saw back then, we need to implement it ASAP.

grouchmarxist said...

Well, I for one am pitching a much more practical solution: Kamikaze dugongs!