THOSE PIRATES

Seven Questions: Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper on How to Kick Pirate Booty
Posted December 2008
The general who whipped U.S. forces in a famous war game tells FP how to crack down on Somali pirates. Ahoy!

KHALED FAZAA/AFP/Getty Images
Coast guard: A Yemeni sailor mans a machine gun as a fishing boat passes by in the Gulf of Aden.

Armed only with grenade launchers and automatic weapons, Somali pirates are giving the modern shipping industry a run for its money. This year alone, pirates have attacked well over 100 ships passing through the Gulf of Aden that divides the Somali and Yemeni coasts. Thirty-five ships are being held for ransom, meaning at least 200 crew members are hostage. Millions have been paid to free countless more ships at an average cost of roughly $1 million per vessel. Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, NATO, India, and Russia have all sent ships to patrol the waters—and the European Union has launched its own operation. On Dec. 2, the U.N. Security Council extended a mandate allowing those vessels to use “all necessary means” to quash the piracy.

Despite all these efforts, Somali pirates have only gotten bolder. In November, they captured their biggest vessel yet—a Saudi oil tanker carrying 2 million barrels of oil. Even more impressive, the tanker was 420 nautical miles off the coast when seized—much farther out than the 250-nautical-mile limit that the International Maritime Bureau recommends sailing outside of.

Why the difficulty eliminating the scourge? Foreign Policy’s Elizabeth Dickinson turned to retired Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, a master of military grand strategy, for his take on cleaning up the Somali coast. Van Riper, a decorated Vietnam veteran, famously trounced U.S. forces in a war game in 2002 using such “unconventional” techniques as broadcasting attacks from mosque loudspeakers and using motorcyclists—rather than radios—as messengers. Here’s how Van Riper would take on the Somali pirates.

Foreign Policy: During the Millennium Challenge war game of 2002, while playing the “Red” team opposing U.S. forces, you used unconventional tactics to communicate and strike by surprise, eventually “sinking” a U.S. flotilla. Drawing from this experience, as well as conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, why is it that these guerrilla strategies can catch allied forces so off guard?

Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper: What we’re really talking about is what kind of methods folks might use that are unconventional. You struggle with words because to the person doing it, it’s not unorthodox, irregular, any of those things; it’s very normal. If you think in history, the Japanese didn’t think that kamikaze pilots were unconventional, but the U.S. did and the British did. The insurgents don’t think that IEDs [improvised explosive devices] are irregular or asymmetrical. It’s in the eye of the beholder. I think [the tactics] you’re seeing with many of these pirates—it’s not something they’ve done deliberately with relation to more modern nations—it’s what they do normally.

FP: What is it like to be fighting enemies—like these pirates—who are thinking differently than you? How do you have to think differently about your own strategy?

PVR: What we tend to do is look toward the enemy. We’re only looking one way: from us to them. But the good commanders take two other views. They mentally move forward and look back to themselves. They look from the enemy back to the friendly, and they try to imagine how the enemy might attack them. The third [way] is to get a bird’s-eye view, a top-down view, where you take the whole scene in. The amateur looks one way; the professional looks at least three different ways.

FP: Let’s imagine that there is a command structure in place mandated by the United Nations. How would that force figure out the weakness of nontraditional combatants like the pirates? Where would be the best place to strike them?

PVR: You have to understand what their methods of operation are, so you’d obviously begin with whatever kinds of intelligence you can gather. There are going to be a lot of ways to do that. Probably to a limited degree, it would be radio intercepts or communications—because they use varying means of communications. Then, having some sort of broad area surveillance for extended periods of times, you begin to see patterns. You’ve got to develop some sort of a picture of what is normal and what is not normal.

Some of those same techniques have been used for hunting the folks who put in IEDs. You watch an area long enough and you begin to see what’s not normal in the daily routine. You have to understand their method of operation and what the clues are if something is amiss. Any military unit that goes into a new area doesn’t see the subtle clues until they have been there awhile and unless they set up their intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in order to pick those things up.

You’re talking weeks and probably months [to get a sense of the patterns], because things don’t happen every day. It’s like weather: You watch one day; it doesn’t mean anything. A week means a little bit [more]. But obviously, a month or months [of observation] means a lot. In Vietnam on the ground, we would have to be in areas for several weeks before we would begin to perceive what was normal and what was abnormal. And the longer they left [troops] in the same place, generally, the more effective they became.

FP: What platforms would you ideally need to counter piracy, given that these pirates are using rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons?

PVR: If they get close enough, certainly none of the commercial ships are capable of stopping them. Even small arms will go through many parts of a commercial ship. In the case of military naval vessels, navies have taken the tack since World War II of having sensors that tell you when somebody is in the vicinity—you see them before they see you; you can engage them. [But these ships don’t have] near the heavy armor that we had in World War II on the battleships and cruisers. Most vessels now are relatively thin-skinned. You probably read about the cruise ship that [the pirates] attempted to hijack. [Passengers] would have to get to the interior, because if you were anywhere near the skin of the ship, the odds of some of those weapons penetrating it are pretty high.

FP: How many and what kind of troops would you choose for a mission—if your goal was to eliminate piracy in the Gulf of Aden?

PVR: I guess your first question would be: Am I going to eliminate it at sea, or am I going to try to go to the places where these pirates have their home bases and their forts? There’s a pirates nest, I guess; where are they? If you can separate them from their ports or wherever they hide out, then obviously you get them before they even come out. The difficulty you have there is what you have with most insurgent-type activities: sorting out the good from the bad. You know that [the pirates] go into a certain port, but trying to hit them without collateral damage is always a challenge.

It’s [also] not a strictly military calculation because you have commercial interests who are worried about the cargo they are carrying. They’re worrying about insurance rates. If they take on the nature of a naval vessel—that is, they arm themselves—then what happens to their insurance rates? The other side of the factor is, if the pirates know you’re armed, then they’re liable to shoot first and ask questions later. It’s not thinking in terms of a straight head-on-head between two fighting vessels, but what are the folks that own these either cruise liners or commercial ships thinking about.

FP: On the cargo boats today—how ready would a crew be to take on an attack like this, and when there is a security force, what kind of arms would they have on board?

PVR: I think the U.S. Navy is in pretty good shape, and they learned the lesson the hard way with the [USS Cole]. Up to that point, they had thought about it and written about it, but the skippers of the ships had not given it the serious attention they now do. Now, it’s under the rubric of force protection: the security of the ship. You have a number of things—from warning them with loudspeakers at a distance, possibly firing warning shots to announce when they get close. Some of the larger weapons were not effective when they got close—the muzzles of some of these naval guns, you couldn’t lower it enough to get close. But now they have small arms, 50-caliber machine guns, rifles, that they can use.

There’s a lot of discussion about putting nonlethal-type weapons on. Some of the Navy officers are looking for dazzlers or sound systems that are just excruciatingly painful to listen to. The idea is to have a layered defense. If you warn somebody further out and you warn them a second time, then at the third time, if you elect to use deadly force, the odds are you are not making a mistake if somebody keeps pushing in.

FP: Over the last five years, since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what has the United States learned about asymmetric warfare? What is it doing right, and what is it still doing wrong?

PVR: I believe that after a pretty rocky start, we’re in good shape now. No one can truly think in another culture, but if you have some understanding, you don’t make serious mistakes. Second, the longer you’re in an area, the more robust your own means can become, the more interlocked and coordinated your own sensors. And this familiarity I talked about before about what’s normal and what’s abnormal, you build up that reservoir of understanding.

Lt. Gen Paul Van Riper served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 41 years. In 2002, he commanded the “Red” team in the Millennium Challenge war game.

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