More on the Threat of Piracy to the Oil Trade

There are a couple of interesting snippets this morning in the coverage of the seizing of a Saudi oil tanker by Somali pirates I commented on yesterday. First, the Financial Times echoes my observations about the potential impact of this on the oil trade:

While most other seizures have been of vessels heading into or out of the Suez Canal, the latest incident will raise question marks about the safety of the route from the Arabian Gulf to the Cape of Good Hope — a route taken by the largest oil tankers heading from the world’s main oil-producing regions to both Europe and North America.

The development therefore puts at risk a far higher proportion of the world’s energy shipments than the 12 per cent that shipping organisations had already considered in danger. “That route from the Cape to the Gulf was not considered the riskiest route,” said Mr Mukundan.

The New York Times has an interesting observation about the sophistication of the pirates’ operations:

The location of the latest attack, far out to sea, suggested that the pirates may be expanding their range in an effort to avoid the multinational naval patrols now plying the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea.

“I’m stunned by the range of it,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a news conference in Washington. The ship’s distance from the coast was “the longest distance I’ve seen for any of these incidents,” he said.

The vessel was headed for the United States via the Cape of Good Hope when it was seized, Reuters reported.

Maritime experts recently have noticed a new development in the gulf — the pirates’ use of “mother ships,” large oceangoing trawlers carrying fleets of speedboats which are then deployed when a new prize is encountered.

“They launch these boats and they’re like wild dogs,” said Mr. Choong in Kuala Lumpur. “They attack the ship from the port, from starboard, from all points, shooting, scaring the captain, firing RPGs and forcing the ship to stop.”

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. JKB says:

    The taking of the tanker should be the event needed to employ the myriad of nations’ intelligence and special ops forces to retire these pirates. No fuss, no muss just the mother ships and her roaches slipping beneath the blue never to be heard from again after a muffled underwater explosion.

    It should be widely supported, from the people needing the oil, from the people selling the oil, from the environmentalists who hate the oil spills the attacks cause.

  2. m says:

    To bad the UN and its associated organizations deplore the use of force to protect life and property. The international maritime orgs “dont advocate” the use of armed guards or mercanaries to help protect people and assets of shipping companies. These views just make crews and ships easy targets for piracy. Yes armed response may escalate some situations, but if planned correctly, with the proper tactics and without anyone informing these pirate support organizations that their targets may fight back, the major groups conducting these piracy attacks could be eliminated. As the previous comment said, let the spec-ops groups loose on them, between the US, UK, Russian, German and others it would be quick work and an end to the problem.

  3. Drew says:

    Oh, please. These events could be stopped in a heartbeat if we (the collective “we”) did not practice politically correct war/police action.

    Hammer them (their home bases) hard – take the short term PR hit. The Somali’s will “get it,” like magic. Otherwise, I’m not interested in the detail. Same old. (Oh, by the way, while we withheld action…..tell the Saudis “thanks for your support recently.” Snicker.)

    I’m not holding my breath folks – sing after me: “no balls at all, no balls at all, the lady had no balls at all…”

  4. Tempest says:

    To JKB and M, I totally agree. Drew, however, what you propose is so Bushian (or Cheynean) in its design and probability to fail (miserably) — which by the way makes your disinterest in the detail not a surprise. How is hitting Somalia hard is going to teach them a lesson and eliminate the pirates? I think I heard that same proposal with Iraq six years ago and how that would eliminate terrorists. And short term PR hit? Yeh, like the PR hit we’ve taken with Iraq has been short.

  5. mannning says:

    Looks to me like we need to deploy something like Global Hawks to keep a real-time eye on shipping off the coast of Africa, and now well into the Indian Ocean.

    If only they had multiple Hellfire missile capability on Hawks: one for the trawler, and four for the speedboats, plus one spare, just in case…

    Tell me again why these vessels are not well-armed and capable of fighting off the speedboats. A few twin 50 cal mounts, say four on each side, and a few Tow missiles or the like would do a bangup job. Put a few trained men on board to man the weapons. Reclassify the ship as a combat vessel if needed to get around any sea laws in the way.

  6. mannning says:

    Turns out that the Reaper, MQ-9A, carries 14 Hellfire missiles, can cruise at 50,000 ft, and stay aloft well over a day. Sounds about right for the mission.

  7. Billigflug says:

    Manning, I don’t know whether fighting back would be the right strategy, as this could end in a war, as pirates probably just would extend their weapons and try it again. On the other hand it’s not fun to sit on tons of oil and provoke pirates. The seamen are no soldiers, keep this in mind. The right way should be a better security system like “Global Hawks”.

  8. DC Loser says:

    You guys are friggin’ hilarious. The Global Hawk fly at 60,000 ft +, so the idea of putting ATGMs on them are not exactly practical. Every Predator we own are committed to Afghanistan and Iraq. This is not a problem of the same magnitude to warrant the diversion of resources. Like I said, if it is a big enough problem, convoys will take care of it. But for now the costs don’t justify the means.

  9. Drew says:

    Tempest –

    These guys know only one thing: force. If we do not apply it, they continue. If we apply it, they stop.

    How to apply it? There is no real functioning govt, so we apply it to the pirate’s villages.

    I know it sounds crude, but we have to ask ourselves a question: do we want to be effective, and stop this behavior, or do we want to just play new age nicey nice.

    Do the latter and the pirating doesn’t stop. Wake up, Tempest, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

  10. mannning says:

    First is recon of the Indian Ocean and tracking of all vessels there–Global Hawk is the best candidate for coverage in real time.
    GHs are being produced at a rate of 9/10 a month. Diversion of several of these is entirely possible. Paying for them might well be arranged through international shipping groups and owners.

    Second is killing the pirates and their vessels, and to do this in a timely manner. Carriers and patrol vessels are far too expensive and slow in response, except in close-range situations. So there are two interesting alternatives:
    1) Arm the vessels and provide a trained squad of
    men to operate the weapons. My suggestion was for twin 50 cal MGs and antitank missiles such as Tow.

    2) Use GH or Reaper to launch Hellfire missiles at the pirate vessel, yes, from 50-60 thousand feet. There is adequate resolution from the sensors aboard GH or RE to acquire and track the ships and motorboats from that altitude. Terminal guidance would ensure a hit.

    GH is currently unarmed, but it can carry the load of 6 or 8 Hellfires. Reaper is well armed, but it has far less range and endurance than GH.
    So, my preference is for a new-production GH with the Reaper weapons capability added.

    I will leave it up to the powers that be to decide the relative worth of these assets in their roles in the GWOT versus their role in international antipirate interdiction. At the rate these events are occuring today and their probable increase, diversion might win.

  11. mannning says:

    As an addition, target designators can be added to the team aboard the ship, which would allow use of as number of weapons in the inventory.

  12. mannning says:

    Another thought: Arming the ships in the manner suggested is certainly cheaper than the use of convoys or increased patrols by surface ships. I suggest also that the GH recon/strike approach is cheaper than patrol aircraft of the P2V type, and much cheaper than procuring adequate satellite coverage (with no weapons capability at all).

  13. mannning says:

    The commenter, DC Loser, is quite confused. ATGMs are TOW and similar missiles that are short range tank killers. My suggestion was to use them at close range from the ship being attacked, not from the GH or Reaper.

    Both GH and Reaper operate at 50-60 thousand feet. Currently Hellfire missiles are used on Reaper, and the target acquisition, tracking and guidance capabilities are well-proven, even against moving targets such as a speedboat.

    There is merit in tracking these pirates to and from their ports, and to use their tracks to disrupt their planned attacks, and to attack the lairs themselves.