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High-tech vs. the pirates

Matthew Frank / U.S. Navy Military Sealift Command
The U.S. Navy's Maritime Expeditionary Security Group 2 uses a

laser distractor to warn a simulated vessel to keep its distance.

Right now the best defenses against Somali pirates like the ones involved in the past week's drama on the high seas are fast engines and fire hoses - but the U.S. military is working on some high-tech anti-piracy gizmos that just might end up on commercial vessels as well.

The sharpshooting ability of U.S. Navy snipers was the decisive factor in ending the standoff with seaborne kidnappers who held American ship captain Richard Phillips hostage on a lifeboat off the coast of Somalia. The problem is that the Navy can't always come to the rescue - and even when they do, a violent outcome runs the risk of a serious downside.

For evidence of that, you don't have to look any further than the outcome of a different hostage situation involving a French sailboat. When French commandos stormed the vessel on Friday, one of the hostages was killed, along with two of the kidnappers. The incident involving Phillips has a bit of a downside as well: Now Somalis are vowing to take their revenge on French and U.S citizens.

An international naval task force has been assembled to watch out for pirates, but those forces are spread thin - and tech-savvy pirates have been using GPS locator devices and satellite phones as well as AK-47s and rocket launchers to cause trouble and elude capture.

More guns for the good guys?

One obvious strategy change would be to arm the crews of shipping vessels sailing through the danger zone - but Douglas Macdonald, a political science professor at Colgate University who is an expert on anti-piracy measures, told me that that strategy would have its downsides as well.

"There are all sorts of international legal constraints," he said. "And the crew unions don't want to take on this responsibility. ... It's similar to the debate over whether you want to arm airline crews."

Another option would be to bring in the professionals - and in fact, Blackwater, the private security company that was heavily involved in Iraq, has offered protection-for-pay for shipping through the Gulf of Aden. The worry there is that Blackwater's involvement could end as badly as it did in Iraq.

"Separating the innocent fishermen from the pirates is going to be hard," Macdonald said.

Besides, that kind of protection is expensive: In a European Commission report, Policy Research Corp's Gustaaf De Monie estimated that having a licensed security guard on board could cost $60,000 for each ship transit.

Turn to non-lethal weapons?

Somalia's tricky political situation is one of the reasons why non-lethal deterrents are the most common anti-piracy tools, for the U.S. military as well as to commercial shipping firms. Currently, the preferred strategy is to fire up the engines to outrun the outlaws, and blast them with fire hoses if they try to board.

The next steps run the gamut from higher-powered, more automated water-blasters, to nets designed to tangle up a pirate boat's propeller, to rubber-bullet guns, to laser dazzlers, high-voltage fences, robo-boats, sonic blasters and "pain rays." The gCaptain blog provides not just one, but two top-ten lists of anti-piracy gadgets.

The Defense Department's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program tested many of those gizmos late last year during an exercise at Yorktown Naval Weapons Station in Virginia, and reported that there was no single "magic bullet" for fending off potential intruders at sea. "We have found that multiple layers of non-lethal weapons contribute to the range of options available to naval forces in responding to potential threats and determining hostile intent," Capt. Barry Coceano, the Navy's lead for the non-lethal weapons program, was quoted as saying.

These contraptions don't come cheap, either. De Monie estimated that it would cost about $20,000 to $30,000 per transit to carry the kind of sonic blaster used by a cruise ship's crew to fend off Somali pirates in 2005.

The U.S. military isn't looking merely at non-lethal weapons to counter pirates (and terrorists, for that matter). Today, Wired's Danger Room blog reports on DARPA's efforts to develop "smart bullets" that would make Navy snipers' shots even more accurate.

Looking beyond bigger guns

But Colgate's Macdonald insists that better weapons won't provide the final solution for the pirate scourge. "You have to fix the problem on the land simultaneously," he told me. Macdonald said poverty, lawlessness and a lack of regional coordination were among the factors that made Southeast Asia the world's biggest hotbed of piracy several years ago - and those factors are behind Somalia's current piracy pandemic as well.

The key to success for fighting Asia's pirates was to encourage a coordinated response by Singapore, Malasya and Indonesia - and Macdonald said a similar response will be required to fight Somalia's pirates. "Who's going to do that in Somalia, I don't know," he said.

The Somali government is so weak that it's not a good candidate to lead the effort. Maybe the United Nations or the African Union could pull it off. But someone with a legitimate link to the region is going to have to take the lead in the anti-piracy effort, on land and sea, Macdonald said: "Or else, in my opinion, it's not going to work."

Update for 3 p.m. ET April 14: Judging by the comments so far, a lot of you might not be all that interested in hearing how complex Somalia's piracy problem is. But if you want a deeper explanation of how the pirate economy works and "why the U.S. Navy can't win this fight," check out this posting to Foreign Policy magazine's Web site.