15 May 2011


Some conspiracies aren't theories. Sometimes they're front-page news1.
     Such is modern day piracy which it has become prevalent the world around2. The majority of encounters with pirates today occur off the coast of Somalia.
Piracy Hot Spots 
     Piracy is not just a conspiracy of a few people but of entire regions-places where the government, and consequently law enforcement and the economy are weak or non-existent.
     The total cost of piracy is estimated to be upwards of 12 billion dollars just for 20103 and this figure is probably extremely conservative since many times shipping companies simply pay the demanded ransom and never report the attack. Under reporting could be as much as 90%4. One reason is the fear of increased insurance costs on all of their ships.
     The economic cost isn't just the ransoms paid. The shipping companies must also deal with damage to the ships suffered in the attacks, stolen cargo, lost production while the ships are held hostage or being repaired and the subsequent increased costs of goods to consumers around the globe. Additionally there is the human cost on which no monetary price can be fixed. Injuries, terror and murders are simply standard operating procedure. In February of this year, 4 tourists were murdered on their pleasure boat; not even a big ship5.
     The obvious answer to the piracy problem would be to arm every merchant ship and place a few well-trained mercenaries or military personnel with some or all of the crews6. Then the ships could fight back and the small speed boats favored by the pirates would be ineffective against a well armed adversary fighting from the much larger, more stable fighting platform afforded by the deck of a ship. This is not practical however due to the varied political policies around the world. For one thing, in most ports worldwide, merchant ships are forbidden from being armed. Additionally, many ship owners and captains are reluctant to arm their vessel7. Reasons cited include crews not trained for combat and the real possibility that once the pirates learn the ships are armed, they will likely target those ships to steal the weapons.
     So is there another answer? One that can address the fears about pirates stealing the very guns carried to repel them, not run afoul of the laws of any countries and not tie up precious military personnel and equipment?
     Yes! That answer is private submarines. Submarines crewed by mercenaries. Submarines built by and mercenaries hired by the very same shipping companies affected and the insurance companies tasked with picking up the tab.

     To succeed, we must ask 4 questions.
1.     Can it be done?
Private Submarines (see citations for links)

     The history of submarines is written with homemade efforts. The first submarine to launch a military attack was built by a young man of 34 years named David Bushnell. The submarine was called the Turtle, the year was 1776 and the enemy target was the British HMS Eagle8.
     The first successful attack occurred during the War Between the States. The homemade sub was the Confederate H.L Hunley, built by James R. McClintock and Baxter Watson. The victim was the Union man-o-war; USS Housatonic9.
     No exact start date can be fixed for the recent explosion in personal submarines, but in the last 15 years they have popped all over the globe. The personal submarine organization Psubs.org lists over 50 boats. A Google search for ”personal submarine” returns “about 8,560,000 results”. The boats cover the gamut from 1 man, pedal-powered lake boats to ocean-going diesel-electric boats like the Kraka (see red & black sub pictured above). With the advances in hull & propulsion technology made in the last several decades fast, effective, reliable boats can be built economically and relatively easily. So the short answer is: yes! It can be done.

3.     What would it take?
     Initially, the requirements would be manpower, materials and a place to build the boats. The challenge would be to have a base close to the area of operation in a country that wouldn't prohibit the manufacture and storage of arms and munitions and that would allow armed boats in the harbor. The rest is just money. A shipyard would have to be constructed, although the requirements for small submarines as opposed to large surface ships are minimal. At least one dry-dock would be needed for maintenance and repairs. In addition, housing and facilities (including a small hospital) for support personnel and in-port crews would be required, as well as fuel and equipment storage facilities.

3.  How would it work?
      There are two primary and effective methods; both tried and tested during the battle of the Atlantic in WWII. Either one, to be affective, would require about 50 boats on station at all times. With an equal number in transit to and from the area of operations and some in port for refit and repair, the total number of subs needed would be 100 to 150. Personnel requirements would be around 5,000.

Plan #1: Form a picket line. The coast of Somalia is about approximately 1,900 miles. Having 50 subs spaced out 50 miles apart directly on the main shipping rout would cover the entire length of the coast and a good portion of the Arabian gulf and no ship would ever be more than 25 miles from a sub; usually considerably closer. With modern sonar, the subs could listen for unusual activity and, when needed, the closest sub would surface next to the ship in danger and either repel the pirates or engage and capture or kill them. 
Plan #2: Station half of the subs at either end of the corridor and have them escort the individual ships until they are out of danger. Cargo ships usually cruise at no more than 10 knots. The subs could easily keep pace.
      With either plan, the subs would stay in radio contact with ships traversing the dangerous corridor and be advised of any suspicious boats in the area.
      To protect the ships, speed is paramount. Modern subs can reach a sprint speed of over 25 knots. Constantly moving their stations, the subs would continue to enjoy the element of surprise and, after several consecutive failed attacks the bad guys would be discouraged against further attempts. The captured ones would be turned over to the home country of the attacked ship for prosecution. The campaign would last a year or more; after all, piracy does pay quite well. If the sub crews remain vigilant, the pirates would finally have to give up and find another way to make a living.

4.     How much would it cost?
      Full size, military-type submarines and torpedoes aren't necessary. Submarines of 100' to 150' with crews of 18 to 24 would be quite sufficient. The pirates use small fishing boats as mother ships. 100 lbs of black powder in a small torpedo would send them to the bottom. Each sub would also have some small arms and probably a 2” to 3” cannon to maintain fire power superiority. As the allies discovered in WWII, without a superior air force, a small number of submarines can decimate even a large, well armed navy. A handfull of fishermen with RPGs and AK47s wouldn't stand a chance. Below is an estimate for 150 subs and the requisite personnel.

       Construction: approx $100,000 per sub – total: approx $      1.5 million USD
       Ship yard, housing and other associated buildings:      $3 to $5 million
       Salaries: approx $2 million/boat – total:                   approx $500 million/yr
           ($80,000/yr salary @ 24/boat + support personnel)
       Food, fuel, medical & other supplies:                        approx $10 million/yr
       Miscellaneous:                                                                     $10 million/yr

      These are just rough estimates but even if I missed by half, the initial cost plus 5 years of operation would be substantially less the reported losses just for 2010. And if anyone besides the pirates get hurt, it would be the mercenaries that signed up for it. Not innocent seamen just trying to get home to their families.

     As for the pirates, isn't it a glorious life? What about all the romantic tales of daring swashbucklers living free and easy? What about the fame and fortune garnered by all the famous ones?
Mary Read, Anne Bonny, Calico Jack Rackam
Mary Read died of fever in a Jamaican prison. Calico Jack Rackam danced at the gallows. Blackbeard was shot 5 times, stabbed 20, decapitated and his head hung from the bowsprit. So much for glory.
     Only by making the risk so great that potential rewards cease to be attractive has and will the threat of piracy on the high seas ever been and ever will be abated. A fleet of private submarines could make that risk a reality.
At least that's my opinion. What's yours?

Want to build your own Submarine? Learn how at:

See some homemade submarines

To learn more about Calico Jack, Henry Morgan, Black Bart and others from the “Golden Age of Piracy” visit:


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