Pirates + Lasers

The US Navy announced the other day that they used a HEL (high energy laser) to set a target boat on fire a mile away in choppy seas. It’s a new, very science fictional advance for warfare, and it’s something that’s being lauded as a potential deterrent for piracy, and potentially for shooting down missiles or aircraft. The demonstration over the ocean, where there’s more to disrupt a laser beam, demonstrates a certain amount of technical advancement that seems very reminiscent of the advances in missile technology fifty years ago. There’s problems with this scenario, however, problems that extend beyond the technical aspects of the weapons to more structural problems.

Tactically, a naval weapon such as this has some of its own advantages, but with a far more limited scope than what’s available at the present moment, and I can’t help but wonder at what the cost benefit would be, considering what must be going into the project to begin with. The ability to set a boat on fire has some certain non-lethal elements to it: doing something along those lines could be used to help disperse people on board a ship into the water, or onto lifeboats, rather than destroying the boat with a naval strike.

The BBC GlobalNews report had an interesting talk about the system, where a defense correspondent noted that something like this is not likely to replace something like a missile, given some of the drawbacks, such as the inability to attack something over the horizon line, but that it could very well be used, once the technique is refined a bit more, for anti-air craft and missile defenses.

The system has been talked about as a possible approach and deterrent to the growing piracy problem in and around Somalia, which strikes me as the wrong way to deal with this problem, and the type of thinking that doesn’t really solve the problem in the first place. A weapons system helps to solve the piracy problem on the spot, where it appears, but something like this does little, if anything, to address the underlying issues that cause piracy in the first place.

In this instance, it’s also been suggested as a potential deterrent, but when looking at the type of arsenal that’s available to deter pirates, ranging from warships to Navy SEAL teams, there’s already evidence that these tools aren’t acting as a deterrent. It’s entirely possible that despite the implementation of such a weapon, it wouldn’t serve as a deterrent when looking at the larger problem, as pirates find ways around the non-lethal tools that we’ve been putting out against them. Already, dazzling lasers and sound cannons have been deployed, and I can’t help but wonder if we’ll see them put on hearing protectors and goggles. Two years ago, I wrote about this shortly after Captain Richard Phillips was rescued.

I do like the idea of deterrence: it seemed to work during the Cold War, when the stakes were really high, and when everyone had something to lose if the USSR and the US went at one another with nuclear weapons. Deterrence works when one side realizes that they have little to gain by carrying out an action and take it seriously: in the case of the Cold War, the consequence of this was annihilation, which has a demonstrable impact on your popularity as a public figure (as in, most of your constituency will be dead). In this case, the stakes aren’t so high that Somali men aren’t willing to pile onto a boat, threaten and sometimes kill their crews and leave with a ransom – even in cases where they are killed, that doesn’t seem to solve the problem, probably because the state of Somalia is already problematic and that the risk of death at the hands of ship crews or various militaries is one worth taking.

Here, the only way that deterrence will work is if the act of piracy will bring on even more dire consequences. Following an attack, the US Navy would have to determine where the pirates were from, and completely destroy the ship, then move on to the port, then the families and home town of said pirate, before leveling everywhere where the former pirates walked, lived, ate and slept. And after that, for good measure, they’d lower the elevation a couple of more feet. That’s never going to happen – it might not even deter the pirates if they already have nothing to lose.

The solution remains: solve the underlying problem, and remove incentives wherever possible. Given the continuing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the conflict over Libya (not to mention our past history in Somalia), I’d hesitate to say that this is high up on our priorities list – even after an American couple was killed by pirates. So far, big business seems to be content as well to handle it monetarily, paying ransoms. The policy seemed to work in Libya back in the late 1700s, when the Barbary Pirates received tribute. The US’s first real conflict overseas was combating pirates when that tribute money stopped coming – I can’t help but wonder if the problem there will be more effectively solved if we took the same amount of money it takes to develop dedicated piracy weapons and simply pay them *not* to attack ships. Somehow, I don’t think, that with shiny new toys like this new laser system, that something like that will ever happen.