Sunday's attack against the cruise ship, Nautica, owned by the American company, Oceania Cruises, took place as the luxury vessel sailed between Somalia and Yemen enroute Oman from Egypt. According to press reports, the attack occurred during daylight--which would have aided the ship's crew in taking the evasive measures that helped prevent being hijacked.
If successful, the Nautica would have been an impressive prize. With more 600 passengers and a crew of almost 400, the vessel's luxury attracts a wealthy clientele. Some British passengers were reported to have paid as much as 15,000 pounds for the month-long cruise from the Mediterranean to Singapore. The passenger list also included Americans and Australians. As hostages, the well-heeled passengers would have made a far more interesting international drama than either the 2 million barrels of oil aboard the Sirius Star seized last month, or the weapons aboard the Faina captured by pirates in September, that are now the subject of ransom negotiations. A thorny standoff over captured American hostages would be as disagreeable for the departing administration as it would have been for the one about to take power.
Nautica's captain, however, responded successfully. He outran the two small boats that threatened his command and is said to have turned the ship's main defenses--a high-decibel sound system called a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) designed primarily to communicate by voice at distances up to 1500 feet--against the attackers. Loud noise may have dissuaded the attackers, or they may simply have been outpaced. At the tactical level, there is little to celebrate in this escape. Nautica is not a particularly fast passenger ship. Her top speed is advertised at 18 knots, a little better than 20 miles per hour--and much slower than for example the Cunard's Queen Mary 2 whose advertised top speed is almost 35 mph. Finding a small boat that can keep up with or pass slower cruise ships offers pirates--or anyone else with a few thousand dollars--no large problem. The LRAD is also not a robust defense. One can, for example, buy a pair of ear plugs, or stuff wet paper in one's ears to protect against uncomfortably loud noise.
The only cause for celebration here is the fact of Nautica's escape. However, there will be more attacks against passenger ships, and if the pirates--or their closely watching terrorist cousins--succeed, the consequences are likely either to be distracting, protracted, expensive, bloody or all of these plus inimical to what the world has taken for granted for the last two centuries: untroubled peacetime access to the oceans.
The solution, as I argue in the current issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is to go after the pirates where they live, on shore. None of the other solutions so far proposed will have the same desirable outcome, an end to the scourge. Using inexpensive little speedboats to snare huge ocean-going behemoths is a perfect example of the asymmetrical tactics that the U.S. Defense Department worries about today. Arming merchantmen, privatizing seaborne defenses, adding naval patrols or the other measures that have been recently suggested to provide more security at sea do not answer the unconventional challenge. These measures can discourage piracy, but none of them impose unacceptable costs on the pirates. Until the pirates are forced to confront such consequences, they will continue their low-cost/high yield practices.