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Belling the Cat?

April 10, 2010

The gator warship USS Ashland LSD-48 has come under attack from Somali pirates, and responded accordingly. From Central Command:

USS ASHLAND, Gulf of Aden – At approximately 5:00 a.m. local time, the USS Ashland (LSD 48), was fired upon by a skiff manned by suspected pirates in the Gulf of Aden, approximately 330 nautical miles off the coast of Djibouti.

During the attack, the Ashland received small arms fire on the port side from the six man crew of suspected pirates aboard the skiff.  The Ashland, in accordance with her rules of engagement, returned fire.

USS Ashland fired two rounds at the skiff from her MK-38 Mod 2, 25mm gun. The skiff caught fire and the suspected pirates abandoned the skiff.  The Ashland deployed her rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIBs) to assist the pirates who were in the water near their skiff.

Just a theory, but I am curious what other Somali pirates were doing while this was ongoing, and if any other ship hijackings were reported nearby? This is getting to be a strange habit, and if the number of anti-pirate escorts were few and far between, it might be easier for some poor forlorn hope to bell the cat while the other mice slip away with the cheese.

Just a thought. They could be just lame.

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  9. Chris Stefan permalink
    April 12, 2010 3:26 pm

    A full naval blockade of the ports the Somali pirates operate out of with every ship entering or exiting being boarded and searched would be a step in the right direction.

    Two problems I foresee. The first being that all of the nations participating in the current anti-pirate patrols off of Somalia might not be entirely comfortable with the idea of a naval blockade. I suspect this is less of a problem now than it might have been a couple of years ago. The Second issue is would there be enough hulls in the water even with a full international task force to do VBSS on every vessel entering or leaving the ports the pirates operate out of.

    Ultimately I think troops will need to be sent ashore to capture the pirate leaders and investors. Unfortunately until Somalia has at least a semi-functional government I suspect the need for a periodic naval blockade of Somalia and periodic military raids to clean out the pirate leaders and investors will be necessary.

  10. CBD permalink
    April 12, 2010 2:03 pm

    Piracy for a couple of decades, attacks intensifying the past 3 years, drawing international attention the last 2 and drawing more aggressive responses for the past couple of months…and actively seeking to sink pirate vessels for the past couple of weeks.

  11. April 12, 2010 1:39 pm

    CBD said all sorts of interesting stuff.

    I think if you go and look navies have been engaged in some form of anti-piracy operations around the horn since the middle of the decade.


    Note it says escalating since 2008 not begun in 2008. I picked a US site for speed……

    And yes armed parties onboard commercial vessels only helps if you are on the vessel attacked. That is obvious. Lets say a third of ships have onboard a squad or UK terms a multiple, about 16 troops. A third of ships are covered instantly. Navy ships currently are defending areas of water and are consequently spread thin; the idea of defending sea lanes doesn’t have much creditability. A third of ships doesn’t sound much but think about the fact during World War 2 9 out of 10 convoys crossing the Atlantic never ever saw a U-boat let alone a wolfpack. The odds of accidental picking 1 ship out of three is better odds than a state lottery. ;)

    As for the commercial option well the private anti-piracy ship Xe was put up for sale recently due to a lack of contracts. This raises the question of how bothered ship owners really are about piracy. Perhaps they think they have a right to government protection. Yet as I said below ship owners operate their ships under foreign flags to avoid all sorts of taxes (and other costs.) Perhaps their lack of interest could be interpreted as Third World crews aren’t worth protecting?

    I would like to think I am simple hull and gun man, but perhaps I am not. I just don’t think the threat of piracy warrants special builds and the costs involved. But then again perhaps we need a combined approach; simple ships, large ships as command centres, armed parties, and raids ashore.

    Yes armed parties can only defend

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 12, 2010 12:33 pm

    Bob wrote “I attack a US warship, they fire two rounds into my skiff, I abandon it, then taken prisoner. I now get 3 square meals a day, clothing and shelter. What luxury compared to what I had before. Are these acceptable risks?”

    Where do I sign up? LOL

  13. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 12, 2010 12:31 pm

    CBD wrote “The UAVs and P3s overhead are nice, but it would be even better to have sailors seizing every mothership in sight.”


    Hulls in the water are like boots on the ground for the Navy, and as we see ongoing off Somalia, sea control is far from an obsolete concept.

  14. CBD permalink
    April 12, 2010 11:48 am

    The Mk 38 Mod 2 is BAE’s American version of the Israeli company Rafael’s Typhoon remote weapons station. It is quite easily that good and, yes, they should be mounting 4 per vessel instead of the current plans of 2.

    The Mk 38 Mod 0 and Mod 1 were entirely different mounting and control systems, other than the 25mm Bushmaster weapon at the core of the entire Mk 38 series.

    USN article on the system and the plans for installation (numbers per ship type)
    USN Factsheet on the Mk 38 stations and data on what platforms will receive them

    BAE product page
    Another BAE product page
    Rafael Typhoon product page

    Feed from the Typhoon in action during Operation Cast Lead, the Typhoon is the mount for most Israeli Super Dvora and Shaldag patrol boats, the Typhoon can launch SPIKE-ER ATGMs as well, which is seen early in the video.
    Video of Mk 38 Mod 2 firing tests
    Video of the Mk 38 Mod 1 (Manually directed, for comparison)

  15. papa legba permalink
    April 12, 2010 11:44 am

    Armed interdiction is an important part of controlling piracy, but CBD is right. When you’re dealing with desperately poor people, creating deterrents more daunting than their current circumstances is a big order.

    A big part of the issue is the Flag of Convenience system itself. The system needs to be revised so that ship registry isn’t a legalistic sham, but enforces some responsibilities on the ship owners– minimum safety requirements and anti-piracy measures, maybe requiring one of a shipboard lojack system that allows a stolen ship to be tracked and reclaimed. (These are already available but many ship owners can’t be bothered with the extra expense). It would also help if the ship registry costs actually went to the treasuries of those nations doing anti-piracy measures, instead of into an (often corrupt) third-world flag registry.

    This hasn’t happened, and unfortunately it probably won’t until a disaster compels change. If a major port gets hit with a containerized bomb, or the pirates sink a VLCC and create an oil spill that shuts down a major shipping lane, then we might see some revisions.

  16. CBD permalink
    April 12, 2010 11:28 am

    We haven’t been sinking skiffs for years…nor doing much in the way of VBSS/MIO.

    Only in the last month have we really stepped up to stop the pirates before they’ve actually tried to take over a commercial vessel. This interdiction is distinctly in the right direction, thanks to the European forces taking initiative and showing that it can be done.

    We haven’t been doing much VBSS/MIO for more mundane reasons. Partially because we don’t have the many smaller ships necessary for such duty (we’ve assigned all possible USCG and USN vessels in the size range in the AOR to Iraqi harbor patrols). If we were to shift those ships to areas off of Somalia, we could be doing 40 such skiff/mothership interdictions & sinkings a week instead of 3. The UAVs and P3s overhead are nice, but it would be even better to have sailors seizing every mothership in sight.

    Armed parties onboard commercial vessels only helps if you are on the vessel attacked. Various countries/companies HAVE been trying that tactic for months…but it only defends the vessels attacked, it doesn’t make going out onto the open ocean any more of a gamble (although it has resulted in a significant number of pirate casualties to date). Having any skiff or other such vessel interdicted and then sunk (and then dumping the crew ashore) isn’t the best option, but it’s better than just guarding a select few ships…and much easier than justifying either extrajudicial killing (for the ‘few more bullets’ crowd) or proper judicial procedures (which does little other than clog up the courts system and prisons of whatever country is willing to take on the captured pirates).

    The best option, since the piracy is known to be a commercial venture with a group of investors and market shares for each piracy team, is to make the investors nervous. Give them fewer returns at greater costs. Lives mean little to many involved and taking them will only make the situation more violent for captured crews. But eliminating the material assets–the difficult to replace motherships and skiffs–at the loss rates we can inflict will mean that investors will get no return for more and more of their investments. Piracy will look much less good when the odds are ransom vs. no ransom vs. lose major material assets instead of ransom vs. no ransom.

    A sharp curtailing of the further afield “Pirate Action Groups” with P3-directed interdiction will also help limit that trend…but it’s easier to stop all of the pirates by just searching vessels as soon as they leave the known pirate homeports. Search all vessels…at best you find and sink several pirate ships…at worst you force them to dump their guns overboard and they have to return to land before launching any raids.

    Increase the cost.
    Reduce the benefits.
    Slow their sortie rate.
    Limit their equipment.

  17. bob permalink
    April 12, 2010 11:18 am

    I attack a US warship, they fire two rounds into my skiff, I abandon it, then taken prisoner. I now get 3 square meals a day, clothing and shelter. What luxury compared to what I had before. Are these acceptable risks?

  18. April 12, 2010 3:24 am

    Many good points here. I came into it thinking one way and now I feel somewhat differently. That’s what a great site like this with excellent posters will do to ya. Have a great day folks.

  19. Camp permalink
    April 11, 2010 7:14 pm

    “Shooting poor people won’t solve the problem…” No, but it does stop stupid people from firing on a U.S. warship.

    Two rounds from the Mk-38 Mod 2 set the skiff on fire. Anybody know if the skiff was moving or just sitting still? And if the MK38 is that good, maybe they should start mounting 4 per Amphib.

  20. April 11, 2010 6:41 pm

    CBD said “Shooting poor people won’t solve the problem…”

    Everything you say is true. But the world’s navies have been capturing pirates and sinking their boats for a few years now. Until there are raids ashore to search villages for weapons, remove engines and equipment that enable long range sorties the (naval) threat remains an abstract to those onshore.

    I still think armed parties aboard a random selection of vessels passing around the Horn is the way to go.

    Perhaps also there is another way. Perhaps those ships belonging to Western companies trading under foreign flags of convenience should be prevented from transiting the area. The shipping companies can’t have it both ways.

  21. CBD permalink
    April 11, 2010 4:35 pm

    I think the point is to maintain a semblance of legality in the operation according to our laws, not theirs.

    A bunch of fake target vessels and the destruction of their motherships and skiffs will slowly turn around the arithmetic of trying to disrupt international trade (without the cost or complications of taking foreign nationals into prisons or enacting the ancient but still active laws about killing pirates on sight).

    Shooting poor people won’t solve the problem…sending them back home with stories of how utterly easy it was for the USS Ashland to destroy their engines, in the dark, from several hundred yards away with 2 shots will probably dissuade some from pressing their luck. A few more incidents will dissuade others…and a significant number of such journeys never returning (according to some human rights groups) will shift the balance. They’re still dirt poor and will thus risk life and limb for a tremendous payday…but the fewer paydays and more discouragement will hopefully take effect.

    Until then, it’s good practice in disabling small boats with our latest Mk 38 Mod 2 gun stations.

  22. Mrs. Davis permalink
    April 11, 2010 4:16 pm

    Mr. Stefan,

    That too works for me. And I agree re: inevitability of Barbary solution. The sooner the better.

  23. Chris Stefan permalink
    April 11, 2010 2:36 pm

    Mrs. Davis,
    The Dutch and the Germans have the right idea with the bunch the Dutch took off that German freighter. Send ’em to Germany to stand trial. Unfortunately the flag countries either don’t want to bother with the pirates, or there isn’t clear jurisdiction because the pirates haven’t actually hijacked anything yet when caught.

    Long term I think we’re going to need to take care of the Somali pirates much like the Barbary pirates of old. In other words send in a few battalions of marines to the ports the pirates operate out of and capture the shoreside leadership. A few warlords hung in the public square might send the right message.

  24. April 11, 2010 1:46 pm

    Gentlemen you don’t need to throw any projectiles. Just easy the throttles forward and ram them….

    {Only jokin’………….}

  25. April 11, 2010 12:20 pm

    elgatoso: With your logic even those bullets would be a waste. Throw rocks at them for all I care. Just send a message that this is what happens when you hijack ships.

  26. elgatoso permalink
    April 11, 2010 11:35 am

    Is expensive to use “another burst of that 25mil?”.Is cheaper to use a couple of Barret 82 0,50 rounds.

  27. Mrs. Davis permalink
    April 11, 2010 10:56 am

    I agree about more rounds once they’re in the water. But.

    Is there some type of budgetary control that is preventing us from excess expenditure of 25mm ammo? How about more than two rounds in the initial burst?

    Our forefathers also hung pirates. How about figuring out who the leader is, court martial and then hang him in the well till dead. Send the body and others to shore as a lesson.

    Giving these pirates the nicest two days of their lives in the Ashland’s brig does not seem likely to deter repetition.

  28. Jed permalink
    April 11, 2010 10:30 am

    Ad said: “Not to sound harsh or callous but, assist them? Hows about assist them with another burst of that 25mil?”

    Well it does sound callous and I seem to think that our forefathers fought a world war or two against the kind of enemies that “machine gunned” helpless victims in the water.

    Don’t get me wrong, if that two rounds of 25 had killed all onboard outright, I would not loose any sleep, but continuing to fire on ‘survivors’ in the water teaches pirates no lesson at all, and looses even more of the ‘moral high ground’ to the west’s many detractors.

  29. D. E. Reddick permalink
    April 11, 2010 10:19 am

    If the Bird-of-Prey (USS Independence) does ever make it to the Horn of Africa, then the VBSS crew will need full-up Klingon battle gear – armor, bat’leth, d’k tahg, etc. Oh, and also the latex head appliances that would provide them with ‘proper’ Klingon sagittal crests (cranial ridges).

    Imagine what sorts of strange tales a few caught and released pirates might be telling upon return to shore. There be monsters in those seas… ;-)

  30. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 11, 2010 6:48 am

    I could see why Ashland might be mistaken for a freighter. Tromp not so much. If the LCS Freedom ever makes it there, it will be attacked, resembling so much the cruise yacht IMHO. If Independence is there, D.E.’s coercion trick will never work because of her Klingon-like profile!

  31. Hudson permalink
    April 11, 2010 12:49 am

    This is what is known as “compassionate shooting.” The gunner fires two rounds and destroys the skiff without injuring the occupants! Despite the puzzling ROE, you have to admit this is pretty nifty marksmanship.

  32. leesea permalink
    April 11, 2010 12:25 am

    Ok the Navy is part of the way there. As MasterGunner said a while back ” chase’em, find’em, sink’em,….” etc. Now the Navy needs to go the rest of the way!

    I cannot for the life of me understand ROE which do not allowa deadly force reaction to offensive weapons fire???~~~

    It should also be noted that this incident happened in the GOA where the pseudo-convoy system supposedly is protecting merchant ships, one wonders how much more brazen (or stupid) the pirates must be before deadly force is applied?

  33. April 11, 2010 12:08 am

    The number of attacks against warships has been gradually rising. While I’m sure the number of current copies of Jane’s Fighting Ships available on the Horn are few, it would seem relatively easy to tell your average warship (big and gray) from your average maritime vessel (usually not gray). Of course D.E. makes a good point on time of attacks (in darkness or at pre-dawn). I’m curious to other attack activity clustered with the attacks on naval vessels. Any data there? Are these attacks meant to divert resources from attacks on more lucrative targets?

    Finally on belling the cat — It may be the other qat that is a partial contributor to these errors in vessel recognition. I’d surmise many of the pirates are habitual users of the drug and probably feel pretty brave until the first or second incoming round.

  34. D. E. Reddick permalink
    April 10, 2010 10:30 pm


    I examined some recent imagery of Ashland and the 25 mm Mk 38 I saw appeared to be a crewed-served version. It was covered under a tarpaulin and lacked the vertical element of the sensor pod found with the Mod 2.

    Still, Ashland is well armed with defensive weapons systems & mounts:

    Two RAM launchers (2 x 21 = 42 short range SAMs);
    Two Phalanx 20 mm Gatling gun CIWS;
    Two Mk 38 25 mm chain guns;
    Six .50 cal. M2 heavy machine-guns.

    Oh, and a short battalion of Marines…

  35. xbradtc permalink
    April 10, 2010 9:38 pm

    I’d just note that two rounds from the 25mm seems to have done a fair bit of damage to the skiff.

    I guess that stabilized Mod 2 mount really helps.

  36. April 10, 2010 9:30 pm

    Interesting story, my own problem with it is this:

    “The Ashland deployed her rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIBs) to assist the pirates who were in the water near their skiff.”

    Not to sound harsh or callous but, assist them? Hows about assist them with another burst of that 25mil? If more “pirates” get it in their head that this is a dangerous and perhaps deadly business, maybe they will get out of this “business”.

  37. D. E. Reddick permalink
    April 10, 2010 8:16 pm


    Note the time of the attack against Ashland – 5:00 AM. And USS Nicholas was recently attacked at 12:27 AM. And a French frigate was attacked at dawn as the sun rose to backlight its sternwise silhouette towards the approaching pirates. In these and perhaps other instances of pirate attacks against warships the attackees seem to have been providentially positioned to attract the attention of pirates while perhaps concealing their identities as naval vessels.

    There are now some number of Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPAs) and UAVs in use out of the Seychelles and Djibouti. We know that MPAs have been used to guide EU, NATO, and CTF-151 warships in pursuit of and to intercept / disrupt / capture / destroy Pirate Action Groups (PAGs). So, perhaps now they are aiding in setting up ambuscades of pirates. If you know where a pirate vessel or PAG is located, then have a warship appear nearby during low-light conditions. An instant attack by uneducated pirates ensues. But, surprise – it’s a trap! It seems like an effective strategy to disrupt the pirates and even induce some fear into their thought processes.

    On a different, but related note some cruise lines have begun re-routing their vessels away from the western Indian Ocean due to the pirate threat. Well, that may just leave a bit of a vacuum of presence in those tropical seas. But, when looked at in a certain, different way – an LPD-17 class gator does somewhat resemble certain cruise liners. Imagine such a large warship gaily festooned with garlands of lights cruising towards where PAGs are known to exist. USMC personnel could lounge about the deck with their crew-served weaponry locked and loaded. Then, when some crew of pirates attack the ‘cruise ship’ the Marines could engage in some target practice. Just a warm, fuzzy thought…


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