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"...To The Shores Of Tripoli..."

The Marines' Hymn is the oldest official military song in the United States, and it opens with references to two great battles in Marine Corps history:

"From the halls of Montezuma/To the shores of Tripoli"

The first reference is to the Battle of Chapultepec during the Mexican-American War, fought from 1846 to 1848. But the latter goes back even farther, to the First Barbary War of 1801-1805, the first major challenge to the newborn United States.

A quick lesson: several Muslim caliphates were making quite a tidy living by either practicing piracy in the Mediterranean, or taking "protection money" from nations to lay off their ships. The US initially paid the blackmail, but the price soon rose too high for the fledgling Republic. We tried to negotiate with them, but we were told that it was their sacred right and duty to pillage on the high seas:

It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy's ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.

That was that. The United States sent its navy, led by the USS Enterprise (one in a long, long line of highly distinguished ships to bear that proud name), and after several naval battles, the United States Marine Corps landed and captured the city that is now Libya's capitol.

OK, enough of a history lesson. The point of all that was to observe that the first major challenge the United States faced after winning independence was fanatical Muslims committing high crimes and atrocities in the name of their religion. It's deja vu all over again.

The precedent it set was that piracy on the high seas was the concern of all civilized nations. Every warship afloat, whatever the flag it flies, is charged with fighting pirates, no matter where they are found.

Which is why this story is not merely the concern of the French.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States lost its biggest rival for power projection on the high seas. The Russian Navy has rapidly deteriorated, and the Chinese navy (I'm sorry, "The People's Liberation Army Navy," one of the most oxymoronic names around) is not much beyond a coastal force. With their passing, the need for a powerful United States navy has seemingly faded.

It hasn't.

When we were going up against the Soviet Union, we came down on the "quality" side of the equation, while the Soviets worked for the "quantity" side. Indeed, Stalin himself once stated that "quantity has a quality of its own," and he was right in many cases.

What we need, right now, is numbers, not high-tech superships. We don't need to defend our fleets against waves after waves of cruise missiles and scores of attack subs, the forte of the old Soviet Navy. What we need are small, powerfully armed, relatively low-tech warships, and we need them by the dozens.

Hell, I think that some old gun cruisers and destroyers would be far more useful in fighting pirates than one or two Aegis cruisers or destroyers. The enemy we face uses small boats and small arms to attack private ships, and high-tech anti-aircraft systems and million-dollar anti-ship missiles are overkill -- if needed at all. Several ships with a couple of inches of good old steel armor and numerous guns in the 5", 6", and 8" range would work wonders in discouraging piracy.

Alas and alack, we don't even have many of those left in mothballs. There is only one American heavy cruiser and one American light cruiser still in existence, and the USS Salem and the USS Little Rock are museum ships.

We might be a bit luckier with smaller ships. There are some destroyers still around, of the Charles Adams class, the Sumner/Gearing class, the Forrest Sherman class, and a couple of other gunned destroyers we could dust off. Or we could cannibalize their weapons systems for new hulls, ones with modern propulsion and communications and sensor systems.

But the one thing we can not do is to simply ignore or downplay the threat of piracy. Right now they're working on the Horn of Africa, and that's not that removed from the sea lanes where so many oil tankers pass through. One or two successful attacks on supertankers, and the world will be in a world of hurt.

But there's too much


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Comments (16)

Something tells me the last... (Below threshold)

Something tells me the last time we dealt with high levels of piracy, we didn't treat them as independently functioning criminals. We treated them as agents of a hostile state and treated both accordingly. Or we simply summarily send ship & crew to the bottom of the ocean.

I don't think we have the resolve to do that anymore so expect large scale piracy to be a growing business.

Jay, while I agree with you... (Below threshold)

Jay, while I agree with your assessment I was hoping you could point me to your source on the Soviet Navy. The only thing I could find is this from Globalsecurity.org and it doesn't agree with your quantity vs quality depection:

During the Cold War the Soviet Union embarked on a naval construction program which, at least at its inception, was apparently designed as a defensive force. At the same time, the security and naval policies of the United States and the Soviet Union were totally different. During the Cold War era the Soviet Navy never sought full parity with US naval forces. Although a superpower, the Soviet Union was never a peer competitor of the United States. Rather, it was [in the post-Cold War terminology] a near-peer asymmetric competitor. Rather than seeking to simply replicate the US Navy ship for ship, the Soviet Navy sought to offset perceived American naval capabilities by the development of appropriate response measures.

That agreed with what I had learned years ago. I know Stalin believed in the quantity issue for tanks and land forces in WWII the Soviet Navy, with the exception of their submarine force which was often comparable in quality to our own (with the exception of sound signature and sonar capabilities) was never really an effective force for, "power projection on the high seas."

I would be interested in reading further information if you can point me to it.

LifeTrek, I was actually th... (Below threshold)

LifeTrek, I was actually thinking about the Soviet submarine fleet. They had scads of boats that were older -- both in actual age and technology -- that they kept just to keep their numbers up. When did they finally retire the last of the HENs?


I think they started retiri... (Below threshold)

I think they started retiring them in 1989 and finished in 1991. When they were introduced they were quieter then our Skipjack and Skate classes, but we were rolling out the quieter Thrasher class about the same time.

I can see it now...harry re... (Below threshold)

I can see it now...harry reid with her panties in a wad over us killin muslim pirates.

Jay -You might wan... (Below threshold)

Jay -

You might want to work backwards more from the mission.

That is, 8" guns don't seem to be the weapons system one would want to attack small, fast, wood and fiberglass pirate craft. 6" and probably even 5" are also too much. Heavy guns require a lot of tonnage and support.

I don't fancy myself much of a naval architect, mind you, but I'd guess the anti-pirate design might end up in a couple classes. One would be a fast and shallow draft vessel with a fast-firing gun (perhaps 76mm) and some light missile capability - a Pegasus variant? Another might be a flagship with no more guns but more missile and electronics, and a lot of helo-deck space for gunships and Marine transport.

For the first, if not a Pegasus, maybe a somewhat enlarged Type 143A Gepard Class, say, increase it to 600 tons or more for range and habitability. One would want to be able to land a helo on it.

For the second, maybe a DDH or DEH would be good. I once saw a Shirane class DDH and was quite impressed, and HMCS ALGONQUIN (DDH 283) looks good. The USN FFG classes do not have the same helo capacity, perhaps because the hull began with a different mission concept.

Jay,BAD IDEA... (Below threshold)



1)WWII or even Vietnam era ships require more crew than todays ships because they had very little automation in those older ships.

2) Bunker fuel ain't cheap to turn the screws.

3) Small craft can be overwhelmed just like that cruise ship.

No, what we need is a CinC who says, "Laws of the Seas apply, Mr Navy Secretary. Those observed in the act of piracy are to be shot on sight. Use facial recognition software hooked up to UAV sweeping the coast."

These aren't ideological pirates most likely, rather economic ones. Sink a couple dozen boats, publish a few high seas trials, the rest will get the message.

Course we would also have to have the balls to tell the hanky stompers to f*ck off.

Jay:Most modern pi... (Below threshold)
Mark L:


Most modern pirates are operating off of small boats using small arms (assault rifles) as weapons. Using a WWII-era 8-inch gun to deal with them is like shooting fleas with an elephant gun.

We already have a paramilitary solution to piracy -- the US Coast Guard. They have the right types of ships and crews to deal with a quasi-law enforcement role like piracy supression. The only thing they lack are numbers and logistics.

Perhaps a better solution would be to expand the Coast Guard, build a few flotillas of seagoing Coast Guard cutters, and providing each flotilla with a tender (mother ship) that can carry a flotilla to an area beset by piracy.

The tender would provide the bullets, beans and fuel while the cutters are on station. When the pirates go away (as they do when the cop is on the beat), the tender can relocate to the next hot spot.

The Coasties are good at maritime law enforcement.

Quad fifties on bass boats.... (Below threshold)

Quad fifties on bass boats.

Make that BIG bass boats.

I don't think there really ... (Below threshold)

I don't think there really are any of the old destroyer classes like Adams and Gearing left. The better ones in mothballs were sold off to allies like Pakistan decades ago. I doubt any could be refurbed for any reasonable cost and their operating costs are high.

Actually amphib assault ships are - while expensive - great pirate patrol ships because their helicopters are great sensor and weapons platforms. With small anti-ship missiles like Penguin, they can destroy any of the expected pirate vessels and they have a large enough range to allow one amphib to control an enormous amount of ocean.

My solution would be to ren... (Below threshold)

My solution would be to rent out some of these luxury yachts as R&R for our troops. Most of the time would be fun and games, but if pirates approach, out come the .50 cals and maybe a Javelin or two. Come to think of it, sending pirates to Davy Jones' Locker is kinda fun and games, too. More fun than skeet shooting off the poop deck, I should think.

We never captured Tripoli, ... (Below threshold)
Mikey NTH:

We never captured Tripoli, just blockaded it and subjected it to bombardment. We did capture Derna, a city in Cyrenacia(sp?) that Tripoli owned after a march from Egypt.

Between the DD(X) class des... (Below threshold)
The Listkeeper:

Between the DD(X) class destroyers and their new techs, and the Littoral Combat Ship designs, the new and improve US Navy will once again have the anti-piracy capabilities we need.

This may be a little off-to... (Below threshold)

This may be a little off-topic, but to read an account of Tripoli, here's a gem I accidentally stumbled upon.


Pirate Coast - Thomas Jefferson, The First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805

Most people don't really realize we've been in conflict with the Middle East for 200 years now.

What would a light cruiser ... (Below threshold)

What would a light cruiser or a destroyer use for missile defence? They generally layer those toys on the big ships.

Letters of marque, anyone? ... (Below threshold)

Letters of marque, anyone?

I'm surprised no one has suggested this yet.






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