Bring Back the Q-ship

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A solution to the plague of piracy in the Indian Ocean off Somalia has so far eluded the world community. The rescue of Captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama by U.s. Navy Seals on Easter Sunday was an isolated success not likely to be repeated. The killing of three pirates in the operation has led their fellows to threaten reprisal attacks against Americans. There is every reason to believe that the pirates will now kill Americans when they have the opportunity to do so.

It is not possible for the U.S. Navy to protect every mer- chant vessel that sails through the expanse of ocean in which the pirates operate. Theoretically, all merchant shipping off the Somali coast could be organized into convoys that would be invulnerable to pirate attack, assuming they received naval protection. There is no indication, however, that any nation or combination of nations is prepared to use its naval forces to carry out what would be a complex, expensive, and ongoing operation. Moreover, it is by no means clear that the owners and captains of the hundreds of merchant ships to be protected would agree to participate in a convoy system. Many would doubtless rather take their chances sailing alone than accept the delays and costs associated with sailing in convoy.

There is a relatively cheap and easy way to eliminate piracy off Somalia. It involves reviving an old naval ruse: the Q-ship.

In 1915, when British seaborne commerce was being threatened by Germany’s U-boats, the British Admiralty introduced the Q-ship. To all appearances the Q-ship was a tramp steamer, easy prey for the submarine. Torpedoes being too valuable to use on such a target, the U-boat would surface in order to sink the victim with its deck gun. But as it approached for the kill, the ruse would be revealed: the dummy trappings of a merchant ship would be swiftly stripped away by the highly trained naval crew, to reveal a warship bristling with guns. Surprised and outgunned, the U-boat would be blown out of the water.

The Q-ships did not contribute decisively to the defeat of the U-boats in World War I, partly because they were too few for an operational area that encompassed the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Mediterranean, and partly because the U-boats could remain submerged and use torpedoes. The Somali pirates, however, must close with their prey to make a capture.

Fifteen or 20 Q-ships, equipped with the latest surveil- lance and communications technology, and manned by U.S. Navy crews, would be enough to end piracy off Somalia. If the pirates believe that any ship they target could be a disguised U.S. warship with orders to capture them or send them to the bottom of the sea, they will soon lose their taste for piracy – or else, eventually, they will lose their lives.

For obvious reasons, it would be necessary to change periodically the disguise of each ship. But the expense of maintaining a flotilla of Q-ships off Somalia would hardly dent the enormous U.s. defense budget. In time the number of ships could be reduced as the pirate threat receded.

The Q-ship is a remedy for piracy on the high seas whose time has come – again.

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