Combating Piracy: The computer mouse is mightier than the sword

The most effective weapon for combating piracy on the high seas is information sharing through open-source technology

Recent events off Somalia involving Navy SEALs dramatically illustrated how merchant shippers and private companies stand squarely on the front lines of this continuing and ever-present war against piracy--and in larger numbers than the number of available U.S. and allied naval warships. However, countering these insurgents does not require arming every friendly cargo vessel. Rather, the most effective weapon is information sharing through open source technology.

The big reason why military assets, such as combat ships and special operations units shouldn’t be considered as a viable, first-strike response is a simple matter of arithmetic. Maersk Global Shipping Group, for example, maintains a fleet of 1,000 vessels of various shapes and sizes at sea on any given day; more than three and a half times the number of active Navy warships. Factor in the rest of the world’s commercial maritime assets and the virtual impossibility of protecting all sea lanes of communications exclusively with military force becomes abundantly clear.

Even if enough Navy assets were available, providing such protection and show of force could possibly do more harm than good. Tying up ships at the marshal point in a convoy delays commerce, disrupts the supply chain economy and, in reality, still does not make a sizable dent against such insurgent and pirate activities.

Technology as the primary weapon

A better solution is potentially in the works. U.S. military commanders, third-world allies and corporate entities are looking at the feasibility of implementing command and control systems that leverage the power of available Internet technologies. Such a platform can offer an effective information sharing and communications environment in which all stakeholders–including merchant and military ships – can exchange data on activities that have direct relevance to their mutual interests. This type of system would operate in a non-classified, but sensitive environment that can alert commercial traffic about areas to avoid long before they find themselves in extremis.

While discussions on its development, financing and administration aspects are preliminary at this point, here’s a believable, if at the present time fictitious, scenario: The Gulf of Guinea is a vast swath of water the size of the Gulf of Mexico that lies along the west coast of Africa that hosts many natural resources including fish, minerals, diamonds, timber and oil reserves. It is also an area of growing strategic importance to the United States, as 15 percent of our imported oil comes currently from there with a projection for that to reach 25 percent by 2015. The region is also plagued by an epidemic of piracy, poaching, illicit drug trading and kidnapping. The loss of oil revenues due to such activities is estimated to approach a staggering $1.3 billion annually, and fish poaching costs the area more than $400 million per year.

In response, a Navy Littoral Combat Ship is on station off of the coast of Lagos, Nigeria as part of an international team of merchant vessels, foreign military patrol crafts, port operators and other international resources from a wide range of nations, including Nigeria, Ghana, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Great Britain, France, Germany and Canada. The team’s critical capability is its shared communication system called ERMISS, or the Economic Community of West African States Resource Management and Information Sharing System. The platform is a collection of commercial, off-the-shelf tools that have been integrated to allow document transfers, data exchange, data to visual placement, messaging via e-mail/chat and language translation (mostly in English, French, and Portuguese).

ERMISS also contains a modified version of U.S. military planning processes and templates. The system runs over the Internet with protected entry into the environment through robust authentication procedures, and alleviates the concern of providing fledging governments in third-world countries access to secure Defense IP Networks.

Of particular value is the ability for all authorized users to enter real-time data relevant to the mission on the data-to-visual capable map. Team members enter data to include finger prints and photos of persons on interdicted vessels, observations of traffic, locations of legitimate fishing fleets and such. Information from queried vessels is compared to international registry data bases. The locations of ships via Automatic Information Shipping transponders is shown as well as other reported contacts, buoys, shorelines, ports, common sailing routes, 12, 24, and 200-nautical mile jurisdiction marks, oil platforms and the like. Entries on the map are a mouse-click away from revealing relevant, supporting data. For instance, clicking the icon for the 12-mile limit lists the rules of engagement within that jurisdiction area for each country in the group relative to the designated mission set.

Enhances both trade and national security

Outfitting commercial vessels with such a command and control platform can not only preserve ocean-going commerce, but also enhance U.S. and global national security interests. The sharing of information would could integrate through open protocols with existing initiatives, such as the Coast Guard’s Maritime Domain Awareness, and directly support the Navy’s 1,000-ship concept of combining international resources in a cohesive strategy to stop or prevent the movement of threats along the high seas.

In short, commercial vessels could provide far reaching “eyes and ears” of regional insurgent activities before they become catastrophic. This does not mean that maritime companies are now intelligence officers. However, passing information acquired from the casual observance of events and circumstances committed in open areas could prove invaluable to coalition partners and host nations as well as the United States. The benefits of such a technology platform are, without question, numerous and mutually advantageous.

About the Authors

Eric Basu is a former Navy SEAL, and founder and president of Sentek Consulting, a 50-person defense contractor in San Diego. He can be reached at

(retired) Rear Admiral Hamlin Tallent, USN, ( is former director of operations for U.S. European Command, and is currently the vice president of C4ISR systems for Sentek Consulting.

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