The High-Tech Battle Against Pirates
A stealth vessel and other technologies could protect ships in troubled waters--if only we'd deploy them
Ghost looks more like a spacecraft than a seaborne combat vessel. It’s waiting for us in the Piscataqua River, a few minutes out from its home at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. As we approach in a small chase boat, I get a full view of the cabin–sharp and angular like a stealth fighter–looming over the dark water. The roof holds a mount for a machine gun and rocket launcher. Greg Sancoff, the founder of the start-up Juliet Marine Systems, points out two 12-foot struts, each of which connects to sleek underwater pontoons. At full bore, he tells me, the pontoons ride just beneath the surface, while the cabin rises 20 feet above the waves. It is a case study in ominous, efficient engineering–a machine designed to fly through the ocean and invoke fear.
Sancoff tells me Ghost could serve many functions, including as a luxury speedboat or an attack ship for Navy SEALs. But the mission it appears best suited to is fighting pirates. With tremendous speed, and triple the range of any comparably sized vessel, Ghost is a natural interceptor. And because it rides above the water on robotically stabilized pontoons, it remains steady in all but the roughest of seas. While attackers would struggle to aim weapons from a bucking, heaving boat, armed crew members on Ghost can engage with relative ease as it bears down at full throttle.
Although piracy doesn’t concern most people, it is a constant threat for those who make their living on the ocean. Historically, the response has always been the same: guys with guns. That’s effective, but it’s a stopgap measure at best. When armed guards leave, pirates inevitably come back. Recently, a number of companies have set out to find a more permanent solution to the problem. Some have focused on detection, trying to ensure that ships never run into pirates in the first place. Others have designed gear to ward off pirates at close range, including walls of grapple-resistant plastic and remote-detonated booby traps that spew irritant gas. Juliet Marine’s Ghost is perhaps the most daunting and farsighted example of this trend.
Stepping through the rear hatch, it’s clear the vehicle is a prototype. The floor is a metal grate, and the walls are an open mass of cables and crudely labeled switches. There are only a handful of seats in the cabin, but there’s room for more–up to 18, says Sancoff. That’s more than a full squad of Marines. I strap into a passenger seat just behind the cockpit, and across from someone monitoring an array of computer screens. He introduces himself as Ghost’s flight engineer–an odd title, it seems, for someone who works on a boat. Then the gas-turbine engines power on with a piercing whine, loud enough that I need to put on a headset to hear anyone, and I get it. Boats don’t have power plants like this; they rumble to life, coughing diesel fumes. Ghost screams itself awake, like a jet.
When the vessel starts moving, there’s no sensation of being in the water and at the mercy of waves. Only when I’m invited into the cockpit, and I can see where we’re headed, is it obvious that we’re cruising through four- and five-foot sea states. The chase boat, when it pulls into view, is thumping along, rising and falling. Inside Ghost, we might as well be skating across a frozen pond. As we hit 20 knots, becoming more stable as we pick up speed–the opposite of how traditional vessels work–a thought occurs to me: Guns can combat piracy. But perhaps technology can end it.
About ten years ago, Somalia fell into lawlessness. Decades of failed governments and drought had ravaged the country. Factions waged open warfare in the capital, Mogadishu, and the terrorist group Al-Shabab took control of much of the south. Few were concerned about securing the coastline. The conditions were ripe for piracy.
Typically, Somali pirates would set out on a mother ship. When they spotted a target (often tankers headed for the Suez Canal), they would launch one or more skiffs to intercept. Men armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades would ransom whole ships and crews. This crime wave peaked in 2011, when Somali pirates attacked 237 vessels. Then came the response: warships, private contractors, and drones. By the time Tom Hanks’s Captain Phillips came out in 2013, the assault on the MV Maersk Alabama seemed like an epitaph for a bygone crisis. Last year, the number of reported attacks believed to have originated in the waters off Somalia dropped to seven, all of which were repelled by armed guards.
Though ostensibly a success, the counter-piracy effort in and around the Gulf of Aden merely reflects a deeply rooted historical cycle. The scourge of the high seas has existed since mankind learned to float. The Sumerians recorded incidents of piracy as far back as 3000 BC. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, Barbary pirates terrorized North Africa nearly unchecked. Much like urban crime, maritime violence is extremely hard to stop. When the pressure against it grows too great, it just shifts locations.
Last year might have been quiet off the coast of Somalia, for example, but activity was rampant in other places. According to the International Maritime Bureau, armed gangs near West Africa stole supplies and personal possessions, siphoned fuel from tankers, and took a total of 144 crew members hostage. Kidnappings also occurred in Southeast Asia. Worldwide, it’s believed that pirates are currently holding at least 30 crew members in captivity.
Much like urban crime, maritime violence is hard to stop. When pressure grows, it just shifts locations.
Even in the waters off Somalia, where private security teams protect most cargo ships, the threat of piracy lurks. Suspicious skiffs continue to stalk larger vessels, turning away only when it becomes clear that armed guards are aboard. According to Ian Millen, chief operating officer of Dryad Maritime, a shipping operations and risk intelligence firm in the U.K., four factors currently contain the Somali piracy threat: the presence of warships, the presence of armed private security, commonsense practices like stowing ladders and properly installing razor wire, and communication with regional authorities. “But,” he says, “if any one of those active ingredients disappears, you could see a reversal.”
If history is any guide, one of those ingredients will fall away. Operating a handful of warships and aircraft near Somalia will cost the European Union $8.3 million annually over the next two years. The average cost of an armed security team for commercial vessels is $2,000 to $4,000 per day. And there is no guarantee that the guns, guards, and warships will work. One of last year’s deadliest attacks happened aboard a tanker in the Gulf of Guinea that was protected by private security. Guards killed two pirates before retreating to a safe room, but the assault continued, and one crew member died.
Governments and shipping companies could continue to fight pirates in the same reactive fashion they always have. What companies like Juliet Marine offer is a more proactive approach, one that could discourage pirates before they ever leave shore.
Ideally, ships would never require Ghost in the first place. That’s the aim of Michael Scott, the founder of Matrix RSS, also in the U.K. The company is developing a 360-degree early-detection system that combines thermal imaging with human surveillance to maintain a constant watch. According to Scott, 68 percent of the reported attacks on vessels last year succeeded because of human error. “A human being on board a ship is the worst possible instrument you could choose for watching for pirates,” he says. Crew members are easily distracted during 8- or 12-hour lookout shifts or may be absent from the deck or bridge entirely.
The Matrix system would turn the job of lookout into an outsourced service. A pair of rotating cameras (one on either side of the vessel) would continually survey the surrounding ocean and beam a panoramic display of thermal images to manned terminals in locations like Vietnam and the Philippines. Human “sentinels” would watch the terminals at all times (and, in a somewhat dystopian twist, the terminals would watch the watchers and sound a warning tone if they disappeared from view). Using the system, sentinels could detect suspicious vessels up to 16 miles away and alert the crew by sounding the ship’s alarms remotely. Scott claims this would give crews sufficient time to outrun or prepare to repel intruders–at a cost, he projects, of as little as $300 per day, or 15 percent of the rate of a typical armed team.
But say pirates do intercept an unguarded ship. For that, another U.K. start-up, Guardian Maritime, has developed an overhanging plastic barrier that bolts onto a vessel’s railing and prevents assailants from gaining purchase. “No one’s even come close to beating it,” spokesperson Jean Winfield says. When the initial design was completed, the company asked the Royal Marines to do their worst. Despite optimal conditions–a moored vessel in calm seas–the unit gave up after two hours. Even when simulating an inside job, where a line was thrown over the side, they couldn’t make it past the overhang. “Add in the wobbly sea, the wind, and not having the right kit,” Winfield says, “and we hope it’s never going to be breached.”
“Don’t let them get on the ship. Have something show up in the water that says, ‘Get the hell out of here.’ ”
Matrix RSS, too, is developing a pirate-deterrent system, called the Possum. When pirates approach, the crew triggers pods that encircle the ship to release a cloud of irritant gas and materials to foul a skiff’s propellers. Possum is designed to disable targets for up to an hour, enough time for a ship to speed away and for nearby authorities to engage the beleaguered assailants.
Engagement is where Ghost would come in. It would operate in troubled waters, using barges or other ships as its base, and respond to calls from distressed vessels. Two or three Ghosts in a region could take the place of dozens of armed guards and battleships. And because they’d be a constant force, they would not only defuse active threats but also discourage any new ones.
That’s Greg Sancoff’s vision, at least. The current prototype can reach only 30 knots (just 10 knots faster than a souped-up Somali skiff), although Juliet Marine says a production model will nearly double that speed. The secret, Sancoff says, is supercavitation, a process previously used only by torpedoes. The vessel’s counter-rotating propeller screws, spun by 4,000-horsepower gas engines, and strategically positioned vents create a pocket of gas around each pontoon. “If you can put a blanket of gas around that hull,” Sancoff says, referring to the pontoons, “you can reduce the friction by 900 times. We’re basically boring two foam tunnels, five feet or six feet underwater, and we’re flying through them.” In addition to speed, supercavitation produces stability and fuel efficiency. Ghost can power through seven-foot waves with hardly a bump and its range is huge: about 800 miles.
In its discussions with Juliet Marine, the U.S. State Department has made clear its wish list for future counter-piracy systems. “The priority is: Don’t let them get on the ship. Have something show up in the water that says, ‘Get the hell out of here,’ ” Sancoff says. “Ghost is the only thing that has the range, speed, and chance of doing that.”
A Piracy Heat Map
As far as one can tell, Sancoff is right. Nothing in the water, or in development, seems as well prepared as Ghost to both respond to and overcome a pirate attack. And yet, the ship’s fate, like most counter-piracy technologies, has little to do with response times and success rates. Ultimately, the decision boils down to economics. Shipping is a massive business: More than 85,000 vessels move 17 billion tons of cargo per year. At that scale, nothing drives or dooms counter-piracy efforts quite like the dark calculus of who will pay for it.
Such questions have sunk counter-piracy efforts before. During the outbreak in Somalia, global defense and security company BAE Systems proposed two different technologies–an armed robotic boat called Protector that could patrol vulnerable waters and a nonlethal laser that would disorient and deter pirates at extreme ranges. There are no reports of either system being used to engage pirates, and the laser program vanished so completely that, when asked, BAE couldn’t find records about the decision to ax it.
Of the recently developed technology, Guardian’s plastic barrier is perhaps the best received so far. Since its launch in late 2013, the company has installed it on 209 vessels, including container ships and oil tankers, carrying $55 billion worth of cargo. Juliet Marine has a steeper hill to climb–namely, it has to build a combat-ready vessel with the blessing but not the funding of the Pentagon. “Ghost is the first weapons platform developed solely by a private company in the United States since World War II,” says Kevin Kinsella, the founder of Avalon Ventures and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In the hands of a government-contracted defense firm, Kinsella believes that Ghost could have easily cost $250 million to reach prototype stage. Instead, the start-up turned down a contract from DARPA–which would have forced it to share the rights to three core patents–and spent $15 million. That includes $5 million from Sancoff (who after founding Juliet Marine became wealthy by starting and selling medical-device companies). “That’s capital efficiency,” says Kinsella, who joined Juliet’s board of directors in 2012. “Ultimately, that will win the day in the defense community.”
Juliet Marine argues that two Ghosts, at $10 million apiece, could protect thousands of square miles.
Juliet Marine argues that two Ghosts, at $10 million apiece, could protect thousands of square miles. It could also offset significant long-term medical costs that the Navy is on the hook for–its special operators endure routine physical punishment by simply serving aboard high-speed boats. The worst of that abuse is inflicted on the Navy’s Special Warfare Combat-Craft Crewmen, or SWCCs, who pilot the vessels that insert SEALs and patrol rivers and tributaries in heavily-armed boats. Gunning across chop and waves can expose SWCCs to as much as 18 Gs of vertical force, according to researchers at Duke University. Towards the end of my Ghost ride, I mention this to Cliff Byrd, a former SWCC and now a test pilot for Juliet Marine. “I broke my back one time,” he says, more casually than anyone should. It wasn’t his only impact-related break, and along with rampant back problems, Byrd’s fellow operators had broken ankles, legs, and arms.
But the U.S. Navy, while still in talks with Juliet Marine, has yet to bite. Sancoff now believes that his first customer will come from overseas–nations like Bahrain, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates have expressed strong interest, he says. “You don’t need to have a destroyer if you’re Qatar or UAE or Saudi Arabia,” he says. “What do you really care about? You care about making sure oil exports make it out of your country.” If you can do that in a new way, with fewer guys and fewer guns, you may change piracy forever. And while potential customers weigh the risks and rewards of proposals from Sancoff and others, the pirates won’t be so patient. They’ll be on the high seas, in one region or another, looking for their next target.
The High Seas Arsenal
From the moment pirates appear on the horizon, there are multiple opportunities to stop them. Here’s how technology can help fend off an assault at sea–or simply help a ship’s crew survive it.
As soon as a vessel appears on the horizon, Matrix, an early-detection system still looking for its first customer, uses rotating thermal cameras to identify it. People paid to monitor a feed of 12 images, which refreshes constantly, look for the telltale glow of a boat’s engine or occupants. In clear conditions, potential attackers can be spotted up to 16 miles out.
Ships have reported using Long Range Acoustic Devices to deter pirates from as far as a mile away and as close as 250 yards. The concentrated acoustic energy can blast warnings in various languages–and so also redirect innocent fishermen–or simply hammer assailants at up to 153 decibels, potentially rupturing eardrums.
One of the best deterrents is also one of the most expensive–armed guards. Typical private security teams consist of three to four former military personnel with automatic weapons or hunting rifles. They can cost thousands of dollars per day but have a 100 percent success rate near Somalia. In West African waters, outgunned teams have been forced to surrender.
To protect crew members from incoming fire, key areas can be armored with quick-deploying ballistic blinds. These systems, which have been installed in limited numbers, drop into place and provide protection levels that range from stopping pistol rounds to absorbing damage from a rocket-propelled grenade.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, such as trying to hit an incoming pirate vessel with high-pressure water from a fire hose or water cannon. Since targets are likely to fire back, the remote-controlled Force 80 water cannon, made by Unifire, can launch 1,321 gallons of water per minute at a range of 93 yards without exposing its operator to gunfire.
Once pirates get close enough to start throwing grappling hooks, a ship equipped with the Possum system–a series of external pods proposed as an add-on to the Matrix–can release a localized cloud of irritant gas to temporarily incapacitate the attackers, along with materials that obstruct the attacking vessel’s propeller.
Boarding attempts can also be thwarted with the simple Guardian system. The plastic barriers bolt onto a ship’s railings, and their bulbous shape and smooth surface sends grappling hooks skidding back into the sea. No one has made it over a Guardian-protected railing, including the Royal Marines during a two-hour test assault.
When all else fails, crews are often advised to retreat to a Citadel, the maritime equivalent of a panic room. Location and capabilities vary, but a best-case Citadel features bullet-resistant materials; food, water, and toilet access; communications; remote control of engines and steering; and a ventilation system to prevent attackers from smoking out the occupants.
This article was originally published in the April 2015 issue of Popular Science, under the title “Counter Piracy.”