[Northrop Grumman Photo]
CRYSTAL CITY, VIRGINIA — Three nautical miles from an amphibious assault ship, I toggled a small button labeled “STOVL,” or short take-off and vertical landing. The abbreviation “REDY” flashed in green and I could see thrust vector angles change on my heads-up display in my F-35B Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter. I adjusted what my instructor called the cruise control and set my airspeed to 80 kts. All of a sudden, my flight controls changed as the “REDY” turned solid. I had transitioned to vertical flight.
With minimal coaching, after two minutes I had landed safely on the flight deck of a U.S. Navy ship. Though I briefly felt pride after my landing, I quickly realized that a computer had done all of the hard flying for me.
Computers and cockpits are nothing new, but with the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles and the degree to which computers control piloted aircraft today, policy makers and military leaders are asking when pilots can be removed completely from combat aircraft.
Alfred Thayer Mahan is credited as saying: “War is business, to which actual fighting is incidental.”
These words speak to the counter-piracy mission more than all others. Mahan’s modern counterparts agree: Dr. Martin Murphy, a piracy expert, prolific author and fellow at the Atlantic Council, refers to piracy as “trade’s dark double.” By mixing violence with trade, piracy transforms maritime security into a commodity. Now, a burgeoning privateer fleet is offering a competing product: a navy for hire.
A recent announcement by the Convoy Escort Programme, a private navy funded by insurers Jardine Lloyd Thompson and underwriter Ascot, declares that they will commence operating in the Gulf of Aden by the end of this year. While private security companies are nothing new, CEP represents a watershed moment in the struggle to align the benefits of trade with the responsibility for maintaining that trade. So long as pirates ply the seas, society can only choose the method it pays the costs they incur: either directly through ransoms paid to pirates, or indirectly through publicly financed navies or privateers. Standing navies only became common in the past few hundred years. Before that, societies relied on hired ships to secure their trade. CEP also represents a return to this historically dominant means of paying for security.
U.S. Navy Sailors from USS Pinckney (DDG 91) approaches a suspected pirate vessel in 2011 U.S. Navy photo
To date, the world has responded to Somali piracy primarily through a combination of ransoms and naval patrols. According to a report by the One Earth Future Foundation, $160 million in ransoms were paid in 2011 and they estimate the annual cost of the international naval presence in the Gulf of Aden at $1.27 billion. Adding in the cost of increased insurance premiums or the more circuitous and expensive routes ships use to avoid pirate threats, the Foundation estimates the total cost of Somali piracy at $7 billion – enough to give a new iPhone to every person in the state of Pennsylvania. Whatever the figure, maritime security in the Gulf of Aden has value, and at 70 million dollars, CEP’s navy represents a bargain compared to even one ship from the U.S. Navy.