Ships on the high seas can largely be split between two major caregories, merchant ships that connect countries through commerce and national navies formed to ensure that trade continues to flow.
However, in the margins between those two broad groups are fleets that have sought to influence international policy and politics independent of a national flag — non-state navies.
“These can include environmental activists, some private maritime security companies, insurgents and others,” Lt. Cmdr. Claude Berube (USNR), director of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, told USNI News.
Non-state navies — going back 500 years — helped bring tea to the British Empire, fought off 21st century whale poachers and turned Soviet arms sales into a minor skirmish in the Cola Wars.
East India Company
Incorporated in England in 1600, the East India Company sought to enter the lucrative spice trade in the East and Southeast Asia but quickly expanded into other commodities. The company continued to grow and eventually became so politically influential in certain regions that it assumed administrative power, particularly in India. With these far-flung interests, the East India Company raised a private navy to protect its cargo ships from pirates and the perennial enemies of Britain such as the Dutch and French. Regulation by Parliament began to erode the company’s power until it was finally nationalized in 1857 but its legacy remains in many forms, including in the modern Indian Navy which traces its history back to the private fleet the East India Company established in Bombay.
New York Newspapers
In the first half of the nineteenth century, New York had 10 major newspapers vying to be the first to publish the latest stories from around the world. In an effort to break news, the newspapers began to operate small fleets that would race into the harbor to greet incoming ships and glean information from the crews about overseas events. Competition grew fierce as the newspaper boats attempted to intimidate and outmuscle their rivals rather that just out rush them. Thugs were recruited to serve in these navies who often resorted to ramming, shooting and boarding other news boats to prevent them from getting a scoop. Newspapers were investing in bigger ships when the invention of the telegraph ended the need for newspapers to engage in maritime warfare.
Disney’s Submarine Fleet
Walt Disney had long been a supporter of the military (even allowing his characters to be used as unit insignia during World War II) when he became infatuated with the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus. Disney approached the Navy’s sub builder, General Dynamics’ Electric Boat Division, for advice on designing vessels for a Disneyland ride inspired by the Nautilus’ 1958 mission under the Arctic polar ice cap. With additional assistance from retired Rear Admiral Joe Fowler, eight submarines bearing the names of actually U.S. Navy boats were built for the attraction Submarine Voyage. Vice President Richard Nixon and war hero Admiral Charles Kirkpatrick were honored guests at the ride’s opening in June of 1959. When Nikita Khrushchev was denied permission to visit Disney later that year due to security concerns, Disney lamented that he was not able to show the Soviet premier his submarine fleet which was considered as one of the world’s largest.
In reality, the “submarines” did not actually submerge and were attached to a track.
Pepsi and Cold War
Pepsi was the first major American company to break through the Iron Curtain when it began to export its cola syrup to the USSR in 1974 in exchange for Stolichnaya vodka that Pepsi then sold in the West. Pepsi sales continued to grow as the Stoli market hit the saturation point in the late 1980s, meaning that the Soviets needed to find some other way to pay Pepsi for a new trade agreement that included the building of bottling plants.
Since the ruble was struggling and they were in the need for hard currency to pay the soft drink company, the Soviets asked Pepsi to help broker a deal to sell 17 submarines, a cruiser, a destroyer and a frigate. It was reported that Pepsi CEO Donald Kendall playfully taunted White House Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft by stating that Pepsi was “disarming the Soviet Union faster than you are.” Resisting the urge to escalate the cola war against Coke, Pepsi dutifully saw that the decommissioned fleet was transferred to a Scandinavian company that bought them for scrap.
One of the largest and most well known environmental organizations in the world, Greenpeace maintains a fleet of several ships as well as a sizable flotilla of inflatable boats. The organization uses ships such as the Rainbow Warrior to travel to distant waters to protest and disrupt activities it considers damaging to the environment. Its non-violent direct action includes placing its boats between whales and whalers to block harpoon attempts, occupying oil rigs and staging floating demonstrations. The original Rainbow Warrior was sunk in New Zealand by French intelligence agents in 1985 to prevent Greenpeace from interfering with France’s nuclear tests in the South Pacific. The act was universally condemned.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is a self-described “policing organization” that uses aggressive tactics to confront whalers, seal hunters and other fishing operations it views as species -endangering. Founder Paul Watson was an early member of Greenpeace but was booted from the group due to his rejection of its policy of non-violence. The Sea Shepherds are well-funded and currently has five vessels in its “Neptune’s Navy” that are chiefly used to pursue and attack whaling ships. Having sunk at least 10 ships via ramming or planting mines, the organization is often accused of eco-terrorism. The Society seems to have embraced its pirate image by flying a modified skull and crossbones flag.
Women on Waves
Another organization founded by a former member of Greenpeace, Women on Waves charters Dutch-flagged ships to bring mobile clinics to countries where abortions are illegal. Women are then transported to international waters where abortion services can be conducted on the ships under Dutch law. Some nations such as Portugal and Morocco have deployed warships to keep the floating clinics from reaching their ports.
Blackwater’s Anti-Pirate Ship
In 2008, private security company Blackwater (now known as Academi) began to promote their 183-foot vessel MacArthur as an anti-piracy escort ship for hire. MacArthur, a former research vessel, was equipped with .50 caliber machine guns, two drones and several inflatable boats while carrying a crew of 30 to 45. Legal problems and the fact that the ship was too slow to keep pace with the cargo vessels it was intended to protect meant that the MacArthur never sailed as part of a pirate-fighting mission, leading some analysts to suspect that the venture was merely a publicity stunt orchestrated by Blackwater when the company’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan were being scrutinized by Congress.
Tamil Sea Tigers
The Tamil Sea Tigers was one of the most effective non-state navies ever formed, inflicting significant damage and heavy casualties on government forces during the Sri Lankan Civil War. Using fast attack craft, human torpedoes and frogmen combined with innovative and bold tactics, the Sea Tigers sank about 30 navy patrol boats as part of the Tamil rebellion to create an independent state. In 2009, the Sri Lankan military launched a major offensive that succeeded in capturing all the Sea Tigers’ bases and eliminating several of their commanders, ending the Sea Tigers operations after 25 years of conflict.
Al Qaeda and Hezbollah
Though neither al-Qaeda nor Hezbollah maintains any fleet of significance, both militant Islamist organizations have launched deadly attacks on other navies and remain a serious maritime threat. In 2000, an al-Qaeda suicide bomber in a small boat detonated explosives next to USS Cole as the destroyer refueled in Yemen, killing 17 American sailors. An earlier attempt to attack USS Sullivans failed when the suicide boat sank before reaching its target. In 2006, Hezbollah launched an anti-ship missile that struck the Israeli Navy corvette Hanit and killed four crew members. Hezbollah reportedly has since acquired advanced Russian Yakhont anti-ship missiles. These missiles would give Hezbollah the ability to blockade Israel’s waters and prevent commercial vessels from reaching Haifa and Ashdod.
To transport their illicit products, South American drug cartels have steadily upgraded their fleets of boats while also improving techniques to evade maritime patrols. Speed has always been an important asset to these criminal navies but recent advances in design have resulted in even faster vessels with stealth characteristics. The high profit yield of drugs has also allowed the cartels to invest significant amounts of money in the development of submarines. Early versions of these “narco-subs” were only semi-submersible but the cartels have progressed to building true submarines that can dive to depths of at least 10 to 20 meters. Incredibly, these subs are not being built in well-equipped shipyards, but in the jungles of Ecuador and Colombia.
Somali Fishing Clans
The pirates that dominated the headlines in 2009 following the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama actually began as a non-state navy determined to protect their territorial fishing waters. The 1991 collapse of the central government and disbanding of the Somali navy left the nation’s coasts vulnerable to foreign encroachers who were illegally fishing and dumping toxic waste. The clans formed patrols that initially sought only to chase away trespassers but quickly discovered that capturing and ransoming ships was a more lucrative venture than fishing.