Defensive device misused in pirate takeover
An attack by Somali pirates garnered a lot of attention three weeks ago when private security contractors aboard a commercial chemical tanker were unable to thwart the attack by non-lethal means and jumped overboard in a hail of bullets to escape.
The incident has raised questions about the credentials and security practices of Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions (APMSS). The company was formed last July by a former British army pilot in response to the piracy menace. It has placed teams of ex-Royal Marines and Special Forces on a handful of commercial vessels so far.
Among the tools used by APMSS on the Biscaglia was a long-range acoustical device (LRAD) that the company claimed can directly target an ear-piercing beam of sound towards a potential adversary to keep them at bay.
But the LRAD manufacturer is defending the capability of its product when properly used.
The security team's primary mistake was it only had one LRAD 500x mounted on the stern, Scott Stuckey, vice president of San Diego-based American Technology Corp., said in an interview.
The LRAD is very effective against people coming from a single direction, but the Somali pirates tend to swarm with more than one boat, according to shipping analysts.
The hired force should have placed two LRAD 1000x units — which are almost twice as loud as the 500x model — on the port and starboard sides or used a portable version on a 'scram cart' that can be moved about the ship, Stuckey said.
'If you had one 50 caliber machine gun and mounted it on the stern of a vessel and pirates boarded at the bow you'd have to shoot through the superstructure to fend them off. So would that make it a poor weapon, or poor utilization or strategy?
'Nobody is going to climb up the stern of a vessel. There's too much turbulence there. It doesn't make sense,' he said.
The gunnels alongside a vessel are also a more likely boarding location because they are much lower than the stern or bow.
The LRAD 1000x puts out 152 decibels, enough to overcome the noise of twin outboard motors at 500 yards or more and ensure that one's message is heard. The device, coupled to an MP3 player as its sound source, can be used to transmit deafening music or tones at close distances, but Stuckey said its real value is as a communication tool to transmit messages in the language of the target audience.
American Technology LRAD's are deployed with the U.S. Navy, which signed a $6 million contract last October to begin outfitting all its 270 warships with the 1000x model. The Navy has used the electronic megaphones in the Persian Gulf for several years to deal with the Iranian Navy and terrorists as well as small cargo and fishing dhows that ply the waterway, but placed a much wider order for the significantly improved next-generation device.
The Navy also acquired the portable LRAD technology for its marines after an accidental shooting of a civilian at sea last March. A Navy expeditionary security force team aboard the Global Patriot, a commercial vessel chartered by Military Sealift Command, fired flares and then warning shots in the Suez Canal and killed a man in a small boat approaching to sell cigarettes to the crew.
The 'scram cart' version has a little less range but can be carried from ship to ship by the security force.
The operating concept behind the LRAD is for the user to start communicating with approaching vessels in clear voice commands at about 1,500 meters if they ignore radio contact, Stuckey said. The crew can get the other party's attention with a tone and then play continuous messages in the native language of the target audience. By the time the incoming vessel reaches 500 meters they've repeatedly heard the warnings and hostile intent can be assumed.
At that point, the master can sound the alarm and take precautions such as manning fire hoses, moving the crew to a 'safe room' with provisions where the ship controls can be disabled while holding out for a potential rescue, or using kinetic energy weapons.
Finally, the LRAD can emit an annoying deterrent sound to ward off the pirates within 100 meters, as the cruise ship Seaborne Spirit successfully did in November 2005.
The Navy uses the acoustic device about 100 times per week to determine the intention of approaching vessels and warn them off, according to a copy of an unclassified communiqu' from U.S. Navy Central Command. It said the hailing tool is 'highly effective' in changing the direction of small vessels, especially in the northern Arabian Gulf where it is extensively used to enforce exclusion zones around Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil platforms.
The other limitation of the LRAD is that the systems are normally mounted and manned by an individual who is exposed on deck and relatively unprotected from enemy fire.
The hailing and warning device also comes in a remote-control version with a built-in camera that can be plugged into a computer and aimed from a safe location inside the ship to send voice commands, tones or music towards a threat.
The fact that AMPSS claims it was able to hold off the pirates for 45 minutes before succumbing is a huge endorsement for non-lethal methods because it shows they can buy time for the victim to outmaneuver the enemy, get in a safe room, receive aid from nearby warships, or for the pirate to run out of gas, crash into the vessel or otherwise give up the chase, Stuckey said.
'In my experience it rarely gets to that point where you need to chase people away,' Stuckey said. 'We've discovered that the use of LRAD tells a potential attacker that you've identified him, he's lost the element of surprise and you're prepared.
'So they'll go looking for a softer target where the security team is asleep or not paying attention. Because, when somebody is inside your head in a boat 500 meters away it causes you to pause and reassess the situation.'
Earlier this year, a commercial vessel used the LRAD at a distance of 500 meters to chase away pirates threatening it and another nearby vessel, according to Stuckey. ' Eric Kulisch