Tuesday, April 14, 2009

From the hall of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli?

From the Halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country's battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marines.

The US has dealt with African piracy once before, in the Barbary War at the very start of the 19th Century. We landed our Marines in Libya and destroyed Tripolitan cities. Unfortunately this approach will not work in Somalia in the present day without risking another Mogadishu, though it's being touted on Fox News.

A couple days ago I asked myself why isn't the US military utilizing killer-scout Predators and hunter-killer Reapers to deal with the Gulf of Aden Somali Pirate issue?

Deploying frigates, PT boats, amphibious assault ships (aka chopper carriers), destroyers, guided missile cruisers, even traditional aircraft carriers is more or less useless.

Why?

What is needed is situational awareness and instant strike capability stemming from the fact that the area that needs to be patrolled is the size of Texas (difficult to have constant situational awareness using traditional means with an area this size), and it is difficult to identify the pirate attack ships and motherships until an attack is under way (need instant strike capability).

The US has moved three assets there:

the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship (basically a huge chopper carrier)
the USS Bainbridge, a destroyer
the USS Hallyburton, a guided missile frigate

However, by the time any of these assets are aware of a developing situation or even if they become aware of an attack launched from one of these pirate motherships (these attacks are occurring over a hundred miles off the coast of Somalia) the fast attack pirate ships have already reached their targets and taken them over. Tomahawks are not suitable for destroying these small ships, and rarely are the US Naval assets aware of an attack underway until a ship is boarded. Short of dropping in a Navy SEAL team after a ship takeover, which would likely result in casualties, there is nothing to be done with the current tactical setup. The US Navy is designed to fight Russia and China, and ill equipped against insurgents or pirates (though Gates is attempting to turn that around).

What is needed is the use of the scout-killer/hunter-killer platform,designed for situational awareness, interdiction, and counter insurgent duties. The ship or base would launch and retrieve the Reapers and Predators. Possible ships are the older aircraft carriers set to be decommissioned in the next few years (might be overkill since these aircraft do not require catapult based launching), such as the USS Enterprise or USS Kitty Hawk, a converted tanker with escort, or the conversion of US use of Thumrai Air Base in Oman from refueling for B-1, C-130, and other aircraft to a launching point for interdiction Predator and Reaper aircraft.

The Predator and Reaper have over 24 hour loiter times, speeds of 150 and 250 mph, ranges of 2000 miles and 3000 miles, and can carry 4 hellfire and 14 hellfire air to ground missiles, respectively.

They can be controlled via Ku band satellite uplink for non line of sight control beyond 400 nm or to avoid radio jamming, or via C band radio uplink for line of sight control, and their hellfire missiles have a 5.5 mile operational range.

The Reapers and Predators can also be armed with guided munitions, such as GPS guided JDAM's, which might be useful for taking out the pirate motherships (but not accurate enough to take out the small attack vessels, which require the use of hellfires (which have been used numerous times to take out moving cars).

These aircraft are the ultimate in deadly persistence, think of them as instant air strikes. That is how they are being used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Merchant ship convoys, and mass patrols via ship have been proposed by the US and allies operating in the area to respond to the pirate threat, but they are ill suited for the task and would be much more costly than a couple squadrons of these craft.

What is needed is persistent situational awareness and instant interdiction capability at minimum cost and the Predator / Reaper setup provides just that. Destroyers and frigates, unless en masse, cannot provide pirate free shipping lanes. However, a squadron of Predators and Reapers in flight in the Gulf would easily be able to track all mothership vessels and obliterate any pirate attacks before they reached their targets.

Think about it, it costs $340 MM for an amphibious assault ship like the USS Boxer, $450 MM for Aegis Missile Destroyers like the USS Bainbridge, and at least $70 MM for guided missile frigates like the USS Hallyburton, all of which are totally unsuited for small craft interdiction.

A complete squadron of Reapers, consisting of 12 aircraft, the ground stations, and all other hardware runs $200 MM per squadron of 12 aircraft, while a Predator squadron runs $90 MM. For the cost of a single Aegis Destroyer, you could field a squadron of Reapers for long range interdiction (out to 1500 miles) and three squadrons of Predators (out to 1000 miles), using less fuel, fewer men, and putting no lives in harms way. You would have much much higher situational awareness and interdiction capability, assuming 3/4 of units are deployed at any given time that's 36 flying missile truck surveillance planes.

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