High-tech letdown: Somali pirates repelled by bullets, not soundwaves

When a powerful "sonic cannon" was not "effective" in repelling Somali pirates during a high-seas showdown Wednesday, armed guards successfully battled off the marauders the good old-fashioned way -- with firearms, said Vice Adm. William Gortney, who commands the Pacific region for the U.S. Navy. After pirates opened fire on the Maersk Alabama -- an American ship that was hijacked just months ago -- the crew first responded by deploying an LRAD or Long Range Acoustic Device. The dish-shaped device emits a directional stream of ear-splitting noise.

But the device didn't faze the bandits, Gortney said. The ship's four-man armed crew then returned fire on the pirates, who fled. "A well-placed round from an M-16 is far more effective than that LRAD," Gortney said. Right now, Somali pirates hold 11 ships and 254 crew.
The use of firearms to repel the pirates represents something of a failure for the LRAD system, manufactured by American Technology Corporation (ATCO), a San Diego-based company, because one of the key selling points of the sonic cannon is to obviate the need for violence. Two months ago, an LRAD was used to disperse protesters outside the G-20 Summit -- the first time it had ever been used on civilians in the U.S.

In September, American Technology spokesperson Robert Putnam toldDailyFinance that heavy-duty ear-phones could render the weapon less effective. It's unclear if the pirates wore them -- or just don't care about their hearing.

Not first LRAD failure

This isn't the first time the LRAD hasn't worked as hoped, though this incident had a much better outcome than a previous episode in which the sonic cannon failed. That time, in November 2008, "The pirates fired rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s at the weapon; the guards jumped off of the ship, and into the Gulf of Aden," Wired.com reported.

"It now seems that the failure of the company's LRADs was a major factor in its seeming inability to prevent the capture of the ship. It is now openly being asked whether or not they are up to the job," wrote Lloyd's List, the influential shipping journal. Anti Piracy Maritime Security Solutions principal Nick Davis told Lloyd's List that "the pirates were basically laughing at our guys while shooting them out. LRADs don't work when they take an AK-47 round through them."

The LRAD's top volume is 150 decibels. Lloyd's pointed out that "1970s rock shows by the likes of Motörhead and the Ramones regularly subjected their tender young ears to blasts measured at around 148 dB for those at the front of the gig, and thoroughly enjoyed it."

Piracy on the high seas -- long thought of as the stuff of legends or books -- has become an increasingly worrisome threat in recent years. Only now, the brigands aren't swashbuckling buccaneers like Long John Silver or Bluebeard, but impoverished, armed soldiers often high on drugs, prowling the Somali Coast and the Sea of Aden.

This year alone, there have been some 361 attacks reported to IMB Piracy Reporting Center, 197 of them off the Somali coast. For years, Somalia has been a failed state -- a wrecked African nation by the sea run by violent, drug-running warlords.

Since August 2008, 257 pirates have been turned over for prosecution; 46 were found guilty, 23 were released for lack of evidence, and 11 were killed during operations at sea, according to Navy data cited by the Christian Science Monitor. The Maersk Alabama's successful defense on Wednesday is the first time a large cargo ship with an armed crew is known to have repelled a pirate attack, the admiral said.

Right to bear arrrrrrms

The Maersk's successful defense set off a debate over the wisdom of carrying weapons on the high-seas -- long taboo, lest they fall into unfriendly hands. The U.N.'s Maritime Safety Committee says members should "strongly discourage the carrying and use of firearms by seafarers for personal protection or for the protection of a ship."

But proponents of arming crews or deploying armed guards on ships touted the Maersk Alabama as evidence that firearms are needed on ships. "Somali pirates understand one thing and only one thing, and that's force," Capt. Joseph Murphy, a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and the father of a sailor aboard the Maersk Alabama the first time it was hijacked in April, told the AP.

One thing is for sure: As Somali pirates grow increasingly emboldened -- and less concerned with permanent hearing loss -- cargo ships will need more than loud noises to scare them off.

Update: Thursday 9 p.m. EST. This story led to a vigorous debate in the comments over the relative merits of the LRAD and firearms in repelling pirates. Robert Putnam, with American Technology Corp. media and investor relations, emails with some comments about the use of LRAD systems on the high seas:

"ATC has never claimed that LRAD® is a total solution to maritime security. Nor has ATC claimed that LRAD is a "sonic cannon" as many in the media have tried to portray it. In piracy situations, LRAD® is a critical part of a layered defense strategy. It is highly effective in giving crew members time to determine the intent of unidentified vessels that do not respond to radio calls. Vessels at up to 3,000 meters can be hailed and warned using LRAD's powerful directed sound system and multiple language capability, guaranteeing that warning messages are clearly heard and understood. If pirates continue their approach, LRAD's warning tones can provide an annoying and deterring effect that has proven successful in fending off attackers on multiple occasions, including four years ago when the Seabourn Spirit was attacked in these same waters.

Regarding the Lloyd's article on the Biscaglia incident referenced in your article, our investigation turned up very different facts. The unarmed security force on board apparently was not aware that pirates had boarded the ship, never deployed LRAD or any of its suite of non-lethal capabilities and jumped overboard hoping for rescue. It appears that the principal of the hired security firm placed the blame on LRAD in an effort to cover for his firm's failings in this incident.

When a ship shows that it is aware of an impending attack by deploying LRAD at distance, in many instances, the pirates conclude that a warning has been sent to security forces in the area. By employing LRAD, the crew make it known to the pirates that they have lost the element of surprise and that they are prepared to make it as difficult as possible for them to get on board. If armed sentries are on board, it is essential to determine intent before opening fire on an unidentified approaching boat.

Preventing piracy requires a vigilant crew and a layered and diverse defense strategy. Captain Richard Phillips called for LRADs as an element in a "...comprehensive, multi-faceted plan to combat..." international piracy during his May 5, 2009 testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on piracy. LRAD is successful in what it does: communicate clearly at distance and determine intent. If a ship's crew waits until pirates are only a few hundred meters away and then expect LRAD to overpower gunfire from automatic weapons and RPG's then they're not using it for its intended purpose. With piracy attacks continuing to escalate, LRAD is an essential part of an overall defense capability for maritime security and international naval forces in the fight against 21st century pirates."
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