Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Yo Ho Ho and a Bagful of Khat

There is nothing quite like pirates in the morning news to make you feel like you just woke up in an alternate history.

In principle this ought to be no big deal by now. After all, once the word jihad started appearing in the news nothing should seem weird anymore. If you are younger than about 35 this is the only world you have ever known - bear with my boomer old-farthood when I say that this stuff once seemed utterly remote from contemporary politics. But in fact it was too remote. A vague image of 'fanatical Mohammedans' lingered in the popular culture (I got the phrase from Hornblower and the Hotspur), but the Crusades and all that had pretty much faded into the background. We know that Richard the Lionheart fought Saladin (they also made peace), but what we remember is his imaginary triumphant return at the end of Ivanhoe and Robin Hood movies.

Pirates are different. The golden age of piracy in Hollywood was decades ago - Captain Blood, The Crimson Pirate, and dozens of others, starring the likes of Errol Flynn and Maureen O'Hara. The genre faded away about when Westerns did, the underappreciated Swashbuckler (1976) being a very late entry. But in the meantime the old films had spawned a ride at Disneyland; in due course the ride spawned Captain Jack Sparrow and Mistress Elizabeth Swann, and pirates are as rock solid in the popular culture as they ever have been.

To a purist, for example me, the Pirates of the Caribbean films are hardly 'real' pirate movies at all. They suffer from contemporary Hollywood's assumption that 12 year old boys won't sit still for mere flashing swords and swinging from the rigging, but need lots of ghoulies and mumbo jumbo. Still the new films have the trappings, and have helped keep the pirate mythos very much alive in the popular culture.

Which is why Kevin Drum, one of the sharper political bloggers out there, missed the point when he griped about 'the endless rounds of joking and snark that [pirates] provoke.' If you listen to the laughter there is a nervous edge to it. Not because we're afraid of the Somali pirates as such - they are a long ways away, and as pirates go they are not particularly cutthroats. It's the weirdness. Who dreamed that the missile cruiser USS Bainbridge would engage in a mission so instantly familiar to its namesake 200 years ago? Or that Barack Obama would join Thomas Jefferson on the short list of US presidents who have ordered naval action against pirates?

Drum was right in his larger point, so I won't add to the legion of uninformed bloviators about what to do about the Somali pirates. Go here for an interesting take from an informed naval blogger. In a nutshell this blogger's argument is that the pirates are by no means the worst people running around with guns in Somalia. In fact, compared to the truly vicious piracy in Southeast Asian waters, now largely suppressed, the Somali pirates seem like relatively honorable thieves - practically gentlemen of the corso. (Don't get me wrong - if you think the pirate's life is for you, remember that it will be longer if you avoid getting mixed up with Navy SEALs, or anyone who names ships after people like William Bainbridge or Jean Bart.)

Pirates have appeared before in this blog, though not contemporary ones. One argument against space piracy - that nothing so atavistic could possibly happen In The Future - has pretty well been dropped by three well-placed sniper rounds. (Bravo zulu, guys!) Here we are in the third millennium and piracy is alive and well. Not even furtive stuff, but brazen and well organized, the real deal. Piracy in space still has other problems, because it would be hard to board space freighters from the equivalent of a rubber boat even if some spacelane were as lawless as the waters off Somalia.

But in a world where naval officers in the year 2007 are carrying out antipirate operations, weirdness alone is no longer an argument for implausibility.


Carla said...

Nothing new under the sun, as the cliche has it.

Given the (apparently) limitless creativity of the human mind, surely someone would come up with a solution to the problem of boarding a space freighter if the profit was big enough?

Soren said...

I can see outright piracy, if there's an inside man, but I think barratry (scuttling a ship in order to hide the theft of cargo) would be a much bigger issue in space.

Rick said...

I can pretty well see that I have to revisit space piracy for a full discussion to consider the lessons we're learning about modern terrestrial piracy!

Two lessons we're learning are that long range sensors are not especially helpful when pirate ships are indistinguishable from civil craft, and long range weapons are equally unhelpful when dealing with hostage situations.

In some ways - the ways usually discussed at SFConsim-l - stealth in space is nearly impossible to attain. Space is dark, while objects (unless near absolute zero) are bright, and rocket engines are REALLY bright. But while detecting a spacecraft is one thing, knowing who or what is aboard is quite another, and may take old fashioned boarding parties to determine.

Anonymous said...

Up until the end of WWII, commerce raiders were countered by 'Q' ships- armed ships made up to look like merchant vessels. Commerce raiders also looked like merchant vessels (at least, from a distance)...Pirate vessels were also nearly indistingushable from civilian ships. A hypothetical space pirate may very well BE a civilian space craft, but with some easily concealed can tell a lot about a ship from its drive flare and acceleration characteristics, but nothing about its it going to join that convoy, or attack it? A warship or security vessel may see the whole thing unfold half the solar system away, but be powerless to do anything about it. And, once its gotten into orbit around a planet colony, moon base, or asteroid outpost, it may no longer be in that warship's jurisdiction...and if the pirate vessel docks at a space station, it can quietly change out its 'pirate options' for a less lawless identity. People are clever; whatever rules you devise for them, someone will figure out a way to get around them.

Rick said...

Ferrell - yep. 'Everyone sees everything' in space, but only external characteristics, not who or what is aboard.

A warship or security vessel may see the whole thing unfold half the solar system away, but be powerless to do anything about it.A warship could be 500 meters away and unable to do anything if the pirates board their victim under friendly pretenses, then pull guns when the airlock opens. Kinetic missiles and megajoule lasers are not all that helpful when hostages are involved.

Soren - belated props for even using the word barratry! The best way to 'scuttle' a spaceship is to cause or fake a drive engine failure, so that the ship is on an orbit to nowhere. (Since cargo haulers are probably robotic, you don't have to be a murderer, only a crook.) Even if barratry is suspected, an inspection mission would be somewhere between horribly expensive and impossible.

Is there a black market in comsats? If so, space barratry might already have been committed. If a booster fails and a commercial satellite launch ends in the drink, who knows whether it was carrying its intended payload?

Soren said...

Ferrell: The problem with Q-ships is that in space, maneuver capacity and electronics count for a great deal more than direct firepower. Q-ships were more or less limited to engaging surfaced submarines, for example. You can put a suite of VLS cells in a modern freighter, but an AEGIS-equipped frigate will still cut it to ribbons.

So pirate 'Q-ships' would most likely take the form of artfully spoofed IFF and comms - customs inspection codes would be particularly delicious - your target will maneuver, assist with docking, and once you're coupled to their airlock, you can flood their deck with troops in armored suits and fuck them something rotten.

Rick: there's no direct black market in comsats that I know of, but comsats are made of components for which there are thriving black markets.

The best thing about barratry in space is that you can attach cold gas thrusters to the 'drive-killed' ship and gently alter the trajectory after the event, so that an inspection mission will have to do some serious searching.

Rick said...

Space barratry might also be committed by business competitors who aren't trying to steal the satellite or strip it for parts, just keep it out of the marketplace.

As for deep sixing the evidence, in most cases a 'cold nudge' won't even be needed, because an inspection mission would be so hugely expensive.

I'd investigate space barratry the old fashioned way: shoe leather (or at least Velcro). Talk to people, review surveillance video at cargo docks, do some forensic rocket science on the telemetry. Build a circumstantial case. For story purposes, hardboil and serve.

Soren said...

There's telescopic inspection to consider. A mature system would at least try to check up on the trajectories of drive-killed ships.

So, you find a guy in the inspection office who likes the finer things in life, and you cut him in. ("Stan, buddy, run the numbers. Turn this bitch around, quietly, we both get paid. Who'll know?")

This has the added advantage of letting you change the hull number and registry, which makes smuggling possible.

Shit, you could copy a plot straight out of the second season of The Wire - transporting people or drugs in shipping containers labeled for other things. It writes itself:

"We got three chicksicles in a can down on B dock. Whose squad is up? I'm not touching this one."

"My guys are on that dockside knifing and the airlock accidents from last week. Fuck you sideways if you think I'm going to wrangle three Jane Does on ice and a crew that mysteriously can't speak a word of Interlingua to a cop."

Rick said...

If a spacecraft is diverted so as to arrive at a nonscheduled destination (rather than just hurtling off into the void), that falls more under the rubric of piracy than barratry, though the hijacking is electronic rather than physical.

Of course all these things blur together at the edges!

Smuggling humans in cargo pods over interplanetary distances is problematic because of weeks or months of life support. But it doesn't need to be for that long - maybe just long enough to get past inspection at the passenger airlocks, for example.