Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The cancer of piracy

There have been 14 piracy attempts off the east coast of Africa and the Gulf of Aden in the past 10 days. It is obvious it has gotten out of hand. The trend is getting worse and will spread to other areas unless the civilized world can get a handle on it soon. Once confined to the Gulf of Aden and the near coastal waters off of Somalia, the seizure of Saudi owned super tanker Sirius Star 450 miles offshore demonstrates almost no area of the Indian Ocean is safe. Complicating this is the common practice of paying ransom to the pirates. This only exacerbates the problem by guaranteeing them profitability. And the typical European weenie attitude isn’t helping either. According to the Times of London, the British Foreign Office recently advised the Royal Navy that they shouldn’t detain pirates because “it may breach their human rights” and “also risk that captured pirates could claim asylum in Britain.” Other countries simply have no taste for prosecuting and incarcerating these threats to maritime safety. The Italians, never known for their backbone, released Abu Abbas, ringleader of the Achille Lauro hijacking, after his plane was forced down in Italy by US fighter planes. It will take a lot more than setting up a NATO, or worse yet, an EU naval force to take care of the problem. Each European country wants to set its own rules of engagement or authorize the use of force on an individual incident basis. At a moment when a pirate boat is within yards of a freighter with grappling hooks, you don’t have time to call a ministers’ conference in Germany or France to deal with it. Here are a few suggestions: 1. Develop the resolve for what needs to be done. Use of deadly force must be authorized in advance. On the scene commanders are the ones who must call the shots, not Prime Ministers. Countries who don’t want to play by these rules should be excluded. 2. Develop a plan, including a legal framework, for what will be done with captured pirates. Right now, in theory, under the International Law of the Sea, the capturing country may try the prisoners in their own country or turn them over to another for trial, unless they permit torture or otherwise violate human rights (death penalty). That of course excludes the US. This will be the main sticking point. Europeans simply don’t want to be stuck with the liability of Muslim pirates in their jurisdictions, and the consequences of their release. 3. Use the intelligence assets we have. The same techniques we use to find, identify and track Al Qaida terrorists in Iraq can be used here. Pirates communicate. There is no way they just stumbled on the Sirius Star or the Ukrainian vessel Faina, carrying 33 T-72 tanks. They were given sailing their orders by someone, and they didn’t come by snail mail. Identify the pirates' mother ships. Board them when they hit international waters. Or simply make them disappear. Or both. 4. Consider the use of convoys. There are over 18,000 ships using the Suez Canal, that transit the piracy prone Gulf of Aden each year. That’s 50 a day. There are not enough warships to escort each one. During both World Wars, the best defense against submarines was the convoy system. There, 8 to 12 escorts would provide protection for 45 to 60 transports. Initially the merchant skippers disdained them, preferring to take their chances going solo. They didn’t like having to wait for a convoy to form up, or having to reduce speed to match the slowest vessel. But it turned out be the most effective protection, especially early in WWII. 5. Insurance companies must get involved. They, at minimum, should require ship’s crews to have training in repelling boarders. Some techniques already being used effectively are fairly simple, such as high pressure water hoses. Posting watches using night vision and FLIR devices and 24/7 radar watches while in the danger zone would help. But as we found during WWII, naval gun crews proved far more effective than merchant mariners in providing defense. Whether civilian contractors such as Blackwater or NATO marines, dedicated forces would do a better job than lightly trained ship’s crew. The cancer of piracy will spread if nothing is done. It is spreading already. It will spread into the Red Sea and the Med. At some point civilized nations will have to act. The sooner the better.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Living with dinosaurs

Well not actually, but alligators are among their nearest living relatives. Having them as neighbors takes some getting used to. Sort of like hurricanes. While they are dangerous, they are nothing like the crocodiles shown on TV documentaries. They don’t run after you, despite urban legends to the contrary. They aren’t very bright, but they do like a lot of the things we humans enjoy too. Their three desires are: They like to eat, the like to sit in the sun all day (helps them digest their food) and they like the company of the opposite sex, if you know what I mean. That’s about all. Did I say they aren’t very bright? 

During the seventies, alligator hunting was banned. That hurt a lot of Florida “crackers” who made some extra money selling the hides and meat. Government authorities were warned there would be a population explosion and an inevitable conflict with the burgeoning human population. And that did happen, first with pets, mainly dogs and later with attacks on humans. The state of Florida eventually allowed the “culling” of alligators over 4 feet in an effort to placate the alligators’ uneasy neighbors. But on eco-friendly Sanibel, where I live, the attitude was “They were here first,” we should learn to live with them. Sanibel went several steps beyond the state. Only 8 footers (small monster size) were eligible for “culling” and only if they were determined to be threatening.

I live on a golf course, the Dunes, that is mostly lakes and an alligator heaven. In one humorous incident about 10 years ago a lady called the county police about a monster 13 footer she said was behaving aggressively. The county police arrived and dispatched the gator post-haste. Only one problem, this was “Big Al,” a fixture at the Dunes and beloved by many. City Council threw a hissy fit and mandated that only gator friendly city police be involved in the future. But in short order the alligators began misbehaving. An 81 year old environmental activist and contributor to the local paper, was walking his dog near some open water. The dog apparently started yipping at a gator. The gator naturally went after the dog and the owner tried to intervene. Big mistake and he didn’t survive. Two other incidents occurred 3 years later, one fatal and the other with a woman pretty well mauled.

Now we are a popular resort island and for some reason alligator attacks seem to play well in out of town papers. That gets the local Chamber of Commerce all out of joint. Anyway, business interests got the better of things, and now anything over 4 feet is now eligible for “trapping” if anyone thinks an alligator is aggressive. And trapping means it will be served as an hors d’oeuvre in some fancy Midwest restaurant and the remainder will end up as Gucci handbag. 

Most of the alligator aggressiveness comes from the actions of well meaning people who feed them. Alligators are normally fearful of humans and will retreat from an encounter as fast as the human. But when fed, they lose their fear of humans. When a gator snuzzles you it’s a lot different from a dog. And a lot more dangerous. In reality the human’s act of friendship will turn out to be a death warrant for the gator.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Whither the Big 3

Democrats are going to do what they do best, throw money at a problem. They are proposing $25 billion in loans to the Big 3. No doubt there will be strings attached, big, long strings. What the Democrats priorities are will determine whether the domestic auto industry survives or not. Most likely it will be to save as many UAW jobs as possible. While that sounds great, the last thing the Big 3 needs is more UAW workers. Nor do they need an auto czar to micromanage what cars are produced or mandate or forbid sales of certain models. Despite Democrats desires, the big three as well as Toyota and Nissan made gobs of money off of SUVs. That’s where the market was. And the survival of the industry rests more from what people will buy, than what is politically correct to manufacture. Throwing money around subverts the UAW and industry’s need to face economic realities. Just like a recent auction of a real estate development where the distressed seller opted out of the auction price because he felt he could make more from government largesse, there is no incentive for the UAW to reduce costs. Uncle Sam will prop them up. While many place the blame on Big 3’s management for agreeing to untenable UAW demands, that is simply hogwash. If you have ever experienced the whipsaw tactics of unions, you would understand. With your competitors operating, very few companies can withstand a two or three month strike. Not only will you permanently lose market share, you are bled dry by fixed costs. It becomes a choice of going out of business now or postponing it for 5 years. Most bet on waiting for a miracle. Congress has been pushing for a merger between GM and Chrysler. You might ask why GM needs Chrysler. Surely they don’t need more assembly plants. Surely they don’t need to fund the shortfall in Chrysler’s pension plan. Surely they don’t need to fund their retiree benefits. They have sufficient models. They don’t need Jeep when the have GMC. It is a lose-lose proposition. The best solution is for GM to file for bankruptcy. They need out of some of the more burdensome UAW work rules. Just like the airlines, companies after bankruptcy evolve into a leaner and more flexible operations. As far as the rest, their best bet is to find offshore partners. Ford probably can, but Chrysler most likely is toast no matter what happens.