Defending a Floating Arsenal Against Pirates

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Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Michelle L. Kapica / U.S. Navy via Getty

A Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is launched from a Mk V naval special warfare boat. The US Navy is planning to send 24,000 tons of inventory to its base on Diego Garcia.

The shipping industry may still be debating whether to provide weapons to the crews of merchant ships plying the pirate-infested waters of the Indian Ocean, but the U.S. military has no such dilemma about how to protect its cargo. As it prepares to ship a lot of firepower halfway across the world, it is taking steps to make sure a specially-designated container ship doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

The Marine Corps is moving 24,000 tons of inventory to the secretive U.S. naval station on the atoll of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, southeast of Somalia. A large container ship will transport 1,628 TEUs — 20-foot shipping containers — in temperature and humidity controlled conditions as part of the long-established Afloat Prepositioning Force, a strategy for storing the tools of war, known as "prepo." The ship will simply sit at anchor in the atoll's blue lagoon and wait, in case there is a major conflict in the area requiring U.S. involvement. This particular project, not the first prepo at Diego Garcia, is scheduled to begin in November and last for five years. Born in the Cold War, prepo proved so successful in speedy delivery of assets during the first Gulf War and again in 2003 that the Pentagon has continued to expand the program so there is sufficient heavy equipment and ammunition pre-positioned to fight fast in a major theater of war. (See pictures of the fight against the pirates of Somalia.)

Such "prepo" shipments have always been well-guarded. But the ship's contents could make a very tempting target for the pirates. The manifest lists a cargo of missiles and bombs with a TNT equivalent or "net explosive weight" of 6,383,281 lbs — around a quarter of Hiroshima's A-bomb destructive power. It includes 11 containers holding 15,751 lbs of spontaneously flammable munitions like white phosphorous. In total around 80% of the cargo, or 1,300 containers, will be crammed with explosives. (See a brief history of pirates.)

Getting to Diego Garcia is likely to take ships through or near waters inhabited by pirates — and the hijacking of this ship would dwarf the Somali pirate hijacking of the Saudi tanker last year. To protect this cargo, at least 15 Navy personnel, known as an Embarked Security Team, will be bunked aboard the container ship. "That's half a platoon strength onboard and they will be packing an awful lot of ammo and huge amount of firepower," says one ex-special forces soldier. "They will be Navy Seals with side arms and MP5Ks [compact submachine guns] for close quarters, and rifles and heavy machine guns to repel armed attacks at distance." (See the top 10 audacious acts of piracy.)

The contract for the container ship is still up for bids. The commercial shipping line that wins the Marine Corps' prepo contract must be prepared to outfit its ship with heavy gun mounts, decontamination facilities for nuclear radiation and chemical spills and a repaint or name change.

Other Defense contracts have resulted in commercial ships getting some extra-special defense. Maersk (the owner of the Alabama, whose captain was rescued Sunday) won a deal last November to transport naval jet fuel from South Korea to the Indian Ocean in a 856-foot tanker, the Maersk Rhode Island. A 12-strong Force Protection team was tapped to travel on that. Involved in prepo for decades, the Norfolk, VA-based shipper last January also won a deal estimated at $316 million to deliver defense equipment, mail and PX merchandise globally.

While the Alabama was delivering non-military aid to Africa, Maersk operates it as part of the U.S. taxpayer subsidized Maritime Security Program. MSP subsidies, last year totaling $158 million, help ensure U.S. merchant ships and American crews are available for military movements when needed.