Operators assigned to the U.S. Navy VBSS Unit from the USS Gettysburg approach a pirate mother ship in the Gulf of Aden. DoD photo

Pirates usually raid at dawn or dusk. Seen from the bridge of a merchant ship off the coast of Somalia, a vessel several nautical miles away might be a dhow, a large fishing boat engaged in honest work in the Indian Ocean or Gulf of Aden. Or, it might be a “mother ship” drifting in wait, ready to launch two, three, or even 10 skiffs full of heavily armed pirates buzzing on khat leaves, a chewed stimulant made infamous in the movie Black Hawk Down.

What happens next depends on intentions, ranges, and rules of engagement (ROE). If the dhow steers toward the freighter, the merchant captain changes course to evade. However, the bigger ship isn’t especially fast, at 10 or 11 knots, or maneuverable. Even if the ship’s lookouts, using binoculars, count a dozen men on a dhow, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re pirates. Maybe one of the men on the dhow has an AK-47. That means little in this part of the world where nearly every fishing boat has one of the ubiquitous Kalashnikovs for its own defense, as pirates hijack fishing vessels for use as long-range mother ships.

Tension builds on the freighter. Within minutes, lookouts spot several wooden- or aluminum-hulled skiffs in the water around the dhow. Each of the small boats, powered by an outboard motor, hold several men with weapons and narrow ladders or long bamboo poles topped with hooks. There’s no doubt about intention. Now, it’s a matter of range.

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Operators assigned to the U.S. Navy VBSS Unit from the USS Gettysburg approach a…