High Seas Robbery

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As counterterrorism experts worry aloud about the risk of a USS Cole (search)-style attack on commercial shipping, the number of violent attacks and acts of piracy on oil tankers and other commercial vessels worldwide has soared 37 percent over last year. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy, tasked with protecting U.S. interests in all the world’s oceans, has shrunk to its smallest size in almost 100 years.

The trend in shipping attacks is alarming. The 234 attacks between January and June 2003 were not only more numerous but also more deadly and dangerous than before, with more deaths and hostage-takings. In addition, recent months have seen heavily armed attackers target small oil tankers in the Malacca Strait (search), in ambushes that the International Maritime Bureau, which compiles the data, describes as “politically motivated.” Among the suspects are Muslim rebels from Indonesia’s breakaway region of Aceh (search), which has ties to international terrorism.

The dangerous reality of Southeast Asia’s crowded, narrow shipping lanes squares perfectly with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vern Clark’s picture of an environment crying out for a new kind of U.S. Navy vessel. Clark said in August that his service’s most difficult operational environment “is in the near-land arena… where you can find yourself in a saturated environment with a lot of traffic and a lot of could be-players. That’s the kind of an environment that we have to have a capability where our side can get in there and mix it up with a potential enemy. You can’t do that with 50,000 ton ships,” Clark said, adding the Navy is in “desperate need” of a small combatant called the Littoral Combat Ship (search).

Despite the need outlined by Clark and by the reality of vital global chokepoints such as the Strait of Malacca, the LCS has taken a beating in Congress because it has been awhile since politicians have reflected on the Navy’s needs in a forward-looking way. They’re not used to seeing how important it is for the service to have a small combatant that can interdict ships carrying terrorists and pirates, can go in close to shore to do “littoral penetration,” and can do so more cheaply and effectively, at $400 million a shot, than old-style frigates or larger vessels.

The LCS promises to have other virtues as well. It is to have a spiral design that allows the latest technology to be added to the hull at the time of deployment, and thus won’t be stuck with the technology that is new when the vessel is funded by Congress, but old by the time it goes to sea. This design will also give the LCS flexibility in missions. In addition, the LCS will be networked with other vessels and sensors, giving it a dramatically improved picture of the battlespace.

After months of waffling, Congress has seen fit to fund the LCS to the tune of $186 million. That’s a start. Politicians need to fund the vessel in full. The LCS represents a strategic leap forward and a means for the Navy to perform worldwide the essential 21st century missions of littoral penetration and sea control.

Melana Zyla Vickers writes about defense technologies and foreign policy for  TechCentralStation.com and is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum. She is a former editorial-board member of USA Today, Canada's The Globe and Mail and The Asian Wall Street Journal, and a former editor at the Far Eastern Economc Review.