U.S. nuclear supercarrier sent to fight Somali pirates

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Feb. 23, 2009 at 11:27 AM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- The pirate threat off the Horn of Africa is now so bad that the heavy hitters have to move in: The Pentagon has deployed a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to the area.

Rear Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, commander of the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group, has announced that the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower has been dispatched to patrol nearly 7.5 million square miles in the Middle East region, The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot reported Sunday.

The move makes a great deal of sense both strategically and operationally. Russia, India and China all have made significant gains in influence and prestige by deploying their own warships to the Gulf of Aden region off the coast of Somalia to combat pirates who have been operating from there with increasing impunity and daring. Over the past year more than 90 ships were hijacked, including a Saudi-owned supertanker with more than 150,000 tons of oil on board.

However, the pirates are hard to combat. Armchair strategists repeatedly have suggested reviving the World War I British expedient of "Q-ships" -- apparently harmless merchantmen that can open fire on pirate attackers with devastating force. But this is a pipe dream. The pirates attack their targets in extremely fast speedboats, and all they would have to do is speed off like lightning when the "Q-ships" revealed their true nature.

Sending regular naval frigates or destroyers to the region, as Russia, India and China have done, is good for showing the flag and protecting specific vessels or very narrowly defined sea lanes. But it can do nothing to eliminate the threat or to hunt down and destroy the pirates when they are at sea either. In modern warfare, the only vessels that can do that job are aircraft carriers. And nuclear-powered ones are actually much easier to deploy and much more effective for the job than smaller, conventionally powered ones.

The obvious reason for this is that American nuclear-powered supercarriers, because they are much larger than the far smaller conventional carriers that the rest of the world operates, can carry a far larger and more formidable complement of aircraft. They therefore can patrol far larger areas of sea at the same time and launch fast response attacks with powerful squadrons far more often and easily.

But nuclear-powered supercarriers have other advantages as well. Because they are nuclear-powered, they can stay at sea for an infinite period of time without being refueled. That vastly reduces the logistical problems of keeping them operationally active and deployed on station for long periods of time, and, sure enough, the Eisenhower has been sent to the Gulf for a five-month mission, its captain said.

Tidd said the Eisenhower, which left its home port in Norfolk, Va., Saturday, will offer a strong message to U.S. naval allies, "standing shoulder by shoulder with them in some of the dangerous parts of the world."

In a world where the dollar is weak and an inexperienced young new president has just taken office in Washington, that "shoulder to shoulder" message could not be more timely for U.S. friends and allies across the Middle East.

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(Part 2: What U.S. supercarriers can do and others can't in protecting oil lanes)

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