Mar 252008

I’ll put aside the issue of whether or not wise decisions were made when heavily armed military personnel aboard the Global Patriot, a civilian vessel chartered by the US department of defens(c)e sent a boatload of Egyptian cigarette vendors to paradise on the approach to the Suez canal. What it does call into question is the effectiveness of Long Range Acoustic Devices and the wisdom of arming seafarers to fight off pirates.

On 12th October 2000 a small boat manned by suicide bombers approached the USS Cole in Aden and exploded. Some 17 US sailors were killed many others injured, and the USS Cole was badly damaged. One can, therefore, understand the nervousness of the men aboard the Global Patriot and their quickness on the trigger.

The US Navy press release on the incident can be found here.

There were two options, to simply blow away anyone who got within a certain range, on the assumption that they must be terrorists, rather than over-eager vendors trying to earn a few bucks, or developing a non-fatal alternative that would deter attackers. Since shoot ’em first and let God sort ’em out doesn’t play well these days, the Long Range Acoustic Device, LRAD, was developed.

In theory, the LRAD sends out a concentrated beam of ear-popping sound painful enough to burst eardrums and deter attackers. A popular version is sold by American Technology Corporation .

So far, there has been only one reported successful use of this device, when the cruise ship Seabourn Spirit was attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. However, a close reading of reports of the event must necessarily raise the question of whether it was the spirited defence of the ship by its security officer Michael Graves and his colleague Som Bahadur Gurung, which included high pressure hose and aggressive maneouvres by the master. Michael Graves suffered permanent hearing damage. Grave and Gurung deservedly were awarded the Queens Gallantry Medal and Commendation for Bravery.

LRADs were designed to be used in precisely the situation that the Global Patriot found itself in. The ship was under charter from the US Department of Defense, it seems unlikely that was equipped with anything other than most effective means of deterrent. It was, moreover, in friendly territory which yet offered the maximum opportunity for diplomatic embarrassment.

LRADs are expensive pieces of kit and are being sold to civilian vessels, as the Seabourn Spirit incident indicates, but do they actually work as a deterrent? Or was LRAD not used because of the evident dangers to its operator?

There have been frequent suggestions that seafarers should be given firearms to fight off pirates. If the well-trained forces aboard the Global Patriot can make such a massive misjudgement, then how many more people might get blown away by less well-trained seafarers?

  5 Responses to “Does LRAD Work?”

  1. As the intruder has ignored the warnings, subsequent actions taken by the ship is justified. Regarding LRADs the reliability is doubtful.

  2. First of all, the operator of the LRAD should not suffer any hearing damage as the noise level behind the device are very low. If he was in the path of the beam and the LRAD was switched to it’s high output deterrent mode then yes he could suffer hearing loss with prolonged exposure. It is more likely that the hearing loss was sustained from something else. It’s primary role is to determine the intent of the oncoming vessell and give it ample opportunity to make it’s intenions clear before forcing a live fire incident.
    The egyptian tradgedy could have been avoided since the ciggarette merchants would have clearly understood that their approach was being viewed as a possible hostile attack through the LRAD verbal hails at 300 – 500 M and then the LRAD deterrent tones they would have heard after the verbal warnings were ignored.
    After the verbal warnings and the deterrent tones were heard, any non-hostile would be smart enough to slow down, stop, and turn away. If not, then “a free ticket to paradise” is justified.

  3. MAC has now confirmed that the Global Patriot was not equipped with LRAD, a device that might well have prevented the tragedy.

    “Mr Groves said shock-waves from the LRAD has damaged his hearing and claims he now suffers from tinnitus.” BBC News

  4. […] Maritime Accident Casebook has commentary HERE. swfobject.embedSWF(“”, […]

  5. Operator hearing loss using an LRAD – unlikely.
    Whilst one is sympathetic to Mr Groves, the hearing loss /defect is more likely to be attributable to the blast sound wave from an RPG explosion during the initial encounter: “As soon as I went on the deck I came under automatic fire straight away. A rocket grenade blew me off my feet,” he said. “The next thing I remember is rolling around and trying to check for shrapnel.” ..

    The construction and operation of the LRAD would preclude any significant sound near the operator.

    Misapprehension about weapons used by pirates.
    Additionally the reporting and headlines by the BBC [ your link above: ‘Michael Graves..’ ] leaves much to be desired in terms of likelihood, if not fact.

    BBC headline : ”Under heavy rocket and machine-gun fire from pirates”

    Passenger reported: “There were at least three RPGs that hit the ship, one in a stateroom four doors down from our cabin.”
    passenger reported: ”a small boat with about five people in it about 20 yards… One of them clearly had a rifle. Later I realised that two of them had rifles and one had some kind of rocket launcher”

    An AK47 automatic rifle -weapon of choice for Somali pirates with an effect range of 350 metres- is not a ‘Machine-Gun’: a BMG would have a range of 1500+ metres and be significantly difficult to manage in a small boat, especially if lacking the physique of ‘Rambo’…

    The ‘rocket launcher’ was most likely an RPG type weapon of Russian design /manufacture, very popular with the average Somali speedboat pirate as it is relatively simple and easy to use with minimal blowback – the latter being a severe defect of any ‘Heavy Rocket’ system that would likely blow the pirate support team out of what was left of their boat on launching the first and last ‘Heavy Rocket’

    There is little that is amusing about being fired at with an RPG, but it is by no means an ‘Heavy Rocket’.

    To put it in perspective; a typical RPG lethal blast radius is about 7-10 metres in open space and would typically be contained well inside a ship’s side steel walled cabin. The damage potential of an ‘Heavy Rocket’ is significantly greater and makes for a more satisfyingly emotive and scary headline, than the modest RPG ‘squib’ that we have all become inured to with frequent near misses that so far have done little shipboard damage.

    That they managed to hit the side of the ship with an rpg from a boat bouncing around in the sea encourage one to the belief that the 20 metre firing point was a good estimate, it can be a bugger for accuracy ..

    An AK47 automatic rifle -weapon of choice for Somali pirates with an effect range of 350 metres- is not a ‘Machine-Gun’: a BMG would have a range of 1500+ metres and be significantly difficult to manage in a small boat, especially if lacking the physique of ‘Rambo’…

    The ship would have had little trouble in keeping the pirates out of RPG and AK47 range if there had been adequate defence weapons aboard. The risk of injury or death would have been minimized and confined to the pirates if the security team had a semi automatic ‘long’ [ sniper rifle like AW50 [L121A1] or M82A1 or even SR25 ‘short’ ] aboard. The problem arises when they attack in large numbers 10 to 25 boats which would entail use of lethal force at the defensive perimeter of 1500 metres by a security force of at least six well trained and resolute military or ex military personnel..

    It will be evident from the thrust of my remarks that I am of the opinion that assailants that use weapons should be rebuffed in a similar fashion, and as large ships generally have more space for bigger guns I would be less unbelieving about a BBC headline: “heavy rocket and machine-gun fire destroys pirates – again’’


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