Future naval commerce raiding


The concept of a helicopter-equipped disguised merchant raider seems plausible and doable to me, particularly if the merchant raiders were sent out before war broke out.

Such an auxiliary cruiser would not need a gun, and could easily hide helipad and helicopter hangar in a fake container stack.


The range could be ten thousands of nautical miles plus kerosene for hundreds of helicopter sorties, enough for a months of operations. The helicopter could do boarding and sinking of merchant ships in hundreds of nautical miles radius. It would arrive with little warning, might be able to jam the civilian radio channels and it could be mistaken for a friendly anti-commerce raider inspection team. To scout and strike, even take prizes with the helicopter instead of with the auxiliary cruiser itself would largely defeat ocean surveillance efforts at least outside of over the horizon radars' view. The auxiliary cruiser would look like just another ship running away from a reported boarding site.

It's not for certain that AIS (radio-based ship identification system, nowadays even read by satellites) would be of much help. Sympathetic nations could help the raiding nation by having AIS switched off on many neutral cargo ships, for example.


The direct damage done wouldn't be the biggest effect. Think about today's maritime trade. A German import of West African cocoa would have been a simple direct route of a general cargo ship from one West African port to a German port. Nowadays it's some container going on a travel, possibly with lots of detours and it might be unloaded in the Netherlands. The longer the trading distance, the more complicated the container logistics. A single container ship in the Indian Ocean could have containers from dozens of countries destined for dozens of countries at the same time.

I'm no expert on maritime law of war, but my understanding is* that a ship is fair game in war if it has cargo (other than food or medical supplies) of or for the enemy other than its imports of foodstuff or medical products. Just about every container freighter would fit that criterion nowadays. 

A handful of commerce raiding-auxiliary cruisers on the oceans would not compel the West to set up a convoying scheme. The most we could do would be to define main transportation lanes so whatever commerce raider is active would only be a threat in a much smaller portion of the oceans. The shipping companies might still revise the load of ships and seek to purify them of any warring party cargo. The disruption of our trade might be substantial and much greater than the almost negligible effort of equipping a dozen auxiliary cruisers (which could be well below €2 bn assuming that the ships have to be purchased and taking into account the costs of quality helicopters).



*: I'd be obliged to research this if I was working for a defence think tank, but this is just a one-man-show out of passion, and researching law ain't fun.


  1. China has a huge fishing fleet, some of them sailing under different flags, but they are integrated, at least in claimed territorial waters, with the navy for which they can play an auxiliary role. This has roots in the history of the PLAN, which envisioned a guerilla war by a militia at sea to replicate their successful recipe in the civil war on land.
    Instead of a container ship, could this idea be enacted by fishing vessels, maybe flying smaller unmanned system and of course using false flags? Another option would be laying mines or torpedoes along shipping lines and communicating with reconnaissance UAV, all solutions for more numerous, cheaper and smaller vessels.

    1. Most of those fishing boats are dependent on larger motherships (fish factory ships) and way too slow to intercept 27 kts cargo ships and have little capacity for weaponry.

    2. I agree that most vessels in the fishing fleet can't play catch with container ships. But they are numerous enough to serve as a distribution system for naval mines, even just towing them in place, and as bases for small reconnaissance UAV. The mines would probably be more effective if they have a limited mobility to move towards targets. These measures could increase the effectiveness of the hunting container ships by making controlled sea lanes with high traffic density difficult in some areas such as the African coast or in the seas around Taiwan, creating a more spread out field of moving ships that serves as hunting ground for helicopter carrying container ships.

    3. Some Soviet "fishing trawlers" that followed around U.S. carrier groups had underwater torpedo tubes.

      Imagine the possibilities...


  2. Also any container ship could use containerised rockets addtionally or instead of helicopters. Such anti-ship rockets in containers are available here today.

    1. That would require indiscriminatory, unrestricted naval warfare. Germany produced the experience that this adds avoidable enemies to a war.

  3. Why not go for big UAV drones? No need to put crew on the helos... no need for food. It could be a single container system.

    (how would the drone confirm which ship to strike: well, how would the Helo? Human eyeball does not have a magical ability to judge by sight what is onboard the containers on a ship. If the answer is the humans read the ships name: that's not impossible to ask of drones either)

    1. Human boarding teams can go to the bridge and take freight papers/data that justify sinking the ship, then emplace cheap, small and lightweight demolition charges to sink the ship (and use ship systems to let water in, disable bulkheads. The necessary helo can be a civilian model without any expenses prior to mobilization.

    2. oh right. in that case of course you do need a pilot (+ co-pilot) and boarding teams, with demolition charges etc.

      And you have a higher human cost if said helo gets shot down:
      such a helo would be somewhat easy to defend against: a manportable SAM in a concealed turret is going to make any civilian or transport helo sweat...

      Not every cargo ship would be thus equipped for sure; not everyone would have the willingness to take such a decisive action as firing on the helo, but it would be rather cheap to prevent such things.
      Ship boarding teams are mainly a peace-time thing currently.

      Would you use Special Forces for this type of work?
      a couple of machine gunners waiting for the helo-men to start disembarking is also going to lead to significant casualties.

      I recon defense would be favored: some reservists can take down a helicopter if it comes in flying slow & close...

      So the real counter to this approach, is intel: knowing an adversary plans to proceed with such action.

    3. It's illegal to arm cargo ships like that, ships have no air search radar, ships have no IFF and could not reliably tell a friendly boarding team for inspection from a hostile boarding team for sinking.
      The cargo ship would need to be re-flagged and crewed at last in part by combatants to be armed enough for resisting two helicopters, and it would need extra sensors.

      Cargo ship crews do not resist armed forces, period. This has proved correct throughout the 20th century even when national cargo ships were crewed by nationals. Now it's some ship owned by a corp in one country, flagged at another, crewed by personnel from yet another country.
      The crews' only concern is to survive, and you cannot do that if a 2nd helo destroys your rescue boat before your ship gets destroyed.

      You should look at history, not just at technical possibilities.

    4. Naval warfare could lead to a reemergence of fleets flying actual national colours of the ship owners if Panama's fleet refuses to enter troubled waters.

    5. That helps little if the Filipino crews refuse to work.

    6. The US has the money to buy existing shipping capacity until they have built automated own shipbuilding. Europe has a large share of merchant marine officers, who could probably be enticed to become US citizens. Same goes for the former colony of the Philippines that would find a considerable number of crews willing to emigrate and work for the pay of a US sailor. Shortfalls could in addition be handled by personnel trained in the US navy, which is a significant amount of all seafarers globally.

      On the other hand, how much shipping would actually be necessary in such a case? It might be possible to increase remote work and combine it with human controlled robots. The US is already the center of global communication via underwater cables and this development holds the possibility to import cheaper labour thru information transfer. In terms of energy and food, the US is self sufficient. What resources arrive, would be from the South Pacific and South Atlantic, both areas also difficult to reach for a competing power. In case of the South Pacific, numerous islands offer themselves for an aerial safeguarding network for imports from Autralia. This further shrinks the area where such a container raider could operate, making it more suspicious.