What’s The Going Rate For An Oil Tanker Ransom?

In April of 2000, Royal Dutch/Shell paid $2 million for the safe return of one of its oil tankers, the Russian-flagged Volgonef.

By January of 2009, the ransom on seized tankers had apparently gone up to $3 million, the amount paid by Vela International Marine, a state-owned Saudi company for the return of the Mv Sirius Star.

As I write this, the media is not yet running information on the ransom demanded for the Maran Centaurus, taken off the coast of Somalia yesterday. Given that it’s carrying a $20 million cargo, odds are that the ransom demand this time will be in line with previous ones.

Oh, wait … that first one, the Volgonef, wasn’t called a “ransom.” It was called a “fine.” And the thugs who boarded and seized the ship weren’t referred to as “pirates,” they were recognized as a “navy.”

If only the differences ended with the labels … but sadly, they don’t.

Most pirates buy — or at least steal without pretense to the contrary — their own equipment, adding to and improving that equipment from their take. Even when a navy takes down an especially juicy victim, chances are that the operation won’t cover its own costs. Navies operate at a loss and take that loss out of the hides of the taxpayers back home, telling them that it’s for their own good. Pirates don’t pretend to be their victims’ benefactors. Navies base their entire claim to “legitimacy” on that pretense.

And, for the most part, pirates are content to take the money and run. Navies, on the other hand, spend a great deal of time pointing their guns at other people and demanding that those people concede to whatever demands the government that sent them might happen to make.

With two exceptions, “navies” come up short in any moral comparison with “pirates” — and frankly I’m not too sure those exceptions hold water (pun intended).

The first exception is that navies can — provided it doesn’t interfere with more important “duties” — be relied upon to answer the calls of vessels in distress at sea, rendering aid and saving lives. Then again, so can most civilian vessels … and there would be more, and probably better-equipped, civilian vessels at sea if governments didn’t tax them from top to bottom at every opportunity.

The second exception is that navies certainly are useful if war breaks out and a coast needs to be defended or the war needs to be taken to the enemy as far as possible from home. The problem with that is that a sizable navy may make war more likely, for less justifiable reasons.

Consider, for example, the US Navy and its 11 “Carrier Strike Groups,” each disposing of more firepower than all naval forces in World War II combined, and more firepower than any other navy on Earth today. At a cost of $171.7 billion for FY 2010 [PDF] — or, to put it a different way, $572 from every man, woman and child in the US for the year — the US Navy’s 280 ships, 3,700 aircraft and 300k+ personnel are on duty 24/7/365, steaming around the world just looking for trouble.

If you go looking for trouble, odds are you’ll eventually find it. If you can’t find it, it’s always easy to provoke, create, or just plain manufacture it (see “Incident, Gulf of Tonkin,” or “Maine, USS”). The US Navy has long since relegated any “legitimate defensive role” it might have once claimed to the whiskey locker. Its purpose isn’t to defend you or me, it’s to throw Washington, DC’s weight around. And not just against foreign nations, but against random dissidents as well. For example, in 1989, in an open act of piracy, US Navy vessels assaulted Greenpeace activists on the high seas, using water cannon and ramming to forcibly remove them from international waters for no better reason than that US politicians felt like detonating a nuclear weapon there.

$572 would buy you about 100 “value meals” at your local fast food restaurant, at least 50 bottles of decent bourbon, or a decent laptop computer. Do you really feel “well-served” by being forced to spend that much every year on an organization whose primary mission has long since become seeking out fights that cost you even more?

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