Monday 26 March 2018

Piracy in Space is Possible Part II: Armed Merchants and Pirate Patrols

There's more to piracy than just attacking a target and running away afterwards. 
Put yourself in the shoes of a pirate, a merchant or the authorities. What would you do?
Fighting back

Pirates intercepting, attacking and ransoming a merchant crew should be straightforward. 

The pirates arrive with overwhelming power. They make reasonable demands, and receive payment quickly. The crew is liberated, the pirates go back into hiding and the ransom payment gets added to the 'Expenses' line of the company's balance sheet.

Honor (or lack thereof) among thieves is a common fiction trope. Cover from here.
However, if we look more closely, we can see that this is in fact an honor system. It only works if all parties involved follow unwritten rules and act as they are expected to do. Pirates, for example, are expected to not harm or abuse their captured victims if they comply, and to leave them safe inside their spaceship before departing. The crew, in return, does not resist the pirates pointlessly, or engage in suicidal tactics to get rid of them. Paying a ransom and losing a bit of cargo is less of a price to pay than human lives.
Pirates can become romanticized again.
Such an honor system is inherently unstable. If one attack goes wrong, and the crew blow themselves up, future pirates will be more cautious and harder on their victims. If one pirate group refuses to release their hostages after a negotiation did not net them the sum they were expecting, future commercial crews will trust the pirates less and they'll struggle more. 

Each individual incident builds the image the different parties have of each other. A small number of failures to comply with the honor system can lead to every pirate and commercial crew abandoning it and fighting for their lives instead.

A more realistic depiction of piracy.
For pirates, this means destroying their target and picking through its remains instead of attempting a complicated intercept and ransom. For the crews, it means putting their own lives at risk to rid themselves of the pirates, and not trusting a word they say. 
The aftermath of a pirate attack will eventually start looking like this scene from Gravity (2013).
These effects are self-reinforcing. Eventually, all merchant crews will hold the belief that pirates are out to kill them, all pirates will never bother to negotiate with their victims and no company would agree to pay ransoms for its employees.

We will consider in this post the various responses the commercial crews will have in the face of rampant piracy, both in situations when the honor system is intact, and after it devolves into an all-out-war. 

Anti-pirate tactics - Detection:

Infrared detection of heat sources will dominate in space. Image from here.
Before a merchant ship can respond to a pirate attack, it must first know that it is under attack. In some cases, this is easy to determine. A pirate ship could be using its highly visible rocket engines to intercept its target, or it could ping the merchant's hull with a laser beam to tell it that it is within weapons range. 

However, in many cases, pirates will try to avoid detection. As described in Part I, they can employ stealth tactics so that their victim is unaware of an attack even while the pirates are conducting negotiations with the transport company. They can deploy drones that latch onto the merchant ship and plant a bomb, only revealing its presence well into the ship's journey. They could even remotely take control of the ship's navigation system remotely without the crew being alerted. 

With these possibilities in mind, it becomes important that commercial crews take care of detecting threats externally and internally. Measures include more powerful Radar and Lidar detection systems, requesting information from military sensor networks, having a human eye review commands and perform inspections of the spaceship's surfaces to uncover any devices or drones attached to the hull. 

Coordinating with other spacecraft greatly increases the odds of detecting potential hostiles. This makes convoys a very sensible tactic - it multiplies the number of sensors available.

Anti-pirate tactics - Escape:

Once a threat has been confirmed, the first option is always to run away. 

Spaceship chase.
The best way to do this is to run the engines at full power and accelerate towards the intended destination until the propellant tanks are empty. It shortens the trip while reducing the time spent outside of the protection of more densely occupied space. As mentioned in Part I, each meter per second gained in deltaV forces the pirate ship to match it two or four-fold. Even small gains can help outrun a pirate ship due to the exponential nature of deltaV increases. 

Although, shooting yourself towards a densely populated area of space is only viable if the traffic control authority doesn't decide to mark you as a threat to be destroyed to prevent a collision, and if a friend/insurance company/hired help is in place to catch your spaceship and slow it down. If spaceships are cheap and deltaV expensive, only the crew might be recovered instead. 

In some cases, the commercial craft's destination is not accepting of multi-ton projectiles hurtling its way, or the pirates attack from a position in between the merchant crew and the destination. Accelerating along the same trajectory is not advisable. Instead, the merchant ship is better off accelerating directly away from the pirates. 

This both increases the deltaV the pirate ship needs to expend to catch the commercial crew, and increases the duration of the chase. The pirates might be hesitant to reveal themselves by leaving the cover of noisy and cluttered space and cut their chances of escape by prolonging the intercept... and might abandon their attack entirely!

The downside to this approach is that if the merchant crew faces a determined pirate crew, they might find themselves barrelling along a trajectory that takes them away from the assistance they need, straight into cold depths of deep space with only irritated pirates for company. 

Running away is not always an option.
Sometimes, pirates perform a perfect intercept that does not leave their target any chance of escape. Other time, they might attack very near the merchant ship's destination, right at the end of the braking burn when propellant tanks are nearly empty. What to do then?

Anti-pirate tactics - Charging:

One way to confront your problems is to charge straight at them.

This is the tactic employed by the Xinglong in The Expanse.
Unless the pirates plan to shoot first and have no qualms about damaging their target, they need to perform an intercept. This involves matching trajectories with a commercial ship and slowing down to a low relative velocity.

So, to prevent an intercept, the commercial ship needs to prevent the relative velocity from ever dropping too low. 

'Too low' depends on how the pirate attack is conducted. For example, the pirate ship might deploy drones that latch onto the commercial ship and either hack into the navigation systems or a plant a bomb. The drones would have a capacity for a few hundred meters per second of deltaV. If the relative velocity between the pirates and their target is greater than this amount of deltaV, the drones cannot be used. 

The simplest way to charge is to point the spaceship at the enemy and run the engines at full power. The crew can throw some equipment overboard at the right moment to hit the pirate ship with, or even equip a maneuverable EVA thruster pack with perhaps a segment of hull plating to make an impromptu guided missile. They could also turn their ship around close to the pirate ship and run their engines to devastating effect. 

If the pirates heavily rely on stealth tactics, their spaceship might incur a heavy performance penalty. A commercial craft unburdened by non-reflective hulls, tons of cryogenic heat sink and massive expansion nozzles would have the advantage in acceleration and be able to charge its way out of any intercept. A 'surprise gift' could also be dropped into the path of the pirates during the fly-by...

Anti-pirate tactics - Dumping, Self-sabotage and Anti-Ransom Tactics:

What if the commercial ship is an economical transport craft with minimal acceleration, caught in an unavoidable intercept with a pirate ship far from help?

The previous two tactics of running away and avoiding an intercept won't work. How then can pirate attacks be avoided?

A final option can be considered: reducing the value of the pirates' target. 

If it is the cargo that the pirates are after, break it, salt it with radioactive contaminants, burn it and then throw it overboard. If it is the spaceship the pirates want, punch holes in the propellant tanks, cut the coolant pipes, wipe the computers and spin it up until the maneuvering thrusters run empty. If the pirates are going for a ransom attempt, have the shipping company declare up-front that it won't pay out any ransoms and all negotiations will have to go through government channels. 

Merchant crews might be able to afford such tactics if they are covered by an insurance policy. It would be worthwhile even at a loss if the alternative is submitting to pirates known to abuse or murder their victims, or if the alternative is putting a much greater number of people in a space station or colony at risk. 

Anti-pirate tactics - Weapons:

One way to protect commercial spacecraft from pirates, is to arm them.

Most of the space game industry is based around the concept of independent, armed merchants. 
Logically, a pirate ship would hesitate to attack a target that reveals itself to be armed to the teeth. In fact, a merchant crew that obtains its weaponry through legal channels could be even better equipped than pirates that must go through illegal methods. Each pirate attack becomes a battle between warships, with the victor going home in one piece and maybe even salvaging some equipment to further improve their ship's offensive and defensive capacity.

Of course, this would lead to an arms race. If the merchants start equipping their ships with guns, the pirates will cover their hull in armor. If 100kW lasers appear, someone will want a 1MW laser of greater range, and so on. It can quickly lead to private little wars between fleets of pirates riding advanced warships, facing corporate fleets over control of commercial traffic. 

This is terribly exciting from a narrative perspective... but how realistic is it?

Armed merchantmen have existed in the modern era.
That same logic that arms commercial ships does apply to modern-day scenarios. Why are the merchant ships of our seas not covered in armor and equipped with guns and cannons? After all, we have pirates and a set of machine guns affixed to a cargo container can solve a lot of problems!

The answer is... insurance.

Shipping insurance is one of the oldest protections established against the loss of a vessel or crew, with examples recorded back in the time of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. It is a mainstay of modern shipping and significantly impacts whether a trade route is profitable.

The concept is simple. The insurer calculates the value at risk in shipping, which is the amount of money that has to be paid out in case harm befalls the ship, its crew or its cargo. It then multiplies this value by the probability of having to pay out this amount, divides the value obtained by the number of customers and creates an insurance rate. The customer in turn buys this protection for a fraction of the cost of having to replace, repair or indemnify the assets at risk, and is guaranteed not to lose anything if something bad happens. 

ToughSF focuses on Science Fiction, so we won't get into the financial theory behind insurance, but it is important to note that the prices paid by a shipping company are lowest when there is a large number of insurees making frequent trips, all freely sharing information to give an accurate picture of the risks involved. 

Piracy lowers the number of insurees and increases the risk of a trip going wrong. It forces companies to hide information that could benefit pirates, thereby causing difficulties to insurance companies' ability to evaluate that risk and give a fair assessment of the probabilities. Attacks on shipping companies means that insurance companies have to cover the cost of multiple pay-outs over a smaller number of customers.

In the real world, insurers believe that arming ships worsens the situation. Instead of occasionally paying a ransom for a captured crew, they believe they will have to pay for crew members mishandling weapons and injuring themselves or damaging the ship. In the worst case, the entire multi-billion ship could be sunk... or the weapons falling into the hands of the pirates. Between the increased insurance premiums, the cost of arming the transport ships, the burden of weapons-training sailors and the legal hassles of bringing weapons into busy ports and sea lanes, shipping companies have dismissed the idea. 

But, this has not always been the case.

Most pirate ships used to be civilian craft fitted with guns.
During the Age of Sail, merchant ships were regularly armed. Pirates could appear from seemingly anywhere, and sailors fought off their aggressors, because they could not rely on the promise of a ransom negotiation to keep themselves unharmed. Rescue was weeks to months away, and the regulations governing armed ships were lax or unenforceable. Periods where naval powers were weak or governments caught up in distracting problems were known as the Golden Age of Piracy!
It is therefore not too hard to imagine a science fiction scenario where transport companies arm their ships to fend off pirates. It might turn out to be cheaper than paying insurance premiums and writing off ships attacked in transit as invariably lost. If interplanetary commerce is very valuable, port authorities might be accepting of de-facto warships handling trade. Couple this with weak governments and space fleets engaged elsewhere, and you could create the traditional sci-fi setting where players take on the role of armed merchants, such as in Elite Dangerous or Eve Online.

Government anti-piracy measures:

The primary defense against piracy today is warships patrolling dangerous waters. If suspicious ships are detected, they are halted and boarded for inspection. If a distress call is heard, they rush in to help. They are the reason why pirates must sneak to their target, act quickly and sometimes abandon a target.

It's the police!
In the future, it might not be very different.

Military spacecraft can rush to the aid of a transport ship under attack. Long-ranged weapons such as lasers can allow them to attack pirates without having to intercept them. Advanced propulsion that is not available to civilians and difficult to obtain by pirates gives them an edge in maneuverability, enough to catch some ships even from unfavourable starting positions. 

Of course, the best course of action is not to have to respond to attacks, but to prevent them from happening at all.

The Space Patrol inspired the Atomic Rockets website.
Patrols can keep military ships close to the regions where pirates are active. It can dissuade pirates from attacking at all by threatening to respond quickly and decisively. Judicious use of inspections, traffic control and radar locks keeps the rest in line. 

Other measures can be implemented to reduce the chance of piracy happening at all.

As mentioned before, a pirate's ability to arrive unexpectedly and escape sensors is critical. Military-grade sensors can be deployed to counter-act this ability. Stealth against passive detection is doable, but hiding from active sensors that pump out megawatts of radio, microwave and laser power is much more difficult. These sensors could have been developed to locate enemy Hydrogen Steamer-like warships, so would be well suited to uncovering criminal activity using the same tactics and technology.

Installations can be put into place to work against piracy as well. For example, a laser launch system can be diverted to shoot down pirates. Missiles can be placed long trade routes, set to launch autonomously - this cuts down the military response delay down to zero. 

Space convoy.
Convoys could be further encouraged by providing military escorts to groups of transport craft above a certain number of tonnage. It is an efficient use of military resources as it drastically lowers the volume of space a warship must inspect and protect to a small bubble around the convoy. 

The most proactive anti-piracy tactic is a pirate-hunting operation. Government task military ships with finding, following and destroying pirate groups wherever they may be. With stealth ships of their own, they can lie in wait to catch pirates entering or leaving areas known for their presence. This is very similar to the Hunter-Killer role of submarines today. They can go a step further, and search for the pirates' base of operation or staging area. 

The major challenge preventing the perfect implementation of all these measures is usually their cost. It takes a lot of resources to build capable warships, and keeping them operational around the clock is a drain on military budgets. Huge sensor and weapon networks to protect trade routes are only a viable option if the taxes generated from the trading offsets their cost. 

Lower cost options sometimes have to considered, especially for the less frequented routes and trade hubs. This is where private contractors come into play.

A civilian company can be contracted to escort a convoy, patrol an area or intercept a pirate ship. 

These 'paramilitary' forces are much cheaper to operate than an actual military, as they provide their own training, weapons and ships. They are more numerous than any military force, and can be recruited locally, right next to where they are needed. Historically, there have been cases of pirates redeemed by becoming mercenaries that hunt down their comrades, notably the 1718 King's Pardon.

Anti-anti-pirate tactics 

Pirates don't go down quietly. They will employ tactics that reduce the effectiveness of the measures mentioned above, or even counter them completely. Most rely on pirates either growing to the point where multiple teams can be deployed simultaneously, or if they can coordinate their actions for mutual benefit. 

Evading detection isn't always a solo endeavour.

From the Expanse.
Pirates can deploy sensor platforms with the sole purpose of locating other sensors used by governments to track the positions of spaceships. They can be stealthy or overt depending on the illegality of recording those positions, or created by hacking and diverting existing sensors. 

It doesn't even have to be a criminal endeavour. Modern day amateur astronomers frequently challenge themselves to use their back-yard telescopes to spot and track military satellites passing overhead. This is how the X-37B's testing was uncovered.

These 'hobbyists' can sell the information they gather to interested parties with little to tie them to the pirate activities that rely on that information.

Knowing the location of the sensors allows the pirates to widen their repertoire of tactics to evade detection. They can evade sensors by staying outside of their detection range. They can blind them with multiple lasers covering a broad section of the electromagnetic spectrum. Or, they can simply shoot them in a discrete manner, using stealthed projectiles or a single powerful laser pulse.

A secondary effect of this tactic is that the level of stealth required to sneak up on targets becomes much less strict. Instead of the near-maximal stealth needed to fly under the nose sensors at short ranges, only 'low enough' temperatures are needed as only long-ranged sensors need to be evaded. The pirates might even do without protection against active detection, such as RADAR/LIDAR, since these won't be effective at long ranges either. 

If military forces are deployed to protect civilian shipping in the form of convoys, the pirates can rely on economic realities to keep attacking unprotected targets. Not all transport ships can be protected by military forces, nor all the time.

Governments can only rationally employ a military response proportionate to the problem of piracy, which is generally only a fraction of the entire military capacity. Unless the government is extremely militaristic and on a war footing, the number of civilian ships travelling in space will dwarf the number of warships. For these reasons and others, the protection has to be prioritized to maximize the value of goods secured for the number of warships deployed. 

As a result, shipping towards less frequented ports, or trajectories that see lower volumes of lesser value goods being transported will be less protected than high-volume shipping to profitable destinations. For example, trade between Earth and Mars would be very well protected, but merchant crews travelling between Uranus and Neptune would be on their own.

WWII Atlantic convoys.
More complex relationships between military and pirate forces will arise in such a situation. Military ships might be sent to protect 'easy' targets, while shipping with the reputation for being well protected is instead left exposed, only to fall to opportunistic pirates with good information on the convoys actually being protected. Decoy convoys, diversionary attacks, and other such tactics will develop. 

Pirate hunters will elicit one of two responses from pirates: patience or aggression.
A hidden base.
The patient tactic is to recruit a group of pirates and send them on a stealthy pirate ship for an extended period of time. A strict methodology will be followed to prevent any detection: propellant reserves are refilled by scavenging ice from unoccupied comets and asteroids, repairs are conducted by engineers on-board, spare parts are produced using unmarked 3D printers, and the hull is never allowed to heat up. Remote attacks are preferred. Any loot collected is stored for later sale. 

The critical moment is the crew's return to 'public' life. The pirate ship can rendezvous with a civilian vessel and transfer the crew onboard, then propel itself to a hidden location autonomously until the next time it is needed. The civilian vessel then needs to enter a space station that does not track the appearance or disappearance of its population. Even if it must do so for technical reasons, it might have a policy of not disclosing this information to the authorities. A government that imposes a law that requires updates of all its citizens' movements is... authoritarian at best, after all. 
The Donnager battleship from The Expanse under attack by non-military forces.
The aggressive response is the formation of anti-pirate-hunting-hunters. The concept is simple. Several pirates ships group together into criminal fleets and wait for a pirate attack elsewhere to catch the attention of a pirate hunter group. Once the pirate hunters start the chase, they reveal their nature and positions - prompting the anti-pirate-hunting-hunters to set off into space on their trail. Ideally, the latter will be able to field a large enough force on enough occasions to destroy the former, causing the pirate hunters to be more cautious and as a result, less effective at stopping piracy.

Conclusion and worldbuilding

If you want to build a realistic world in which piracy takes place, you simply need to consider the elements and factors described so far that make piracy not only practically possible, but also likely. These might include stealth systems, corrupt officials, independent space stations and a limited military, but the specific depend on the setting. 
A pirate fleet!
It is not enough to describe a single set of facilitating factors though. A good worldbuilder would also consider the fact that piracy is not a static situation. 

In periods of prosperity, piracy will grow and grow as corporations gorged on recent profits become willing to pay any ransom so long as their employees get back to work as soon as possible. 

However, the same sums of money that can be leveraged into ransoms also flow into government coffers and allow them to pay for military forces to grow in size and step up anti-piracy operations until it becomes much less prevalent.

Then, as piracy becomes negligible, the rationale of spending huge amounts of money on anti-piracy operations with only a handful of 'catches' will come under criticism - it will be scaled back, especially in times of economic crisis, which once again opens the door for pirates to resume their activities.

Changes in technology will also affect piracy, such as the effectiveness of sensors or the cost of travel. Additionally, politics and policy will play a great role in how piracy is viewed and treated. Pirates might be, for example, a rebel group escaping the tyranny of an oppressive government, or rogue traders that use sometimes use their armed merchant ships to defend themselves from attackers... or take on the role of the aggressor when they believe they can get away with it...

In conclusion, Pirates in Space are not necessarily 'soft' science fiction. They are Possible if you take the time to work out the requirements and logical consequences, which is a process at the core of any worldbuilding attempt. In this case, it can be used to re-create a 'hard' science fiction version of one of the most exciting and beloved tropes of Space Opera. 


  1. For the last resorts against piracy, while no-ransom policy may discourage some pirates, I doubt that salt-and-dump or self-sabotage may backfire horribly

    If the target is the cargo and the commercial ship crew salt-and-dump it, the pirate may destroy the ship out of anger, this can be a lesson of "being uncooperative" for other ones.

    For self-sabotage, if the pirate has more than one ship, they may destroy the target with Ship A, then Ship B comes in and claim the target ship as salvage.

    Not an intact ship, but they still get something away from the crime scene, it is still a gain.

    1. Hi Felix!

      The trick is to ruin the cargo before the pirates perform the intercept maneuver. If they see the target is worthless, they might save the time and propellant and just fly on instead of risking being caught by the authorities...

      But if pirates start killing crews out of spite, even without a prize to gain, then the transport companies will instruct their crews to dump their cargo intact while military response is stepped up.

      The self-sabotage involves making the components of the ship itself not worth salvaging. A nuclear reactor with all the control rods broken, coolant pipes molten and covered in the radioactive remains of the fissile core as it melted its way out of the nozzle isn't worth much. Same goes for fried electronics, cracked mirrors, holed hulls and so on....

    2. Self-sabotage is a good way to deter pirates if the ship is unmanned and powered by fission. There is nothing to worry when pirates are salvaging a solar-powered/beam-powered ship. Fusion ships have no radioactive waste to foul the everything and give the pirate a big middle finger.

      I think both salt-and-dump and self-sabotage give additional risk to the crew (if the targeted ship is a manned ship). Pirates are no law-abiding citizen (at least when they are doing business in the void), no one can be sure that the incoming pirates are more or less following their honor system. Even though I believe that there may be some kind of orders or "unwritten laws" among them. Breaking the rules for too many times may raise some eyebrows if all these rule-breaking threaten everyone's business, at worst, there may be war between pirates.

      Also, if the orbital cleaning and salvaging is maintained by the private sector not governmental organizations, there may be still some chances that pirates can pose them as salvaging crew. Then no matter they shot down the target or simply robbed the goods, they still win.

      No one would allow the trajectory or space near the port littered with self-sabotaged ships.

    3. Well, there are still options if no nuclear technology is being used. Tearing the concentrator foils and breaking the internal focusing optics for a solar-thermal rocket would make it pretty useless. Fusion ships can be induced to melt their critical components into a useless slag.

      The honor system is a general reputation/rumor mill sort of thing that gets spread in space ports and between crews. Pirates can self-discipline against the excesses of their 'community' and spread the word that justice has been done. Or, they can play a double game and whip up fear over a handful of murderous pirates to corral crews into paying for a protection scheme.... when it comes to human interactions, the depth and complexity possible is endless.

      Good point in the proximity of ports changing the risks being taken by a crew sabotaging their propulsive ability... they might end up being shot down by the port authorities they were relying on to save them instead!

    4. Hmmmmm...the reason I point out the sabotaged ships near the port is that they can be a threat to anyone on the trajectory or using the port. And someone must clean it up, not because the possible response from port authority.

      Though I like this possible ironic outcome, giving a big middle finger to pirates, yet the port authority arrest the crew for...disruption of space traffic?

      The sabotaged ships can still be towed away, broken down and recycled into materials, even it may take more efforts, right?

      If the pirates are organized enough to set up front companies covering their criminal activities and have raid teams and salvage teams separately, even the target ship is self-sabotaged by the crew and raid teams got nothing, the separate salvage teams may tow the self-sabotaged ship back to port, perhaps still earning some profit.

    5. I think the crew would be glad to be arrested! That means they spend the night in jail, not splattered against a Whipple Shield or floating as tiny particles vaporized by a space station's anti-asteroid laser...

      The sabotaged ship might actually be authorities' problem to handle, from recovery to scrapping. This is because the crew and by extension the transport company is taking upon itself a strict loss (the ship and the goods have to be written off) for the benefit of the entire community (making piracy less profitable), and this is the sort of scheme that governments must incentivize to keep going.

      A non-altruistic company would just negotiate a ransom payment and get on with its business, inadvertently making piracy safer and more profitable!

    6. Then, port authority must be very busy.

      Also, if the maximum penalty for disrupting space traffic is very heavy (other than killed by defensive lasers or Whipple Shields), I think that self-sabotage wouldn't be included as anti-pirate measures, at least as a written one or a strongly discouraged one.

  2. Great work! My question is, how would piracy and crime compare in the future where there will be more material and cargo to go around? Assuming that technology steadily progresses and humanity reaches stage 2 on the kardeshev scale, would theft continue to remain a valid strategy as it is now owing to the copious amounts of good being transported and the potential reward if stolen, or would it fall behind as the sheer industrial capacity of dedicated infrastructure comes closer and closer to being able to provide 24/7 surveillance of ever cubic kilometer of space?

    1. It will depend on the relationship between the value of the goods and the cost of the pirate operation.

      Pirates acting as thieves basically handle the final step of the production chain (delivering the goods to the market) while saving in the cost of actually producing the good.

      If the cost of transport is much greater than the value of the goods, such as water from Saturn being delivered to a metallic asteroid outpost running dry, then pirates have nothing to gain. If the stolen goods are very valuable, such as palladium, then they are worth carrying from one end of the Solar System to the other.

      In a kardashev 2 scale civilization, energy is abundant and cheap. As a result, propulsion and therefore transportation is the smallest cost in producing and delivering a product. Therefore, piracy will be even more attractive!

      Also, as surveillance technology advances, there will be equal effort being made into devising new techniques or methods for evading surveillance.

  3. Since much real world piracy was (and is) done by short range ships close to shore, maybe it is worth looking at an analogue to that. After all, a "Stealth" ship would, in our terms, be similar to getting a nuclear submarine. The likelihood of pirates or any group of her do wells getting their hands on an operational SSN (much less being able to run it) is pretty low.

    Sailing out in a small ketch (in the 1700's) or a speedboat (today) is realistic because small craft are far more common, and far more people know how to use them. So we should be looking for pirates in planetary orbits, around small moons and lurking in the rings of Saturn, not cruising through deep space. Saturn would actually be a great place to set a prate story, given the multitude of "islands" to hide among (the rings and multitude of moons), and the heavy industrial activity (mining the moons for ice. Titan for nitrogen and hydrocarbons and potentially antimatter harvesters gathering antiprotons in Saturn's magnetosphere), providing lots of lucrative targets.

    Small spacecraft darting out suddenly to intercept tankers or industrial machinery being transported from moon to moon is the image we should have in mind, and don't forget many pirates often landed shore parties to raid cities along the "Spanish Main" during the hight of that period, so grounding beside a robot ice extractor and seizing it for ransom, while maybe not so exciting (no maidens for the police or coast guard to rescue), will certainly be an effective tactic.

    One other quasi piratical activity would be surface raiding. During WWI, the SMS Emden sailed from the then German port of Tsingtao, China into the Indian ocean. Her primary mission was to raid surface targets and ships, both to disrupt Allied activities but also to draw Allied naval forces away from Von Spee as he attempted to sail the East Asia Squadron around South America and back to Germany. Captain von Muller led everyone on a merry chase for about two months before he was finally trapped, but during that time he successfully disrupted Allied operations and Emden had destroyed two Entente warships and sank or captured sixteen British steamers and one Russian merchant ship, totaling 70,825 gross register tons.

    The last way to more easily get pirate ships is for governments to issue Letters of Marque and Reprisal, essentially hiring private contractors to harry enemy shipping. Queen Elizabeth I pioneered this in the modern age, and Captain Henry Morgan worked for the Crown both as a pirate, and then later, when auxiliary forces were no longer needed, as Governor to suppress pirates who refused to disband and continued with piracy.

    1. Yes, you've got plenty of good ideas. Saturn would make a perfect 'Pirate Bay' for criminal activity to take place. Playing the hiding game in cis-lunar space would be akin to drug runners driving their boats up New York harbor!

      Commerce raiding does certainly have many of the traits of piracy, but it is not a criminal activity and it must follow both international rules of war, and the laws of the country it is working for. So, a pirate might not care about killing victims out of spite, but a captain would be harshly punished for doing so. Also, pirates can steal, ransom and personally benefit from their activities in ways that are not available to a captain beholden to various laws.

      I did mention Letters of Marque, and the prospect of paramilitary crews hunting down pirates clearly blurs the lines and makes for more interesting story material!

  4. I'm not sure how professional piracy would be viable in a near future setting since there's nowhere to hide if its confined to the Solar System. A hidden base would cost a lot to build and can eventually be found and easily destroyed and/or conquered by national space militaries.

    Perhaps piracy under the guise of corporate espionage or sabotage (such as a rival insurance firm hires pirates to increase the cost of insurance for another to drive it bankrupt), but these pirates would have to be part-time, imo, and disguised as legit interests for an ad hoc operation.

    A far future setting with FTL and hundreds of worlds to hide in would be a better time for a new age of piracy I would think.

    1. Well, authorities can only be destroyed if the military has the authority to do so. If, a Mars patrol ship finds a hidden base in Saturn's ice rings, it might not be allowed to just shoot it. An analogy would be a US Satellite locating a secret Chinese base. Can it just send a destroyer to fire missiles at it? Unlikely. Upsetting the international status-quo might not be worth rooting out a possibly criminal base of operations.

      A hidden base might also be as simple as an ISRU station with a 3D printer making commonly worn out spare parts with none of the life support and habitation facilities with might make it as costly as any regular space station.

  5. The normal tropes of piracy on the high seas might be less applicable in the space setting. Given the long distances and low concentration of people, same piracy might resemble cattle rustling or claim jumping more than the traditional idea of taking a ship on the high seas.

    Since water and volatiles for life support are likely to be the highest value items available, landing on an unmanned asteroid or an isolated section of a moon to drain a Kuck Mosquito may be the easiest and safest course of action for a pirate crew. Company security, the police and the military are likely far away, and military forces in particular won't likely intervene unless they are directly threatened, or part of a protective force much like the multinational flotilla off East Africa.

    For the pirate, low risk, high payoff targets like that provide the life support elements needed, plus the machinery can be disassembled to provide spare parts. If the common small spaceship is based on the Spacecoach design (, then a hard pressed crew might be tempted to get around a financial emergency by doing a bit of unauthorized water collection.

    This also solves another question: where are pirates getting their ships? Unlike the movies, pirates traditionally used small coastal vessels and fishing boats close to the shore in order to slip out and attack unwary merchantmen close to shore (larger vessels going after treasure ships on the high sea were often operating under Letters of Marque, so the motivations, as well as the Captain and crew were operating under a different dynamic). Space coaches are relatively simple and cheap, and large numbers of trained crewmen will eventually be available to provide a pool of sailors to draw upon. If economic times are tough, replenishing the water supply for "free" will be a strong temptation, and the starting point for pirates to emerge from.

    1. Piracy will happen where it is easiest to commit.

      'Shoreline' piracy, which in this case would be attacks on transport craft that have completed an insertion burn and are approaching a spaceport at lower velocity, would grant the attackers a massive deltaV advantage. However, this has to be balanced against the higher chance of being inspected or intercepted by the authorities.

      I contest the fact that water and volatiles will be precious in space by the simple fact that any space settlement will sit on top of mountains of ice to start off with, and any interplanetary trade that has enough of a margin to feed pirates necessarily implies relatively fast and cheap propulsion, which in turn means that no spaceship is very far from another mountain of ice. Therefore, 'unauthorized water collection' will be more like 'illegal theft of rocks'.

      You touch on an important question with how pirates acquire their spaceships. It will depend heavily on the specifics of the setting. It can be a civilian craft with additional propellant drop-tanks and the transponder turned off for the duration of the attack... or a remote-controlled drone 3D printed out of a hidden base carved into an unclaimed asteroid. Some of the methods of attack I described in Part I hinge on having a radio and a projectile in the right place at the right time, which doesn't require much 'spaceship' to be present.

  6. Water and volatiles are valuable because they are so critical for life support. The people sitting on a mountain of ice may be getting it for pennies a litre, but for the hard pressed rock rat mining an asteroid, they could be paying arms and legs for the same water delivered to them. Sure they could potentially mine their own water on an unclaimed asteroid, but they would also have to do all the filtration and other processing (I imagine it would actually be more like brine when first melted out), or you might have to chemically process it or "bake" it out of rocks and minerals. This may require more energy or equipment than they might have available. Draining the bladder of someone else's Kuck Mosquito may be a very attractive alternative.

    And of course there is always the sort of people who still balk at pennies a litre if they can get it for free.......

    1. This does ring true - I agree, on barren asteroids, water is valuable, and valuables are what pirates target.

      They might even wrap themselves in the Robin Hood narrative as fighters-for-the-people that steal water to give it back to the community that needs it, instead of it being leveraged for an unethical buck by whatever company paid for the water extraction and processing units to be sent to the asteroid in the first place...

    2. Funny that, it's how the Italian Mafia is supposed to have started, "distributing" water to remote places - along with the thin, hypocritical veneer of "doing it for the People" disguising a water racket.

  7. Considering anti-piracy weaponry...

    //This is terribly exciting from a narrative perspective... but how realistic is it?//

    No, it fairly realistic. Basically it was how the actual "western" sea piracy ended - with the advent of carronade.

    Before Carron designed his short-barreled gun with heavy shots, active defense wasn't very cost-effective for merchant ships. Light cannons simply haven't got enough power to keep pirate away, and heavy cannons were, well, heavy. They took a lot of space & weight which might be used by cargo. Large merchant ships - like "indiamens" - could carry enough weaponry to not only took out pirates but also stand against a warship, but most of small merchants ships could not.

    Then the arm race created the carronade - short-barreled lightweight gun with heavy shot for fighting on small distances - and situation changed. They were light enough and cheap enough that even relatively small merchants could carry a battery of them. And they gave the merchants salvo powerfull enough, to inflict REAL damage on any pirate, trying to get close.

    Basically, the carronades gave the pirates two bad options:

    * Try to close in with target for boarding attack - and risk to be pummeled into wreck by deadly short-range boardsides.

    * Stay off hte carronade range and wreck the target with long guns - not very effective, required high-level gunnery, resource-consuming, and, most importantly - the target must be wrecked hard before it could be boarded. So, no profit.

    What I m trying to say, is that arm race is potentially deadly for pirates. After all, their main idea is NOT to wreck both their own & target ship in duel - this would be no profit scenario at best.

    1. Hi fonzeppelin!

      Historical events and past technological developments are an excellent source of inspiration for science fiction, but some analogies break down if we copy them over too exactly into futuristic settings.

      First of all, I detailed all the ways in which pirates could conduct attacks on their victims without ever getting close or boarding other spaceships.

      Second, the ranges of weapons that can be deployed by the pirates do not correlate with their accuracy. A laser, for example, can be used nearly surgically to cut off radiators, crack nozzles and disable sensors, leaving the target blind and immobile.

      Third, pirates can communicate clearly with the merchant crew and even negotiate with the parent company in ways that would revolutionize piracy even if we ignore technological differences. This allows for deals to be struck and halfway-measures to be taken.

  8. Speaking as the guy who's written three novels about Pirates of Mars, a few general thoughts about this series.

    1) You assume that nations are spending money tracking every ship in the solar system. I'm not sure I agree that they will. At mid-future speeds (from VASIMR or similar systems) a spaceship is not a threat to Earth. The ship will just break up in the atmosphere. You also use the analogy of air traffic control. Even today, there is no radar coverage over the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans. ATC is accomplished by craft self-reporting their position and speed. So, if you're willing to deviate from your assigned course, you can go a-pirating. Also, because these tracks are publicly known, one can easily determine where particular plane will be.

    2) I also think you're forgetting soft stealth. Simply put, how do you tell a legitimate merchant vessel from a pirate? Well, unless the pirate runs up a black flag, you don't. Weapons can be hidden in cargo containers or other innocuous protrusions, to be revealed when needed.

    Given point #1 and #2, the easy way to be a pirate is to get a merchant ship, descreetly arm it, and sit at one point of the traffic scheme (say Earth) and then start heading towards the other target (say Mars). There should be other ships traveling the same direction at similar times and speeds, so by relatively low changes in delta V, you can either catch up with or slow down to intercept desired targets. If radar is not watching them (or the targets are being tracked by an onboard system that sends data like an IFF does for an aircraft) a well-timed attack will merely be a ship disappearing.

    In a self-reporting scenario such as above, one could file "ghost" flight plans for multiple ships, capture ships mid-transit, paint a new name on them, and when the captured ship arrives at the other port she appears to be completing the flight of the "ghost" vessel.

    1. Welcome to the blog, Chris.
      I'll have a look at your work.

      The issue I'd have with nations *not* tracking every spaceship in the Solar System is that it is very easy to do so, especially if you sacrifice resolution. Spaceships are bright dots that can be seen from dozens of astronomical units even when coasting.

      Even if a single nation maybe finds the number of spaceships too high to keep track of, it can rely on a shared authority that collates information through the different volumes of space.

      While spaceships might not threaten Earth's surface, they will pose a threat to everything else. Space stations, other spacecraft, bases on airless moons, bases on planets with a thin atmosphere, lifters accelerating through the upper atmosphere... and so on.

      The reason that airplanes are not tracked across the Atlantic by radar stations is due to the horizon limits on line of sight, and the cost of installing radar stations on the ocean's surface every 20km or so under all likely flight paths.

      In space, a constellation of three satellites in low orbit can give you a coverage of the entire Solar System out to Pluto, updated every hour. Resolution will be terrible (spacecraft will be located +/- a million km or worse) but it will tell you when a spaceship is heading towards your orbital assets outside of its declared trajectory.

      Soft stealth is not excluded, I agree. However, it is squarely in the hands of the author. The author can decide whether this or that ship is being confused or passing off as something else. No scientific theory or mathematical calculation, which this blog handles, can tell that author that it is or is not possible. I did mention however that if the pirate crew is the only hostile party in play, then it will have a problem trying to escape after conducting an attack under the eyes of everyone's satellites and sensor platforms. It could have been confused for a merchant ship up to the attack, but there is no doubt afterwards.

      The tactic you mentioned implicitly assumes that merchant ships are so numerous, and their tracking so vague, that one of them changing destination is not immediately noticed.

      And, there is the point of view of the potential victims. By default, they will have radar that tracks debris and meteorites, IR sensors to position themselves relative to other spaceships to prevent accidents, and high resolution sensors for use in space station or ground approach and docking procedures.

      They will notice a spaceship approaching towards them, because unless it has stealth features, it will be much brighter and more visible than the debris they are equipped to avoid.

      They will hail it to demand that it stays away. They will sound the alarm if it continues approaching. They will call for help when it refuses to do so. It might even be an automated procedure coded into the spaceship's computer to prevent complacent crews from taking too much of a risk when flying...

      This is not to say that settings where self-reporting is the norm, with each space station being an island that has to detect and track everything else on its own, are impossible. The Expanse plays in this setting for example, and you could have settings where propulsion systems are so performant and travel times so low that the tracking burden becomes unreasonable.... but these are not scenarios that any rational person would want.