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Canadian military at work on pirate detector

There are no silver-bullet fixes for the hijacking threat that dogs 22,000 ships each year off Somalia but the Canadian military is trying to build a pirate detector of sorts that boosts the odds of thwarting these maritime marauders.

The research arm of the Department of National Defence - a division with a $300-million budget - has been conducting trials designed to increase early detection of the tiny, high-speed boats used for pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

The waters off Somalia, a failed state where desperation has fuelled the rise of gangs, have seen pirate attacks double to 140 in 2008 over 2007. Projections this summer have estimated that attacks in this crucial global shipping lane could exceed 300 by the end of 2009, despite the international coalition now patrolling there.

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Canada, which deployed the frigate HMCS Winnipeg to anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa earlier this year, is focusing research efforts on the white-water wake created by the speedy pirate craft with their high-powered engines.

This can succeed where conventional radar fails.

Pirates, who frequently attack under the cover of darkness, typically launch assaults against commercial ships using small boats or skiffs with low profiles that elude the sweep of a radar signal.

"These things are made out of fibreglass and wood. How does a radar detect a small fibreglass boat out on the water?" said Lieutenant Alan Garner with the military's Canadian Expeditionary Force Command.

But gear such as night-vision technology and infrared sensors can spot the wake - the track of waves - generated by a boat in the water.

For instance, the white-water wake of a fast boat stands out more prominently than a slower craft when viewed through night-vision gear.

The holy grail of detection, however, is to figure out a rapid method of separating the high-horsepower "wake signature" of a pirate crew from the less turbulent path of a Somali fisherman's boat.

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Defence Research and Development Canada, which conducted trials in May using three small boats, is trying to develop algorithms and codes that will help the military to quickly spot and categorize craft by their wake signatures.

It's a technology that can be useful to guard against a variety of attacks today, including terrorism, where small foes try to outwit larger opponents.

"In the current climate of asymmetric warfare and piracy, the capacity to detect potentially hostile small sea boat[s]is increasing important," Defence Research and Development Canada says in a new contract it's tendered to advance this work.

Commander James Kraska, a professor of international law at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., says the technology under development would be a great tool for intercepting bandit ships.

Identifying the wake of a high-powered pirate skiff could help forces predict where the boat was heading and its intended target, he said. It could also enable soldiers to backtrack and find the "mother ship" from which pirates always launch their smaller assault craft.

Any advance knowledge of an attack can also help potential targets evade capture, Cdr. Kraska said. If forewarned, the intended targets can increase their speed, leaving the pirates and their skiffs unable to catch up - or carry out evasive manoeuvres that generate waves and swamp the attackers.

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This spring, Canada's HMCS Winnipeg frigate thwarted a string of pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia. It managed to capture some of the bandits, but the military was forced to release them because Canada can't take them into custody under international law. The Canadian ship has been en route home and due to dock in Victoria Friday.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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