October 30, 2020

Gen Z Conservative

The thoughts of a young conservative on political issues relevant to all ages

unleash privateers to defeat china

Unleash Privateers to Defeat China in a Future War


I’ll admit, before reading this USNI Proceedings article, I hadn’t really thought much about the idea to unleash privateers to defeat China. I’d heard rumblings of it, mainly surrounding cyber-warfare, but never had I seen a full-length, professionally written article about the concept.

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That changed when, yesterday, I saw an article that caught my eye: “Unleash the Privateers!” Written by Mark Cancian and Brandon Schwarz, it’s an excellent article that presents a novel viewpoint about the future of naval warfare. That viewpoint is that America should unleash privateers to defeat China. Don’t laugh, it’s a more realistic idea than you might think. Perhaps we will one day be in a war with the communists and need to unleash privateers to defeat China. It’s really not that far-fetched.

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Summary of Why America should Unleash Privateers to Defeat China

First, Cancian and Shwarz present the problem currently confronting the US Navy when it plans for a future “hot” war with China and their solution to that problem, which is to unleash privateers to defeat China:

Naval strategists are struggling to find ways to counter a rising Chinese Navy. The easiest and most comfortable course is to ask for more ships and aircraft, but with a defense budget that may have reached its peak, that may not be a viable strategy. Privateering, authorized by letters of marque, could offer a low-cost tool to enhance deterrence in peacetime and gain advantage in wartime. It would attack an asymmetric vulnerability of China, which has a much larger merchant fleet than the United States. Indeed, an attack on Chinese global trade would undermine China’s entire economy and threaten the regime’s stability. Finally, despite pervasive myths to the contrary, U.S. privateering is not prohibited by U.S. or international law.

From: Unleash Privateers to Defeat China!

Then, they go into more of the details of how a policy to unleash privateers to defeat China would work and what the historical background of that policy is. In general, it relates to the privateering policy created by Britain before the American Revolution and by our Congress during it, which allows for private captains to act as pirates against enemy shipping. It is described, to some extent, in both Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and A Struggle for Power:

Privateering is not piracy—there are rules and commissions, called letters of marque, that governments issue to civilians, allowing them to capture or destroy enemy ships.The U.S. Constitution expressly grants Congress the power to issue them (Article I, section 8, clause 11). Captured vessels and goods are called prizes, and prize law is set out in the U.S. Code. In the United States, prize claims are adjudicated by U.S. district courts, with proceeds traditionally paid to the privateers.2 (“Privateer” can refer to the crew of a privateering ship or to the ship itself, which also can be referred to as a letter of marque).

Congress would likely set policy—for example, specifying privateer targets, procedures, and qualifications—then authorize the President to oversee the privateering regime.3 Congress also could indemnify privateers from certain liabilities and curb the potential for abuse and violations of international law through surety bonds and updated regulations on conduct.

Letters of marque could be issued quickly, with privateers on the hunt within weeks of the start of a conflict. By contrast, it would take four years to build a single new combatant for the Navy.

From: Unleash Privateers to Defeat China!

Next, after discussing why the US Navy would have trouble both knocking out the Chinese Navy and hunting down its merchant ships, the authors not the privateering would both solve that problem and strike at China’s economic vulnerability:

China has aggressively expanded its global economic and diplomatic influence through its Belt and Road Initiative, but this expansion creates a vulnerability, as these investments must be protected. Chinese vulnerability goes deeper. China’s economy has doubled in the past 15 years, driven by exports carried in Chinese hulls. Thirty-eight percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) comes from trade, against only 9 percent of U.S. GDP.6 Chinese social stability is built on a trade-off: The Chinese Communist Party has told the people they will not have democratic institutions, but they will receive economic prosperity…

…This asymmetric vulnerability gives the United States a major strategic advantage. The threat privateering poses to the Chinese economy—and hence the Communist Party—could provide the United States with a major wartime advantage

From: Unleash Privateers to Defeat China!

Afterwards, to dispel any notion that this strategy would be impossible for the US to carry out, Cancian and Schwarz note that Private Military Contractors already exist and are quite effective, so we would almost certainly find enough privateers to sit and wait for Chinese ships to capture:

The existing private military industry would doubtless jump at the chance to privateer. Dozens of companies currently provide security services, from the equivalent of mall guards to armed antipiracy contingents on ships. A large pool of potential recruits has shown willingness to work for private contractors. At the height of the Iraq War, for example, the United States employed 20,000 armed contractors in security jobs.

In fact, private security vessels already have been created, demonstrating the concept’s viability. The private security firm Blackwater outfitted an armed patrol craft to defend commercial shipping from Somali pirates.13 At the height of Somali piracy, there were some 2,700 armed contractors on ships and 40 private armed patrol boats operating in the Indian Ocean region.14 

Just as the prospect of prize money induced thousands of seamen to sign on with privateers during the Revolution and the War of 1812, similar inducements—such as the prospect of earning millions of dollars from a single capture—would attract the needed personnel in a future conflict.

From: Unleash Privateers to Defeat China!

Finally, the authors call for people to take their idea seriously because it is a real, time-tested solution for a real problem:

As the strategic situation is new, so must our thinking be new. In wartime, privateers could swarm the oceans and destroy the maritime industry on which China’s economy—and the stability of its regime—depend. The mere threat of such a campaign might strengthen deterrence and thereby prevent a war from happening at all. In strategy, as elsewhere, everything old shall be new again.

From: Unleash Privateers to Defeat China!

Analysis of Why America should Unleash Privateers to Defeat China

Before reading this post, I would have thought the idea of American admirals and politicians deciding to unleash privateers to defeat China would be absurd. We’re the US. We spend an almost unimaginable sum on our armed forces. We don’t need to hire our mercenaries to fight our wars, right?

Wrong. As Cancian and Schwarz note, we simply don’t have enough ships to do so. Even with military technology innovations like lasers for fighter jets, IRBMs for naval vessels, and hypersonic missiles, we still wouldn’t have enough resources. Why?

Because globalization has gutted our shipbuilding industry. There’s yet another item line to add to the costs of globalization. What used to be a thriving industry in America is now a hollow shell of its former self, so we can’t build enough ships fast enough to quickly overpower the Chinese Navy and hunt down their merchant shipping.

If you’ve read books that detail the naval combat in World War II, such as The Two-Ocean War or Inferno, then you’ll know just how many ships are needed for each of those tasks alone (hint: hundreds).

So, upon reflection, it makes sense that America would unleash privateers to defeat China if our new Cold War with them ever turns hot. Like Cancian and Schwarz said, a key Chinese vulnerability is their reliance on maritime trade. They need to import huge quantities of food, resources, and fuel to stay stable, if we could cut them off that would severely damage them. I assumed that would be done with submarines, but, if privateers are more cost-effective, then that seems like a great option too.

Finally, I thought this idea to unleash privateers to defeat China if we find ourselves in a naval conflict with them is an excellent one because it recognizes that private industry is more effective than the government. PMC companies like Blackwater, even if they killed too many civilians, were incredibly effective in the Iraq War.

On the other hand, military units other than the Special Operations units described in Extreme Ownership sometimes performed quite poorly. Unleashing the privateers and PMCs is the same as unleashing the free market; it will likely be effective.


The only thing I would add to the USNI Proceedings article calling for America to unleash privateers to defeat China is that they should also have considered the idea of issuing letters of marque to hackers. America’s technological know-how, especially in the private sector, is absurdly advanced. If we were to find a way to turn that into a decisive military advantage, it would likely prove quite beneficial against China.

The only problem is that few people with the cyber skills to be useful would want to work for the military. Who wants to wear a uniform, get a haircut, and follow orders when you could instead do your own thing and make far more money? Well, some exceptional patriots I suppose, but, frankly, few people.

Instead of conscripting those cyber warriors in the event of war with China, we should offer them the opportunity to become cyber privateers. Hack Chinese banks and take their money. Get a commission for taking down dams and power stations. Etc. It’s a workable idea, it would just require a paradigm shift among US leadership.

And, ultimately, I think that’s what the root of this article about how we can unleash privateers to defeat China is all about. For far too long, the American military has been complacent. As a result, we’ve been fighting and wasting money in the Middle East while China has risen. Now, we’re in a tough spot because the military’s money has not been spent on the things it needs. It needs ships and bombers, not IED-proof trucks.

As a result, we might need to unleash the privateers to defeat China. Hopefully that will work.

By: Gen Z Conservative

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