Does LRAD Work?

March 25, 2008

I’ll put aside the issue of whether or not wise decisions were made when heavily armed military personnel aboard the Global Patriot, a civilian vessel chartered by the US department of defens(c)e sent a boatload of Egyptian cigarette vendors to paradise on the approach to the Suez canal. What it does call into question is the effectiveness of Long Range Acoustic Devices and the wisdom of arming seafarers to fight off pirates.

On 12th October 2000 a small boat manned by suicide bombers approached the USS Cole in Aden and exploded. Some 17 US sailors were killed many others injured, and the USS Cole was badly damaged. One can, therefore, understand the nervousness of the men aboard the Global Patriot and their quickness on the trigger.

The US Navy press release on the incident can be found here.

There were two options, to simply blow away anyone who got within a certain range, on the assumption that they must be terrorists, rather than over-eager vendors trying to earn a few bucks, or developing a non-fatal alternative that would deter attackers. Since shoot ’em first and let God sort ’em out doesn’t play well these days, the Long Range Acoustic Device, LRAD, was developed.

In theory, the LRAD sends out a concentrated beam of ear-popping sound painful enough to burst eardrums and deter attackers. A popular version is sold by American Technology Corporation .

So far, there has been only one reported successful use of this device, when the cruise ship Seabourn Spirit was attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. However, a close reading of reports of the event must necessarily raise the question of whether it was the spirited defence of the ship by its security officer Michael Graves and his colleague Som Bahadur Gurung, which included high pressure hose and aggressive maneouvres by the master. Michael Graves suffered permanent hearing damage. Grave and Gurung deservedly were awarded the Queens Gallantry Medal and Commendation for Bravery.

LRADs were designed to be used in precisely the situation that the Global Patriot found itself in. The ship was under charter from the US Department of Defense, it seems unlikely that was equipped with anything other than most effective means of deterrent. It was, moreover, in friendly territory which yet offered the maximum opportunity for diplomatic embarrassment.

LRADs are expensive pieces of kit and are being sold to civilian vessels, as the Seabourn Spirit incident indicates, but do they actually work as a deterrent? Or was LRAD not used because of the evident dangers to its operator?

There have been frequent suggestions that seafarers should be given firearms to fight off pirates. If the well-trained forces aboard the Global Patriot can make such a massive misjudgement, then how many more people might get blown away by less well-trained seafarers?