Home / Robert Farley / So You Want to Steal a Frigate?

So You Want to Steal a Frigate?


In my latest at the Diplomat, I work through some of the details of the script of Ocean’s 14: Danny Joins Al Qaeda:

Ships are hard to steal in real life, but we do have a few examples. The crews of two Brazilian dreadnoughts mutinied in 1910, threatening to turn their guns on Rio De Janiero before giving up. In 1931 the Chilean Navy mutinied, with crews seizing ships and dockyard areas for about a week. Also in 1931, the Invergordon Mutiny briefly took control of four Royal Navy battleships. The Russian Navy, of course, suffered several mutinies in the early twentieth century.

Fictional thefts have enjoyed more success. In The Hunt for Red October, a small cadre of treasonous officers manages to steal a nuclear ballistic missile submarine. In Crimson Tide, the act is repeated under somewhat different circumstances.  In Under Siege and again in Battleship, small groups with inside knowledge manage to steal the USS Missouri.  In Star Trek III (oddly, probably the plot most similar to that of the Pakistani effort), a group of five officers orchestrates the theft of a Federation starship.

And so people have imagined stealing ships, and people have successfully stolen ships.  With this in mind, how outlandish was the Al Qaeda plot to seize a Pakistani frigate and use it to attack U.S. warships? How hard is it to steal, and operate, a modern warship? After discussing the question with several naval professionals, the short answers seem to be: It depends, and it depends, but under any circumstances hijacking a warship would prove almost absurdly difficult.

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  • Todd

    A group like Qaeda would be sophisticated to know that, even under the best scenario, they would only have the ship(s) for a very short period of time. Maybe some sort of suicide run to the Middle East to unload as much of their payload as possible against whatever target(s) they feel would cause the most trouble (Arab oil fields?). Doubt they’d have the ship long enough to hit a true Western target (ie, Israel). Could a Pakistani frigate hit Israel from the Persian Gulf?

    • Amanda in the South Bay

      There’s already no shortage of western naval vessels in the Persian Gulf (not to mention submarines). I wouldn’t think a hijacked Pakistani frigate is going to last very long.
      A quick Wiki link says the only remotely capable missiles the Pakistani has are http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C-802
      However, those aren’t meant to fly overland, which seems the only way to hit Israel would be to actually sit offshore and fire its missiles directly at the land.

    • Morbo

      Looks like it only carries anti-ship missiles and a 3″ gun, so that’s a no. I doubt it would have made it as far as the Straight of Hormuz though.

    • Well right. I mean, it’s hard to steal a warship but illiterate Somali’s in 16 foot skiffs steal container ships all the time, or at least they did until recently. If ramming is your best tactic, a panamax freighter would do the trick.

      • Matt

        Two thoughts:

        * stealing a container ship is likely easier. They have fewer, and less aggressive, er, seamen.

        * attempting to ram anything smaller than another freighter with a freighter seems like a pointless exercise, unless you’ve got a battalion of evil tugboats to help out.

        • Lee Rudolph

          battalion of evil tugboats

          And here I’d thought, sadly, that the era of Band Names was gone forever.

          • Warren Terra

            I think at some point John Scalzi announced that he would no longer acknowledge odd collisions of words by saying they would work as a band name, and instead say they should be a twitter handle.

    • Warren Terra

      The obvious target both for vulnerability and for political resonance would be oil tankers.

      Also, the frigate itself; just getting it away from the dock would have been a huge PR coup.

      • Yes, and those illiterate Somalis have in fact stolen some oil tankers. Of course they just held them for ransom but it’s obviously not hard to do.

      • Thlayli

        The Devil’s Alternative by Frederick Forsyth featured the hijacking of an oil tanker.

        • Warren Terra

          I was thinking more about just shooting at it. A hole in an oil tanker is vastly more newsworthy than a hole in just about any other ship, the more so if they could sink it. And the oil tankers are the fiscal lifeline of a bunch of people Al Qaeda et al loudly denounce: The al-Sauds, the elites of the emirates, Iran …

        • edfurey

          Wrong Sinatra movie. In “Assault on a Queen” the gang refloats a U-Boat and hijacks the Queen Mar

          • edfurey

            Wrong Sinatra movie. In “Assault on a Queen” the gang refloats a U-Boat and hijacks the “Queen Mary.” Of course, they’re after a gold shipment on the Queen, and not the ship itself, but to get the gold, they take control of the liner for a while. It all ends badly.

        • edfurey

          Wrong Sinatra movie. In “Assault on a Queen” the gang refloats a U-Boat and hijacks the “Queen Mary.” Of course, they’re after a gold shipment on the Queen, and not the ship itself, but to get the gold, they take control of the liner for a while. It all ends badly.

    • joe from Lowell

      The Mumbai attacks were carried out by a Pakistani terror group, apparently assisted by the ISI, and landed by sea.

      What could they do with a landing that had naval artillery support?

      • Amanda in the South Bay

        Prob be sitting ducks for air attacks? Assuming they can get the AAW capabilities of their ships working, and that those AAW capabilities are halfway decent (all assumptions). And their single gun isn’t that much.

        • njorl

          What they could do is kill some Indian civilians with a Pakistani warship, and force the Indian military to destroy a Pakistani warship.

          I think the difficulty in pulling off such a theft would lead Indian authorities to believe that Pakistani intelligence must have been complicit. The tangible damage done would be a small consideration compared to the hatred and distrust sown.

  • Hogan

    There was quite some number of ship thefts by the cargo.

  • catclub

    The linked article links to another about how AQ has infiltrated the Pakistan Navy. semi-reassuring. AQ objected strenuously to the crackdown, which meant the crackdown was fairly effective.

    OTOH: AQ always knew where the imprisoned AQ supporters/rebels were being held or moved.

    • joe from Lowell

      Knowing what ISI is like, it makes sense that the Pakistani military intelligence branches would be the same way.

  • J. Otto Pohl

    I remember reading that one possible scenerio was to scuttle hijacked ships in the Straits of Malacca thereby disrupting the flow of oil to East Asia.

    • Amanda in the South Bay

      Are the Straits of Malacca really that narrow and shallow that a couple of frigates could block them?

      • Maybe not, but if the could sink an oil tanker or large container ship, that would do the job pretty well.

      • Morbo

        Shallow, dunno, but it looks like it’s about 25 miles at its most narrow. Even the Singapore straits are at least 10 miles wide.

        • Warren Terra

          An oil tanker might do it, though. Sure, it’d be easy to steer around the hull, to literally miss it by miles – but it could easily cover the straits in oil for weeks.

  • Denverite

    Ocean’s 14: Danny Joins Al Qaeda


  • twbb

    Yes, it’s ridiculous to hire someone with a PhD in Native American Studies to teach Native American studies in a Department of Native American Studies.

    • Ahuitzotl

      a miss, a palpable miss

      • CD

        Can we hijack this thread and use it to ram another thread?

  • Also I think it’s just like AQ to take something as lighthearted and fun as ‘international talk like a pirate day’ and try to ruin it.

    • Warren Terra

      Now that it involves learning Arabic and studying the Koran, it’s a lot more work than saying “yarrr”, that’s for sure.

  • Captain Jack Sparrow

    Not as hard as you might think.

  • Warren Terra

    Your article mentions Star Trek III but doesn’t mention that this happened like once a season on the TV show.

    • ericblair

      No kidding. Pro-tip: change four-digit master password for plasma-torpedo-equipped warp speed capable capital ship to something other than “1234”. Perhaps enable the super-intelligent ship computer to take some sort of action if control is ordered to be transferred to a bunch of scruffy angry lunatics who are definitely not in the Starfleet personnel records. Or not, who cares, everything seems to always work out OK. Mostly.

  • Davis X. Machina

    Lucky Jack Aubrey and a jollyboat full of midshipmen/squeakers was all you used to need.

    Everything is so complicated these days.

    • Warren Terra

      I think the problem is a distinct lack of jollyboats.

      • Lamont Cranston

        We must not allow a jollyboat gap.

      • Enough rum and buggery and any boat is jolly.

    • keta

      The man was a consummate cut-out artist.

    • Richard Hershberger

      Hornblower stole a ship from a French harbor in the middle of a war, with only a one-legged lieutenant, his bos’n, and some random freed slaves.

      Oh, and Hornblower could kick Aubrey’s ass. He would be internally tormented about it, and would somehow manage to not get any prize money, but the kicking of ass would occur. Just sayin’.

      • Lamont Cranston

        I like the cut of your jib.

      • rea

        Hornblower, being so much better politically connected than Aubrey (his brother-in-law the marquess/foreign secretary; his other brother-in-law the field marshal/duke/future prime minister), would not need to kick Aubrey’s ass.

        • Richard Hershberger

          Hornblower was only politically connected after he married well. Prior to that he had no influence at all. You will recall that he only got promoted to post-captain because his commander-in-chief was retiring, and got a freebie promotion to grant as he saw fit. The Admiral was so impressed by Hornblower’s studly manliness (or perhaps it was his manly studliness: I don’t recall for sure) that he gave it to Hornblower. And, of course, he got to marry well because Lady Barbara was similarly impressed by his manly studliness. Or perhaps it was his studly manliness. It is difficult keeping these straight.

          • rea

            Of course, they served together on at least one occasion, the expedition leading to the October 1804 action against 4 Spanish treasure-carrying frigates.

            • rea

              And further note–as the 1804 action shows, Aubrey is senior to Hornblower (Aubrey the post captain in temporary charge of HMS Lively; Hornblower still a commander in charge of HMS Hotspur). So Hornblower kicking Aubrey’s ass would be, well, mutiny. Not that Hornblower was above mutiny.

      • keta

        For my money, O’Brian was simply a better writer. Of course, had MacDonald Fraser ever seen fit to give Flashy a captain’s commission in the RN, Aubrey and Hornblower would be left bobbing in his wake.

        • Richard Hershberger

          Early Flashman is hard to beat. I thought he was on auto-pilot later on. The first book is a viciously funny commentary on British Imperialism. Yes, it was also the beginning of the running joke, but it was more than that. It seems to me that the later ones rely on the running joke more, and have less of the commentary.

          In all seriousness, Forester and O’Brian wrote so differently that they aren’t really comparable. Yes, they both wrote about a fictional Royal Navy officer in the Napoleonic Wars, but this similarity turns out to be surprisingly superficial.

          • keta

            Agree on all your points except to note that MacDonald Fraser’s research and “incidental information” remained impressively high throughout the Flashman series.

            As for Forester and O’Brian, yes, their styles are virtually incomparable. When I first got hooked on O’Brian and urged his books on friends I didn’t realize how many of them, mostly avid readers, were simply not interested in reading literature written in the style of the era it’s located. Those that did persist eventually found the rhythm of the prose and never looked back.

            The Forester books, on the other hand, are more instantly accessible to anyone looking for a cracking good adventure read. No knock against Forester, just a different basket of cod altogether.

      • RobNYNY1957

        In Treasure Island, the boy hero singlehandedly steals a ship and sails it to a secret harbor. I would guess that the total number of things that can be done singlehandedly on a sailing ship of the day is zero, let alone all of them.

        • rea

          Not quite right. Summary courtesy of Wikipedia:

          After dark, he goes out and cuts the ship adrift. The two pirates on board, Hands and O’Brien, interrupt their drunken quarrel to run on deck, but the ship – with Jim’s boat in her wake – is swept out to sea on the ebb tide. Exhausted, Jim falls asleep in the boat and wakens the next morning, bobbing along on the west coast of the island, carried by a northerly current. Eventually, he encounters the ship, which seems deserted, but getting on board, he finds O’Brien dead and Hands badly wounded. He and Hands agree that they will beach the ship at an inlet on the northern coast of the island. But as the ship is finally beached, Hands attempts to kill Jim, but is himself killed in the attempt.

          None of that seem outrageously impossible. There’s someone else helping him, and they don’t really have the ship under control during any of this.

      • The Pale Scot

        Psshaw… Richard Bolitho would cut out their merchantman in a night action, smoke both of these guy’s frigates and make off with their women, all while his crew is yelling “Equality Dick” with tears in their eyes.

        • rhino

          Ah Richard Bolitho.

          What a deep disappointment after Hornblower and Maturin.

          • The Dark Avenger

            Captain Blood never asked anyone for a co-pay.

  • Cheerful

    If Danny Ocean is going to hijack anything, it should be a riverboat casino off the docks of St. Louis.

    He could make Johnny Depp his first mate, though that would only to inevitable betrayal.

    • Denverite

      Wait, would Depp betray Danny, or are you talking about Danny’s betrayal of Rusty and Linus?

      • Cheerful

        In any film contest between Clooney and Depp, it’s clear it would be a constant battle of mutual betrayal. Danny’s betrayal of stray other characters would only come if they deserved it.

    • NonyNony

      I would watch that movie.

      Especially if it were time-travelling Danny Ocean teaming up with Jack Sparrow to hijack a riverboat casino outside of St. Louis around 1880 or so.

      I’m a simple man with simple wants…

      • Cheerful

        I think the plotting involved in surreptitously getting one of today’s modern riverboat casinos, barely capable of motion once a year to satisfy state regulations, out onto the Mississippi for a rendezvous in … uh .. New Orleans! (distant, true, but photogenic)would more than make up for the loss of retro 1880’s atmosphere and horses.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        i’m trying to figure out how to add mark twain into that as a version of the walter huston character from ‘treasure of the sierra madre’

  • Nor Cal

    “..under any circumstances hijacking a warship would prove almost absurdly difficult”.

    At least so long as America continues to produce men in the mold of Steven Segal.

    • ThrottleJockey

      Watched that movie for the 1st time last week!

  • Ed17

    To be fair, the Brazilian battleships actually did turn their guns on the city; they even fired a few shots from their 4.7 inch secondary batteries.

  • guthrie

    An Edgar Wallace book from perhaps the early 1920’s has the baddies gas the remaining crew of a destroyer in London at night, then sail it away to try and escape the authorities. They were destroyed by the coastal defence guns of course.

  • Karate Bearfighter

    No love for Operation Noa?

  • peggy_boston

    In 1910 Virginia Woolf and friends managed to board the HMS Dreadnought in disguise. Their pretend embassy visit was welcomed with an honor guard.Dreadnought Hoax

    • rea

      Well, but that was no big concern. After all, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?

      • advocatethis

        Some things almost write themselves, but are still worth posting, eh?

        • rea

          Some things MUST be posted.

  • SIS1

    According to Wikipedia, the warship in question that AQ tried to steal has a regular crew of 170. I certainly don’t have enough info to know how many trained crew would be necessary to operate such a vessel at its minimal functions (ie. just being able to steam out of port), but I would assume that anything under say 30 people would be running the vessel at far from optimal performance, and trying to set up an infiltration with a group as big as 30 is very hard(9/11 and the Mumbai attack both took less people than that). As such, I think trying to steal any warship worth stealing is something that would be beyond terrorist unless you could somehow get a significant portion of the existing crew on their side and several of the commanding officers. Actually having a crew “steal” the ship from a base is likely far beyond the capabilities of any outside insurgent group.

    It would make more sense to try to infiltrate an air force and get a few like minded pilots to hijack some warplanes.

    • Matt

      It would make more sense to try to infiltrate an air force and get a few like minded pilots to hijack some warplanes.

      I don’t wanna alarm anybody, but there *is* a force of radical fundamentalists bent on installing a theocracy already “infiltrated” into a certain air force. The US air force…

  • Manju

    Shorter Farley: Frigataboutit.

  • Barry Freed

    Israel did it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cherbourg_Project

    Of course those crews were trained to operate those boats. Daring operation though.

    • SIS1

      If anything, what it took to carry out that operation (and the fact that the French decision not to sink them made it possible for them to make it to Israel) shows why an underground illegal group would be incapable of pulling it off.

    • Warren Terra

      Referenced above, as operation Noa – though I didn’t know that until I clicked your hyperlink, having been too lazy to Google the above reference for myself.

      • Barry Freed

        I didn’t see that. I read a really great story online somewhere about the operation, pretty detailed as to how they pulled it off but I can’t seem to find it.

  • brownian

    So, hypothetically, let’s say one were able to steal a boat like that…

    [Nervously eyes frigate-shaped tarp behind shed]

    …would regular gas be okay, or do you have to buy the expensive, high-octane stuff?

    Asking for a friend.

    • Sev

      Gotta mix with oil 32:1; ‘corse the bigger ones are 4-cycle…

    • rea

      Diesel, actually.

      • Snarki, child of Loki

        AKA #2 heating oil, if you don’t mind cheating your government out of their motor vehicle fuel taxes.

        Oh look, big tank of it, right next door. Ahoy there!

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          call the nearest farm supply cooperative- they will probably have non-dyed, non-taxed “off-road” (and what could be more “off road” than the open sea?) diesel fuel available. might have to sign a form affirming something that isn’t quite true about your farming operation, but once you’ve committed grand theft battleship, what’s a little fraud?

  • Editor of the Fabius Maximus website

    Is it useful to automatically consider mutiny to be theft? Many, like the Invergordon Mutiny, were labor actions. More like occupying a workplace to force better working conditions or pay.

    Paging Professor Loomis…

  • Aubergine

    And it is for the above delights that I read LGM. Thank you all.

  • Gwen

    Thanks Rob this is now my favorite new drinking game, “let’s get pissed and steal a warship.”

    • Warren Terra

      Aren’t you in Texas, Gwen? Couldn’t you do an LGM two-fer and target the Texas Navy?

      • Snarki, child of Loki

        Are there dead horses involved? I was told there would be dead horses. And heads on sticks.

  • I believe that referencing Battleship is beyond the bounds of academic freedom and grounds for immediate dismissal.

  • Rich Webb

    Actually, “How to steal the ship?” was (and probably still is) a not uncommon BS session topic during boring transits or slow watches moored alongside. Not that mutiny is imminent but it’s a good thought problem to probe for vulnerabilities and “what if” scenarios.

    An in-port duty section could get underway it in a pinch — that’s one of the reasons that number of those ratings are in the duty section, so the minimum number required isn’t large — but it would be hairy.

  • MikeN

    I figure you could make an action movie about hijacking an oil tanker during the reflagging in the first Gulf War.
    Operation Prime Chance had Navy Seals secretly buzzing around all over the Gulf; have a gang of mercenaries disguised as US special forces pull up and board a tanker. They claim there’s secret info that the tanker’s going to be hijacked and they’re there for protection; to safeguard the source of the intel the captain and crew can’t let anyone else know they’re aboard.

    Sail it out of the Gulf; force the captain to sail it to your prearranged selling point….

  • sanity clause

    I’ve got a 7 year old, so I couldn’t help but notice that “So you want to steal a frigate?” has the same syllabic structure as “Do you want to build a snowman?” from Frozen.

    So in the spirit of Vogon poetry, I’m gonna share the following to anyone who checks these comments at this late date:

    So you want to steal a frigate?
    So you want to steal a ship?
    I can’t believe a ship you’d try to steal,
    please get real,
    you really need to get a griiiiiiiiip!

    Enjoy. Or not.

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