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Return of the Privateers: How the U.S. Navy Could Take on Russia and China

By National Interest

As the United States military shifts its focus away from counter-terror operations around the world, and back to a great power competition—which is primarily directed against China and Russia—the U.S. Navy could find itself at a significant disadvantage in terms of numbers.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) surpassed the U.S. Navy as the largest in the world and is continuing an ambitious building campaign that will widen the gap. Additionally, many of the Navy’s warships may be ill-suited to future roles.

While the Department of Defense (DoD) has been exploring options that include smaller autonomous vessels to close the gap, this month, writing for Sandboxx, military analyst Alex Hollings offered a more novel solution. He suggested looking not just towards future technology, but to past military practices to make up the numbers.

Hollings suggested a return of the “Privateer.”

Privateers vs. Pirates

The very notion of a privateer would no doubt be quite controversial, as many times in history the line between the privateer blurred with that of the pirate. The difference was that a state or delegated authority issued a commission, typically referred to as “letter of marque,” which empowered the holder to carry out acts for the state on the high seas—and this included attacking foreign vessels and taking them as “prizes.”

The crews of the privateers could sell the captured ship, its cargo, and even ransom the crew—with the proceeds split between the privateer’s sponsor (which could include the nation), the shipowner(s), captain, and crew.

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