Updated: Jan 21
Merchant raiders have been around in one form or another for hundreds of years. However, it wasn’t until World War I that they became more prevalent. During World War II, a German ship by the name of Kormoran , sank the Australian Cruiser Sydney in one of the most well-known battles involving merchant raiders.
But what is a Merchant raider?
They are typically commercial ships that have been armed by their host nation to hide in plain sight, thereby allowing them to slip in close to an adversary and strike without warning. During World War I and II, these ships were famously used in the German Navy to disrupt allied shipping. Most of them were originally civilian ships which were later converted and outfitted in ingenious ways to hide everything from five-inch deck guns to torpedo launchers, to seaplanes on board. The ships were operated by military members dressed as civilians to further the illusion of them being commercial ships. Only when they got close enough to use their guns did they suddenly transform into the merchants of death they truly were.
Could Merchant raiders make a comeback in the 21st century?
Authors James Rosone & Miranda Watson believe merchant raiders can reemerge and may already be operating on the world’s oceans. In several of their military thrillers - most recently in their military-espionage thriller series, the Falling Empires, the Red Storm series, and the Monroe Doctrine - they illustrate in a chilling manner exactly how a 21st century merchant raider might be used.
In a time when America’s adversaries are developing hyper-sonic cruise missiles and aerial denial weapons, equipping a cargo ship with a couple hundred anti-ship cruise missiles could deliver a crippling blow to an American carrier strike group or naval facility without intelligence agencies or reconnaissance assets even being aware of the threat until it was too late. More on that in a bit—but first, let’s touch on real-life examples of how these ships were successfully used in past wars, and how many countries are still using and evolving this concept in modern times.
Concept art of a container ship firing its vertical launch system
Use of These Ships in Past Wars
The SMS Wolf is one example of a merchant raider the German Navy used during WWI . It launched in 1913 (under a different name) as a freighter to transport goods, but three years later, it was converted into a merchant raider. It spent the longest time at sea, with a successful 451-day run at sea, destroy 14 ships with its guns and another 13 ships by minefields, taking 467 prisoners of war.
First, the SMS Wolf used its on-board seaplane to locate the target ship. By sailing under the guise of a civilian merchant ship, they were able to act like a wolf in sheep’s clothing as they “snuck up” on their target, getting close enough to reveal themselves and their guns. By that time, there was no room or time to escape.
Evolving into the Future – Bringing the Concept to Land
Let’s start with Russia first, since they’ve been the ones really leading in this field of hiding weapons in plain sight—this concept is not a new one for Russia and has evolved throughout the last seventy years. Originally, Russia sought to hide their ballistic missiles in shipping containers on cargo ships. They also developed a series of railway cars and eventually semi-truck trailers that could perform this function as well. The Defense Update reported in 2015 that Russian cruise missile manufacturer AGAT had created a system called Club K, which was a containerized version of the 3M-54 Kalibr cruise missile . The 3M-54 Kalibr comes in many different variants ranging from cruise missiles to anti-ship, to land-attack missiles capable of carrying a 400 to 500 kg warhead or nuclear device.
The containerized unit that could be carried on a railcar, semi-trailer, or containerized cargo ship could be configured with up to four missiles. One can understand why this kind of missile threat could become a problem for Western militaries to contend with as you have literally no idea where these missiles could be launched from if they were loaded onto a railcar or semi-truck and driven across Europe or the United States.
Concept art of how a vertical launch system could be deployed on a cargo ship
Russia has also been working on the new Barguzin “railway-based combat rocket system,” according to CommunalNews.com . The first set of tests were completed in 2016, and it’s expected to enter service by the year 2025.
The Barguzin system includes “lightweight” rockets hidden inside railway cars, making the train indistinguishable from a normal passenger or freight train. The cars would carry three intercontinental ballistic missiles, each armed with a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) capable of deploying ten 550-kiloton warheads. The train can travel up to 1,500 miles a day and stop at a moment’s notice, on any part of the railway, to deploy it’s missiles in under 7 minutes. This makes targeting Russia’s nuclear forces nearly impossible given the trains carrying these missiles could be anywhere in their vast landmass.
Russia isn’t alone in realizing the importance of hiding your strategic assets in plain sight. Israel has proved it can turn nearly any ship into an impromptu missile boat using mobile long-range weapons the size of shipping containers.
According to TheDrive.com, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) unveiled a mobile missile ballistic system in 2006 using a nearly identical process as the Russians . Then in 2017, IAI successfully test-fired a Long-Range Artillery (LORA) system from the back of a truck on a cargo ship. It was seen as a technological breakthrough for the state-operated firm, giving the Israelis another means of being able to defend themselves or possibly carry out a first strike operation against an adversary without tipping their hands.
Concept art of a container ship firing its vertical launch system
The LORA can hit targets up to 250 miles away within just 10 minutes. The missile has incredible accuracy with the use of GPS, inertial navigation, and or a command-to-target television guidance system, giving the missile the ability to hit a target against a myriad of different circumstances or attempts to jam or confuse it. The LORA includes a command and fire control container, four launchers equipped with four missiles each, and four reload vehicles. Trucks can transport these parts on land, and they can be easily loaded onto a vessel to travel by sea without any additional changes needed to the ship or the vehicles. This low-cost system takes away the need for a dedicated vessel armed with missiles in lower intensity conflicts.
Ironically, several years after James Rosone & Miranda Watson began writing about the use of cargo ships as a means of creating cheap floating arsenal ships packed with cruise missiles or even direct energy weapons, the U.S. Navy appears to be taking notice. While the US Navy wants to increase its naval presence in the world, the increased costs associated with maintaining and operating a substantially larger force cannot be understated.
Last year, SOFREP.com reported on a potential solution: the U.S. Naval Institute proposed purchasing civilian merchant ships for cheap and then converting them to carry and fire ballistic missiles . The ships could be converted to house much-needed vertical launch system (or VLS) cells and then used in low-threat operations.
Concept art of a hidden VLS capable of holding cruise missiles
While these commercial ships are slower and not built to the same standard as warships, they would give the US Navy several tactical and strategic advantages. Namely, they would be hard to distinguish from other merchant ships, thus allowing them to slip in close to an adversary’s territorial waters unannounced like a warship would.
Also, by converting about a dozen cargo ships with up to 50 or more missiles each, the Navy could have several hundred missile cells ready for combat for a fraction of the cost and time of building a new destroyer, plus they’d be able to cover more ground and do so in a way as to not raise alarms because you wouldn’t even know they were in the vicinity until they started firing their deadly cargo.
It appears the Chinese are not wanting to miss out on this evolution in technology either. In late 2016, Defence-Blog reported that a Chinese company had developed a new multiple rocket launcher with cruise missiles and unitary rockets that can hide inside a shipping container . This follows the same concept the Russians have been pursuing for nearly two decades as they look to turn some of their more plentiful cargo ships into floating missile platforms capable of delivering a devastating first strike capability against an adversary.
Merchant Raiders in a Future War
While the concept of a merchant raider isn’t new, the way in which they might be used has evolved over time and with technology. One of the key developments Rosone & Watson have written about in their military thrillers is the use of cargo ships as floating missile boats or arsenal ships. By equipping the cargo hold of a vessel with several hundred vertical launch systems, the ship could be equipped with anti-air, anti-ship, or land-attack cruise missiles, providing the ships with incredible versatility for use within a carrier strike group or as part of a similar strike package.
Concept art of a 21st century merchant raider firing its VLS missiles
The costs of manning and operating a ship like this would be considerably less than constructing a new warship from scratch, which would take years if not decades to come to fruition. Ultimately, a cargo ship could be reconfigured into a floating missile platform—a platform capable of housing and launching vertical launch F-35s or a myriad of other UAV platforms. All of these configurations could be put into practical use and application in months instead of years and at a fraction of the cost of developing a new warship.
You can also see how this concept might play out in a future conflict by picking up one of James Rosone and Miranda Watson’s books. A lot remains to be seen about how this technology will be integrated, but one this is for certain—the merchant raider is here to stay.
Image credit: All the cover art in this article was created by Jamie Glover.
Sources:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_auxiliary_cruiser_Kormoran  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxGraXriFxY  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ch2Rqte6XOs  https://communalnews.com/russia-developing-new-barguzin-system/  https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/11723/israel-just-launched-a-containerized-ballistic-missile-from-the-deck-of-a-ship  https://sofrep.com/news/new-navy-proposal-suggests-converting-cargo-ships-into-heavily-armed-missile-merchant-warships/  http://defence-blog.com/news/china-develops-multiple-rocket-launcher-that-hides-in-container.html