Shipping executive calls for armed federal security on U.S. ships

Published 22 May 2009

Liberty Maritime Corp.’s Philip Shapiro calls for Congress to remove the legal barriers to arming ships so that they may provide their own security

Shipping executive Philip Shapiro of Liberty Maritime Corp. testified before Congress Wednesday, calling on the federal government to post U.S. security personnel on ships traveling through pirate-infested waters:

We strongly urge the government to consider embarking a small number of U.S. government security personnel on the very few U.S.-flag vessels that transit high-risk transit areas at any one time. In our view, small embarked security teams are a more effective deterrent than patrolling large ocean areas with vessels. Also, using small security teams is a much more cost effective response than attempting to protect millions of square miles of ocean or in dealing with a hostage situation after the fact.

Shapiro also repeated his call for Congress to remove the legal barriers to arming ships so that they may provide their own security. Until that happens, he said the U.S. government must protect U.S.-flagged ships.

I also hope that we all can come to an understanding that private industry cannot switch from a no-firearms regime to an armed protection regime overnight,” Shapiro said. “In the interim, we will need either naval vessel escorts or government security teams for U.S.-flagged vessels on high risk transits.”

Matthew Harwood writes that just two days after the dramatic rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama, one of Shapiro’s ships-the Liberty Sun-was attacked by Somali pirates who hit the ship four times with rocket-propelled grenades and sprayed the vessel with automatic-weapon fire. The pirates were not successful in their attempts to board, deterred by a “virtual flood wall of water” streaming from hoses off the ship, Shapiro said.

The ship carried 47,000 metric tons of U.S. government food aid for East Africa-enough to feed 250,000 people, according to Shapiro. It successfully reached its destination of Mombasa, Kenya, on 15 April.

Since the new year, pirate attacks have dramatically increased off the Horn of Africa. The number of vessels attacked by pirates this year has already overtaken last year, 114 versus 111, respectively. Despite the sudden uptick in attacks, the pirates success rate has fallen due to the presence of foreign naval vessels, including the United States, patrolling the area, according to a subcommittee summary.

Obstacles to arming U.S. crews include legal liability overseas, arms export controls, and the reluctance of insurers to cover voyages with armed crews.