What to do about high-seas piracy?

Published 14 April 2009

The debate intensifies over what to do about the growing problem of piracy on the high seas; here is a sample of the points being discussed

We have written on piracy in the Gulf of Eden for two years now, and it is good to sea the problem finally receiving the attention it deserves. One of the questions raised is whether or not it would be a good idea to post armed guards on ships to repel approaching pirates. James Lyons, a U.S. Navy retired admiral, offers the pros, and GCaptian.com, the blog name of a former chief of police, the cons:

Piracy hijackings in maritime choke points have gone on for years. As a result, piracy has interrupted traditional maritime routes … and has significantly raised the operating costs to ship operators. There is also a creditability issue if the United States, its allies, and regional countries fail to bring the piracy threat under control. It is similar to U.S. failure to address early on the threat of state-sponsored terrorism that the world is still living with today. The immediate steps that should be taken include:

  • Ships’ operators should increase the security of their ships by providing professional armed security personnel aboard
  • Ships should be prepared to take non-lethal actions when facing a hijack threat.
  • The U.S. 5th Fleet or the International Maritime Organization should provide ship operators a list of these non-lethal actions
  • The United States should expand on the current U.S. 5th Fleet … transit protection efforts by conducting “rolling transit convoys” through the high threat areas

There has been a lot of dialog about protection of merchant vessels with private security. Some companies are offering armed security on board and others offer non-lethal or less than lethal solutions. As a former chief of police, my first thought is always “liability,” but this situation requires much more thought than liability alone. Besides the legalities of possessing firearms on the ship, I believe that having and displaying firearms on board automatically puts the crew and ship at much greater danger. This immediately upgrades the escalation of potential violence by the would-be attacker.

Even having security personnel in a tactical style uniform can … escalate the situation. Imagine the would-be attacker in his small speed boat observing the protection detail. This could deter his thought of attack, but more importantly this could, in his mind, present a challenge.

If he decides on the challenge option, he will just attack with greater force, or simply “hit and run” to see your reaction. As professionals in the maritime industry, that would assume the liability of armed security.

Our comments
Lyons and GCaptain offer some good points, but they miss other important points. Here is a sample:

  • Cost:
    • Doing nothing is costly in two ways — shippers have to pay millions in ransom, and insurance premiums keep rising (see 13 April 2009 HS Daily Wire).
    • Doing something is costly in two ways, too — there are tens of thousands of sea vessels on the high seas, which means, by our calculations, that many thousands of trained security personnel would have to be deployed for meaningful protection (assuming only ships going through choke points would be protected). Also, weapons and protective equipment will have to be acquired (especially costly if shippers want to use sophisticated non-lethal systems rather than firearms).
  • Address the problem at the source: The pirates are not ideologically motivated; rather, they, and their tribal bosses in lawless Somalia, do it for money. Since they do it for money, two avenues of action are available:
    • The first is buying the tribal leaders off. The language of bribery is well understood in those remote precincts.
    • The second is increasing the cost to them of continuing their activity. The killing of three pirates by U.S. Navy Seals sharp shooters this past weekend is a demonstration of what the United States can do. The kind of UAV war the United States is conducting in northwest Pakistan would be suitable for punishing tribal leaders who are responsible for sending the pirates.
  • Ethiopia: Ethiopian forces already occupy parts of Somalia, and Ethiopian units regularly go in and out of Somalia in pursuit of Islamic militants. The United States and Europe could reach an understanding with Ethiopia — an understanding for which Ethiopia will be handsomely compensated — that Ethiopian forces would extend their mission to securing peaceful shipping off the coast of Somalia. We talked about raising the cost to the tribal leaders who orchestrate the piracy campaign, and we can assume that the Ethiopian army would raise the cost of doing business to the tribal leaders in a manner which would be more direct and painful.