Merchant Ships Starting to Carry Armed Guards against Somali Pirates (11/22)     Print Email

More governments are authorizing their merchant ships to carry weapons for self-defense as Somalia-based pirates step up the tempo and reach of their operations pillaging international shipping across an ever-widening arc from the Gulf of Aden deep into the Indian Ocean.

In recent months, a parade of countries has reversed longstanding legal bans or serious restrictions on the direct arming of merchant ships. The policy change comes in response to the rising number of attacks – a record 199 so far this year.  Even though the “success rates” of pirate attacks is falling,  ransom rates are rising -- doubling in the last year to an average payment of $4 million a ship, according to a law firm that follows the issue.

Similarly, the collective cost of naval anti-piracy operations is rising, too, for governments providing force protection. The anti-piracy mission – of the EU, NATO, the U.S. and scores of small nations – is an annual budget bill approaching $2 billion. As a result, many governments seem ready to embrace sea-going guards as a way to shift some of the expense of defense to the shipping industry.

This determination was clear when British Prime Minister David announced in October that British-flagged ships will be licensed to carry armed guards. “The fact that a bunch of pirates in Somalia are managing to hold to ransom the rest of the world and our trading a complete insult,” Cameron said on BBC.  “The rest of the world needs to come together with much more vigor.”

Similarly, Italy has announced national measures of it own by stationing military forces directly on its merchant vessels. This on-board naval protection will be reimbursed to Rome by the shippers.

Rome announced its new policy after the Italian cargo ship, Montecristo, was seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia.  The vessel was quickly freed by helicopter-borne British commandos, with no casualties among the pirates or the 23-member crew (some of whom were unarmed security guards). But another 17 ships are currently held by pirates based in Somalia.

A Swedish shipper, Wallenius Lines, publicly announced recently that it had deployed guards with rifles on its vessels and was the first Swedish-flagged shipper to state publicly it had armed personnel on board merchant vessels.

The U.S. has not only permitted but required U.S.-flagged ships operating in “hazardous waters” to maintain an armed defensive capability.  However, the definition of “hazardous waters,” coupled with restrictions of coastal states and foreign-port states create complex issues and so American shipping companies have limited their implementation of this requirement.   According to one knowledgeable source, only a small percentage of U.S-flagged ships actually carry guns, even when operating in the Indian Ocean.

Other countries undergoing policy changes on this issue include Germany, Malta, Cyprus and India. In addition, the Netherlands and Thailand have announced they will make armed military teams available to sail on board merchant ships in dangerous waters.  Large shippers have announced that they will start hiring armed guards (including China Ocean Shipping Company, Danish-owned Torm A/S and Maersk Lines, the Danish-owned group that is the world's largest merchant-marine shipping company.)

The policy reversal in favor of arming merchant ships was spurred by an action earlier this year by the International Chamber of Shipping,  the world's main trade organization for shipping, whose members account for 75% of global merchant tonnage. The ICS recognized officially that arms were effective when used off Somalia and that, properly regulated, the arming of merchant vessels was permissible and desirable. The decision is so recent that no accurate data is yet available on how many ships are actually armed. But advocates of arming say that no armed merchant ship has been hijacked.

The argument for arming is supported by the fact that other forms of defense and protection are proving ineffective. Shippers have tried to repel boarders by adding barbed wire and sharp metal shards to protect their ships’ sides and they have “hardened” their defenses by creating so-called  “citadels” that are locked-down rooms with thick doors and radio access to captain and crew to wait safely for naval rescue.

But the pirates constantly upgrade their tactics, too. Pirates have reacted to the “citadel” tactic by burning the ship or at least wrecking the sections of the ship they can reach. Armed convoys fail when individual ships stray enough to be picked off. This has sparked an entrepreneurial move in setting up a private navy called Convoy Escort Programme Ltd, flying the Cypriot flag, to escort ships across through the Gulf of Aden – for a fee of $30,000 per ship.

Even the inter-governmental naval armada ( see recent European Affairs article on U.S.-EU cooperation against piracy) has been unable to cover a continental-scale maritime space where the pirates operate from sea-going “mother ships.” Western countries’ armed services chafe at the mission:  for the U.S. Navy, for example, insiders complain that “it feels too much like Coast Guard.” (In contrast, the nascent blue-water navies of China and India have reasons for relishing the anti-piracy mission.)

The headline-grabbing episode involving the rescue of the Maersk Alabama in 2009 -- where a U.S. destroyer took the hijacked vessel in tow and navy sharpshooters killed three pirates in a single salvo -- is now celebrated in a Hollywood movie starring Tom Hanks. But that dramatic success has not produced a change of thinking at the Pentagon, nor has governments' committment to naval policing been increased by a new willingness on the part of the U.S. to bring pirates to trial, with at least two succesfull prosecutions and incarcerations in the last year. So, arming has become the option of choice.

The change has been a long time coming since the pirate threat emerged in the late 1990s. Shipping companies have not wanted to arm crew members because of fears that merchant seamen were liable to cause more damage than they prevented, including the risk of inaccurate gun fire on an oil tanker or other vessel with flammable cargo.

Even trained guards present problems.  Who bears liability if they accidentaly or negligently shoot a "friendly" or a harmless fishing boat?  Will insurers be responsible for claims of gunfight victims?

But the debate has turned. For one thing more and more pirates simply throw their arms overboard when confronted with military resistance (as happened on the Montecristo). Moreover, insurance companies are now said to be offered cheaper premiums for companies whose ships carry armed guards in dangerous waters.

Problems arise from laws of coastal states and ports forbidding or severely restricting firearms within their territorial waters.  For example, Egypt does not permit arms on ships transiting the Suez Canal (although they can be off-loaded at Canal’s entry and delivered back on board at the exit).

Even these stepped-up defenses seem unlikely to close down the pirates operations as long as they have the ultimate lawless "mother ship" -- Somalia itself.

But by all accounts, from now on,  more and more merchant vessels will be “packing” loaded weapons from now on.

So, next move, pirates?

William Marmon is Managing Editor at European Affairs