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Piracy News & Commentary

Private Security for Commercial Shipping

The issue of responsibility for the protection of commercial shipping in pirate waters has been much debated recently, particularly with the rise of Somali piracy. Until the mid-nineteenth century, responsibility was divided between navies and merchant vessels. Navies did what they could, patrolling pirate waters and occasionally raiding pirate strongholds, but the sea is vast and navies were invariably stretched thin. Merchant vessels therefore had no choice but to travel armed, and this was considered to be a routine expenditure, part of the cost of doing business. In the First and Second World Wars, many merchant vessels were similarly armed, this time against the submarine.

Navies are stretched just as thin today, and naval commanders have repeatedly advised the shipping industry to arm their vessels if they do not want to take the chance on having to ransom ship and crew. (Indeed, it is a wonder that Somali pirates have not yet taken to extracting tribute--blackmail, in other words--as the cost of leaving certain vessels alone.) Shipping companies, however, want their governments to provide complete protection. Unfortunately, given how over-tasked all modern navies are, this is simply not a viable solution.

Practically speaking, there are three ways in which navies can protect commercial shipping at the Horn of Africa, all of which may be used singly or together. First, they can assist other military forces in attacking pirate bases and leaders, while maintaining anti-pirate patrols. However, this may exacerbate the problem at first, and can only be done effectively as part of a larger effort ultimately designed to stabilize and repair the failed state of Somalia. Second, they can convoy commercial shipping, while maintaining anti-pirate patrols. However, navies lack the assets to convoy all commercial shipping in the region, and shipping companies and their customers are probably unwilling to bear the cost of the significant delays convoys cause. Third, navies can do what they are doing at the moment: keep an eye on designated ships transiting danger zones, while maintaining anti-pirate patrols. Given the limited naval assets in the region and government unwillingness to commit more, this is the most viable form of naval protection at the moment. However, as the Somali pirates have already proved, it is not a perfect system: ships are still at risk of capture.

The only way commercial vessels can ensure their protection is to augment naval patrols and transit protection with private security, a method used for three thousand or more years. At present, there are three primary ways to arm modern commercial shipping:

1. Owners can place security personnel aboard and arm them with non-lethal weapons. However, non-lethal weapons cannot provide sufficient deterrent against an armed attack by determined pirates, and may even put security personnel at risk should their defense fail, as happened recently with the attack on the Biscaglia. Pirates must be made explicitly aware that deadly force will be used against them. Anything less than the risk of death is unlikely to deter a determined pirate, for the returns are simply too lucrative. The best that non-lethal weapons and barriers may do in the face of a determined attack is to delay it long enough for naval forces to arrive. However, naval forces are often not immediately available, and in one recent case were distracted by other attacks and unable to respond in time.

2. Owners can place security personnel aboard and arm them with assault rifles and similar weapons. Assuming that such personnel are sufficiently motivated and trained, they should be able to repel any Somali pirate attack. Pirates are motivated by profit, not ideology, and in general will look elsewhere for an unprotected target. However, what armed security personnel often cannot do is deter an attack before it begins. Once a pirate attack begins, security personnel, crew, and vessel are at risk.

3. Owners can use private escort vessels, manned with trained, ex-military security personnel armed with lethal weapons. The mere presence of such vessels, particularly if their appearance is such that they are obviously armed escorts, would be sufficient to deter Somali pirate attack in nearly all cases. Further, such vessels can intercept pirates before they attack, providing an additional layer of security and preventing the commercial vessel and crew from being put at risk by a direct attack. This is by far the best solution. Escort vessels can deter attacks, can discover impending attacks, and can respond forcefully to attacks without placing the escorted vessel in jeopardy.

It is in this last capacity that Unitel Marine Services, a security firm with more than three decades of experience in the business, hopes to initially place two converted fast offshore oil-rig boats, each manned with well-armed well-trained ex-military security personnel, in service. These vessels, which would be capable not only of defending themselves, but of actively counter-attacking pirates, would be by far the most effective private means of defending escorted commercial shipping against pirate attacks. Considering both the history of piracy and anti-piracy measures, as well as at expert analysis of the current situation at the Horn of Africa, commercial shipping companies would be well-advised to seriously consider the use of armed escort vessels.
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