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April 15, 2009

Blogging Heads: Pirate edition

Military historian Robert Farley and foreign policy wonk Dan Drezner discuss the options for dealing with piracy. The general consensus is that there's not that much more the world community can do to police vast oceans against stateless pirates.

Destroying pirate infrastructure on land is out. There's not that much of it and it's not all that valuable. As Farley says, most pirate lairs are just "lairs of convenience" located in ordinary port cities. If you destroy the port, the pirates will relocate to another spot along the coastline and the local people will be deprived of their ports and their livelihoods.

International patrols are ongoing, but they are of limited value in preventing attacks because the ocean is vast and the pirates act very quickly. Farley says that a speedboat full of pirates can overrun a ship in less than half an hour. Typically, it's all over before a navy ship can react, Farley explains. Pirates don't always hold ships for ransom. Sometimes they just steal the cargo.

It's not legally feasible for many vessels to arm their crews because many countries including the United States balk at letting packs of armed foreign nationals into their ports. The U.S. Coast Guard is justifiably concerned that armed sailors could be a terrorism risk in the U.S..

Most ship owners don't want guns on their vessels. For one thing, they don't want to run the risk that people confined in close quarters for months at a time will turn on each other, or their officers.

There are also liability and safety concerns associated with arming people with no combat training.

Kennebec Captain writes:

Does it make sense to spend time and money training merchant crews in the use of lethal force? The reluctance to arm crews is not because of any squeamishness or some kind of misguided political correctness but practicality. I get ABs from time to time that can not be taught to steer. At safety meetings we still are trying to get the concept of wearing eye protection when using power tools across to the crew, with limited success. Where is the time to train and supervise crew armed with automatic weapons going to come from?

Piracy has been a problem off the Horn of Africa for years, but thanks in large part to the no arms rule, very few people have been killed.

Ship owners are also concerned about the well-being of their crews. Is it fair to expect merchant mariners to use lethal force to protect company property? That's not what they signed up for. On land, a boss would be considered insane or criminal for demanding that civilian employees fight off armed robbers.

Ultimately, ship owners are businesspeople. If it's less expensive to buy pirate insurance than to arm, train, and insure their people to carry guns, the owners are going to keep paying ransoms. We couldn't stop them from doing so, even if we wanted to. Piracy isn't new and neither is the idea of arming merchant ships, but there are good reasons why this trend hasn't taken off.

Hiring trained security guards might mitigate some of the liability and safety concerns, but it's expensive to hire enough security to fight off a pirate attack. The chances of any given ship being attacked are low low and the costs of having a meaningful private security contingent on every voyage would add up quickly.

There are plenty of measures that merchant ships already take to prevent pirate attacks. Even simple precautions like installing adequate lighting and posting a 24-hour watch can make a big difference. The crew of the Maersk Alabama successfully repelled pirates from their ship without guns, thanks to tactics they learned through their union. Various sub-lethal weapons are also used to deter pirates including fire hoses, piercing sirens, and tasers.

Farley thinks that helping Somalia become a functional state again might reduce piracy in the long run.


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Lindsay, I just made three transits of the Gulf of Aden. I agree with your post and your remarks. It is very difficult to distinguish pirates from fisherman. The fisherman use mother ships to tow smaller high speed craft far from the coast as do the pirates. The fisherman sometimes do approach ships at high speed, when they are chasing tuna. Just shooting any one who comes near the ship is not practical. As a ship master I would be fully responsible if anyone aboard my ship injured or killed a fisherman. I want to go home after a trip, not to some jail.

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