Does the provision of private security contractors provide a viable solution to the growing problem of piracy off the Horn of Africa? Quite apart from the high cost — a robust security operation can run as much as $21,000 a day — employing security contractors poses problems on several fronts.
First, most coastal states impose restrictions on ships entering their territorial waters if they carry weapons. Arming crews would significantly complicate the legal logistics of any container vessel that makes numerous ports of call.
Second, since many states do not allow armed personnel on vessels, this would be liable to increase so-called flags of convenience, compounding an already amorphous and poorly regulated industry.
Third, death or injury to an innocent party, as a result of an exchange involving security contractors, could expose ship owners to exorbitant compensation claims (not covered by insurance) and criminal charges.
Fourth, it is not apparent what authority, if any, an escort boat has to board a pirate vessel that is threatening a client-owned vessel. Under international law, only warships clearly identified as being in the service of a sovereign government retain this right.
Underscoring all these considerations is the real possibility of pirates elevating their own threshold of violence, storming vessels with an intent to use lethal force against any they confront — including crew, who until now have been relatively well treated.
Preferable, cheaper options would combine state and industry efforts by:
- Enhancing overall policing on the seas.
- Ensuring any military assets in pirate-prone areas are properly coordinated, with transparent rules of engagement.
- Encouraging target hardening by requiring vessels transiting dangerous regions to sail over 15 knots, adhere to pre-defined corridors, maintain close communication with coastal authorities, sail at night (if transiting the Gulf of Aden) and have practiced protocols for hostage situations.
- Installing non-lethal defenses such as electrified perimeter fences and long-range acoustic devices that emit loud, disorienting blasts of sound.
Arming commercial ships is a recipe for making a bad situation worse, not better.
Peter Chalk is an expert on piracy and terrorism at the RAND Corp.
This commentary originally appeared in USA Today on May 4, 2009. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.