“When Somali piracy started making headlines in 2008, the response by the world’s governments was to treat it like a military problem with a conventional military solution. They sent warships to cruise around the Indian Ocean with the goal of deterring pirate attacks.”
“Destroyers are expensive and ill-suited to long, tedious piracy patrols. Armed guards are comparatively cheap and, as Dave proved that April morning, highly effective.”
Pirate-Fighters, Inc.: How Mercenaries Became Ships’ Best Defense
Wired.com: Danger Room
David Axe: August 23rd, 2011
It was a normal morning in April last year. Normal, that is, by the crazy standards of the fishermen, ship’s crews, navy sailors and Somali pirates plying their dangerous trades on 2.5 million square miles of lawless ocean stretching from India to Kenya.
“Dave,” a 44-year-old from Wiltshire in southwest England, was standing watch on the upper deck of a commercial car carrier bound from Mumbai to Mombasa. Scanning the horizon with a pair of high-powered binoculars, the former British Royal Marine of 24 years’ experience spotted something suspicious ahead of the carrier: a small freighter matching the profile of a pirate “mothership,” a sort of floating base for heavily armed sea bandits and their small boats.
What happened next was like something out of a Hollywood thriller. But for Dave and a fast-growing number of for-profit ship guards, it was just another day on the job — and evidence of a surprising turn in the years-old, international war on piracy.
The world’s governments are waking up to the sobering fact that the gazillion-dollar warships they’ve sent to the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean can’t keep up with the region’s elusive pirates. The hijackers’ simple, brutal tactics are too effective. Their business model is too attractive. And they’ve got nothing to lose but their lives.
The days are probably numbered for 10,000-ton Burke-class destroyers chasing down illiterate Somali thugs sailing in souped-up fishing boats called “skiffs.” The future of the piracy war could belong to Dave and guys like him, standing lonely guard on gigantic, fortified commercial vessels speeding through pirate-infested waters.
Destroyers are expensive and ill-suited to long, tedious piracy patrols. Armed guards are comparatively cheap and, as Dave proved that April morning, highly effective. Sure, guards come with their own limitations and complications. But hiring professional ship-protectors beats the alternative: an endless, pointless military exercise.
Dave and his three teammates from Protection Vessels International, a 3-year-old, English firm offering “safe passage for vessels, master and crew through high-risk environments,” watched as the suspected pirate mothership silently approached the car carrier. “When it got to approximately seven miles distance, we saw a small craft being launched from it and it began to approach from the port side at 23 knots,” Dave recalled. The boat carried four men, at least two of them armed with AK-47s.
That’s when the PVI guards, all former Royal Marines, knew for sure that the carrier was under attack. A hijacking could mean: months of captivity and abuse for Dave, his teammates and the ship’s crew; a multimillion-dollar ransom for the vessel’s owner; and a small but meaningful blow to an already-rickety world economy. “We immediately increased speed to 19 knots, altered course, activated the piracy alarm and informed [the authorities],” Dave told Danger Room.
They prepared for battle, “kitting up” with body armor, helmets, warning flares and rifles. At that moment the front line of the piracy war, which has claimed scores of lives on both sides and cost ten of billions of dollars in ransoms, insurance premiums and lost property, intersected the fast-shrinking span of water between his ship and the approaching pirate skiff.
‘The Pirates Are Winning’
When Somali piracy started making headlines in 2008, the response by the world’s governments was to treat it like a military problem with a conventional military solution. They sent warships to cruise around the Indian Ocean with the goal of deterring pirate attacks. Today around three dozen naval vessels from a dozen nations, organized into no fewer than three international flotillas — one each led by the U.S., the E.U. and NATO — still crisscross the piracy zone.
Problem is, until they brandish weapons, pirates are indistinguishable from legitimate fishermen. Naval crews must stop and interrogate a lot of innocent seafarers, as seen in the U.S. Navy video below, in order to have any hope of disarming pirates before they attack. With tens of thousands of fishing boats plying the Indian Ocean alongside just 30 warships, lots of pirates are sure to slip through. “We’ve just got to be incredibly lucky,” Cmdr. Derek Granger, captain of the destroyer USS Donald Cook, said while his ship fruitlessly searched for pirates in 2009.
That means the warships can only react to attempted hijackings, racing to intervene after the sea bandits attack. It isn’t enough. Apparently harmless vessels can turn hostile in mere minutes. With more than 2 million square miles of ocean to patrol and 25,000 commercial ships a year to protect, the 30 warships are spread thin — and are usually too far away to respond in time. No wonder successful hijackings of large vessels held steady at around 50 per year for three years, despite the escalating naval patrols. “These guys [pirates] are making more money, we’re spending more money,” lamented piracy expert Martin Murphy.
In addition to pursuing a doomed military strategy, the world’s governments dragged their heels on what seemed like the common-sense approach to beating pirates. A few armed guards should be sufficient to defeat a pirate attack, but allowing weapons on board civilian ships requires new regulations, which governments were slow to write.
Far from any military assistance and lacking weapons of their own, some ship’s crews resorted to desperate measures. One Chinese fishing crew fought back against a pirate boarding party using Molotov cocktails and fire hoses. Such heroics made good headlines but also risked getting ship’s crews killed in lopsided battles. The unworkable military solution combined with legal limits on ship self-defense combined to tilt the advantage towards the sea bandits. “The pirates are winning,” Murphy said in 2009.
From Shopping Guards to SEALs
Change came slowly, as governments and shippers gradually realized their existing approach wasn’t working. With strong encouragement from the U.S. Coast Guard, some shipping lines began installing “passive defenses,” including engine kill-switches, safe rooms lockable from the inside and emergency alarms — literally big, red buttons, in some cases.
Meanwhile, regulators mulled allowing civilian armed guards to at-risk ships, or having the guards sail alongside the commercial ships in privately owned patrol boats.
Spain was one of the first countries to enact a law allowing guards on its commercial ships. Early on, some of these guards were unarmed, relying on sonic weapons and water hoses for defense. In 2008, one unarmed guard team found itself “overwhelmed” by gun-firing pirates and abandoned ship.
“They were ex-supermarket security guards,” John Dalby, founder of Spanish maritime-security company Marine Risk, said of the retreating team. “One had had been on a one-week training course in a swimming pool. That was the extent of it.”
Around the same time, notorious U.S. mercenary firm Blackwater, now known as Xe, equipped a patrol boat for escort duties and offered its guard services on the Indian Ocean shipping route. But Blackwater’s involvement in the Nisour Square shooting in Iraq in 2007 scared off potential customers, and the company soon shuttered its pirate-fighting division.
Poorly trained, scaredy-cat guards and shady merc firms gave the first generation of private ship protectors a bad reputation. But in time, better training facilitated by expanding regulation ushered in a new era for ship’s guards. In March 2010, guards shot and killed a pirate attacking a Panamanian vessel — a first for private pirate-fighters. “I think we’re on the cusp of the next threshold, in which privately owned escort vessels are more acceptable,” Claude Berube, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, said in January 2010.
“Every ship transiting the area should have four [security] professionals on board,” Dalby proposed. By 2011, many shippers and governments agreed. New maritime-security companies, including Dave’s employer PVI, sprouted all over the world as ship’s guards became more popular. Most of these new companies sought out former military personnel, many of whom had participated in naval piracy patrols during their government service.
Maersk, one of the world’s leading shippers, opted to use only former U.S. Navy SEALs. “The result is we, a responsible operator, have the best trained, but very expensive, operators in the world,” vice president Stephen Carmel explained. He said Maersk pays around $5,000 a day, per ship, for protection. A typical transit could net a security firm $100,000 or more.
For this lucrative work, PVI recruited its roughly 200 guards from the ranks of former Royal Marines and British soldiers. “PVI has witnessed a huge increase in demand for its services recently,” company spokesman Paul Gibbins told Danger Room. The British company has completed more than 1,000 escort missions and defeated 30 pirate attacks, all with “no use of lethal force, no loss of vessel, master and crew,” Gibbins crowed.
Now, no one pretends ship’s guards can end the practice of piracy. That requires “something happening on land” in Somalia, Murphy said. Restoring peace to that war-torn land has proved difficult, to say the least.
Still, anecdotal evidence indicates that private pirate-guards are an effective stop-gap. But it’s too soon to tell just how effective — and whether the guards working today will help bring down the overall rate of hijackings. At the moment, there are just a few hundred guards protecting a fraction of the 25,000 ships that transit the Indian Ocean every year. More companies are sure to hire guards as changing attitudes and regulations allow it, but the cost could lead smaller shippers to risk unprotected transits.
Bottom line: as a means of defense, guards are proving cheaper and at least as effective as warships, if not more so. Dave showed just how on that morning last April.
As the pirates closed in on Dave’s ship, the former Royal Marine hurried to assemble his team. “The armed security team were briefed on the bridge by myself and deployed to positions on the upper deck to cover the skiff’s approach,” Dave recalled. “In consultation with the master, I requested permission to fire a red flare to warn off the incoming craft. The flare was fired to no response; they continued to close.”
It was time to make it clear to the pirates that the car carrier was not the usual, defenseless prey — that this vessel was on the cutting edge of pirate-fighting tactics and could shoot back. “At approximately a half nautical mile [distance], permission was given to fire a warning shot above the incoming craft, in order to give clear indication there was an armed security team on board,” Dave said. “The shot was fired and it continued on its course.”
Maybe the pirates had failed to notice the shot, because of all the wind and spray. Maybe they saw it but just didn’t care.
The guards fired again, this time into the water in front of the pirate boat. The skiff jinked to the side … and kept coming. Soon it was within 500 meters [0.3 miles] of the car carrier — close enough to hit the ship with rockets and rifles. There was time for just one more warning shot before Dave and his team would be forced to kill the attackers.
“The final shot worked and the skiff slowed and stopped in the water. They had gotten to within 400 meters of the vessel and realized that an armed team was on board.” That realization was enough to end the attack.
Today, sophisticated warships continue patrolling the Indian Ocean, capturing or deterring only a handful of pirates at the cost of millions of dollars per ship annually, and leaving most commercial vessels vulnerable to attack. For probably around a hundred thousand dollars, the car carrier’s owner prevented a hijacking after the pirates had already slipped past the naval cordon.
Self-defense succeeded where the world’s navies failed.
See original here.