By Arnold Lewis
May 13th, 2011

In 2009, 214 ships were attacked by pirates operating off the coast of Somalia. In 2010, 219 ships were attacked. As of April 28, twenty-six ships were still being held by Somali pirates for ransom. In addition, forty-nine ships were hijacked by Somali pirates last year, with twenty ships hijacked this year. However, piracy in the Indian Ocean is not an extremely large problem; piracy barely makes a dent in international shipping worldwide. But, the international community cannot condone piracy. Although some believe that this problem can be solved through either occupation of the Somali fishing villages or through stationing massive naval fleets in the region (among other solutions), I believe that shipping companies should hire private security teams for protection. These teams can defend the ship when the navies of the world cannot, and the quartering of private security teams aboard shipping vessels offers a far more cost-effective solution to the problem.

Before understanding why private security teams are such an effective solution, one needs to know who the pirates are and what tools they use. The Somali pirate gangs consist of three different “classes” of pirate: ex-fishermen, ex-soldiers, and technicians (Hunter). The ex-fishermen are veteran seafarers with a wealth of knowledge about the sea around them, and are considered the “brains” by BBC reporter Robyn Hunter. The ex-soldiers are the “muscle” and may be either former Somali Army from the days of the Barre regime or fighters from the various clans in Somalia (Hunter). The technicians are computer whizzes and know how to operate the more high-end equipment and advanced weaponry (Hunter). Currently, there are four major pirate gangs operating along the Somali coast. They are the National Volunteer Coast Guard, the Marka Group, the Puntland Group, and the Somali Marines (“GlobalSecurity.org”). The National Volunteer Coast Guard specializes in intercepting small vessels and fishing boats around Kismayo, in the south. The Marka Group is the umbrella term for a loose collection of pirate gangs operating in and around the town of Marka, which is also in the south. The Puntland Group is similar to the Marka Group; the Puntland Group is the umbrella term for a loose collection of traditional Somali fishermen in and around the breakaway province of Puntland, in the northwest. The Somali Marines are the most powerful and sophisticated pirate gang, having the most advanced weapons and a rigid military structure (“GlobalSecurity.org”).

In order to conduct their operations, the pirates use a variety of tools at their disposal to find, board, and seize international merchant and shipping vessels. In terms of electronics, the pirates have been known to use Global Positioning Systems, radios, and cell phones to coordinate their attacks (Hunter; Christensen). To board the vessels, the pirates usually carry small, portable ladders or grappling hooks, which enable them to climb up the sides of the ship (Hunter). In addition, the pirates are armed with a variety of weapons, ranging from well known small-arms such as the infamous AKM assault rifle to support weaponry like the ubiquitous RPG-7 grenade launcher (Christensen; Hodge). More important than these, however, are the vessels they use to conduct their operations. Ever since the beginning, they have used skiffs. These are small, fast motorboats capable of approaching a ship unseen before swarming it. In order to extend their range, they now rely on the use of mother ships – trawlers and other larger fishing vessels – to carry them out to ranges of two-hundred fifty miles or more (Axe). These mother ships also allow them to avoid detection by the larger naval vessels in the area (Axe).

 Today, there are many issues surrounding piracy in the Indian Ocean. For one, the rate of attacks against shipping and private vessels has increased. As previously stated, 214 ships were attacked by pirates in 2009 (McDonald). In 2010, 219 ships were attacked by Somali pirates, and in the first four months of 2011, 117 ships have been attacked by Somali pirates so far (“ICC Commercial Crime Services”). In addition, the pirates have shown more willingness to kill their hostages. In 2009, four people were killed by Somali pirates. In 2010, eight people were murdered, and in so far in 2011, seven people have been executed by Somali pirates (“International Maritime Bureau”). Another problem is the ever increasing amount of ransom being paid. In 2005, ransoms demanded were around $1 million dollars, with the average payout being $300,000 dollars (Kemp). In the following years, ransoms demanded have run as high as $18 million dollars, with the average payout being a little over $5 million (Kemp; “Gulf of Aden Operations”). Some payouts have even been over $9 million dollars (Kemp)! In addition, the pirates have recently extended their range. In the beginning, they frequently attacked and attempted to hijack ships less than fifty miles away from the Somali coast (Axe).  Now, they frequently conduct their operations over 1,400 nautical miles (1,611 miles) from the Somali coastline (Dreazen). This has greatly increased the amount of area that ships from Combined Task Forces 150, 151, and 152 have to patrol. However, the chances of being attacked and hijacked remain small; the risk of being attacked is 1:340, and the risk of being hijacked is 1:907 (Christensen).

However, these risks can be greatly reduced for shipping companies through the hiring of private security teams for self-defense. Relatively speaking, they are a very low-cost solution for a high-cost problem. Because the risk of being attacked and hijacked is very low, shipping companies can hire a private security team consisting of three operators for a low cost: about six hundred dollars per day, per person. When combined with the cost of travel, arming the operators, and the like, this would cost about $22,000 dollars for a short, three to four day long voyage through the Maritime Security Patrol Area. In “The Cost of Piracy in the Gulf of Aden,” Ben Unterreiner cites a very useful figure from Steven Levitt’s paper “Measuring Positive Externalities from Unobservable Victim Precaution: An Empirical Analysis of Lojack.” The paper states that if twenty percent of cars in a particular city were equipped with LoJack, car theft would be virtually eliminated in that area. If this principle was applied to the shipping vessels that sail around the Horn of Africa each year (about 25,000), only 5,000 vessels would need private security teams each year; the rest would only have to appear as if they were protected and take the necessary precautions. Total, this would cost about $110 million dollars per year. When compared to how much piracy costs the shipping industry each year ($12 billion dollars!), private security teams become a very attractive solution (Gill).

In addition, private security teams offer a far more effective solution for companies when compared to the fleets of the world. According to Commodore Per Bigum Christensen of the Royal Danish Navy, the most effective solutions are offered by the Merchant Vessel itself. In the past, private security teams have shown their worth, especially in the case of the MV Maersk Alabama. After the ship was hijacked in a case that made world news in 2009, the ship has come under attack twice since then; again in 2009 and once in 2011. After the high-profile case in 2009, the ship hired a small private security team for protection. In both cases, the pirates were repelled with small-arms fire and non-lethal acoustic weaponry on the ship. Other vessels, like the MV Almezaan, have used private security teams to repel boarders and deter attacks. According to Andrew Shapiro, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, “I would note that, to date, not a single ship employing armed guards has been successfully pirated,” (Weinberger). This goes to show the worth of a private security team.

However, there have been other proposed solutions to combat piracy in the Indian Ocean. One proposed solution is to fortify the ship and train the crew. Another proposal has been to simply send more naval vessels into the area in order to cover more ground and effectively deal with hostage situations, or to blockade the Somali fishing villages. A more long-term proposal is to simply occupy the Somali fishing villages and give the population more productive things to do with their time. But, these proposals have several issues.

Fortifying a ship would involve the creation of a safe room, as well as setting up barbed wire on the ship’s guardrails, installing high-pressure water hoses for self defense, creating a stockpile of flares to signal nearby vessels, as well as a well-rehearsed set of procedures to “lock down” the vessel quickly (Christensen; “Maritime Liaison Office”). In addition, the crew would have to be trained and armed, a process that would take a few weeks and cost thousands of dollars. Although these are highly recommended procedures even with a private security team, they are not effective alone. Fortifying the ship does not eliminate the possibility of a hijacking; many ships that had followed Maritime Liaison Office guidelines have been boarded and seized. Although safe rooms have been effective at buying time while naval vessels move into position and special operations boarding teams are deployed to retake the ship, preventing the crisis in the first place should be a ship’s highest priority.

History also showcases the ineffectiveness of these measures. During the high-profile hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama, the crew was trained in tactics and techniques to defend and retake their ship (Baumann). Although they eventually did retake the ship by force, their Captain was still held hostage aboard the vessel’s lifeboat. In addition, Maritime Liaison Office guidelines advise ship captains and their crews to simply give up the vessel instead of fighting back if boarded. This is to prevent the unnecessary loss of life and the heightening of tensions between any surviving crewmembers and the pirates.

Deploying more naval vessels to patrol the shipping lanes and deal with hostage situations is simply not a cost-effective solution. Costing about two billion dollars each year, CTF150, 151, and 152 have been effective at halting piracy near the Somali coastline. However, as the Somali pirates extended their reach and began attacking ships on the far side of the Arabian Peninsula and along the Indian coastline, their successes have been diminished. With over twenty-eight million square miles of area, the Indian Ocean is a very large space to cover. As Vice Admiral Mark Fox said during a Department of Defense news briefing, “there’s a lot of places where we are not.” In addition, as Somali pirates have shown during incidents such as the S/V Quest hijacking, even if some of the thirty-four ships in the area were able to respond quickly to a hostage situation and begin negotiations, the piratrs are still more than willing to execute their hostages.

Proponents of sending more naval vessels to the region often point towards the Malacca Strait as a precedent in anti-piracy operations, where a joint effort between Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and recently, India has effectively stamped out piracy in the area. However, supporters seem to ignore that the Malacca Strait is a much smaller expanse of water than the entire Indian Ocean; the Malacca Strait is a narrow, 500 mile stretch of water. In addition, the Malacca Strait is flanked by three competent and cooperative governments, with a fourth more than willing to provide assistance. The entire Indian Ocean, however, is not. Many of the governments in the region lack the resources to deal with the problem, even when combining their efforts. In addition, many of the governments will not cooperate with each other in order to actively suppress the pirates’ activities.

Other proponents of this method state that the world’s navies should do more, like blockading the Somali fishing villages. However, blockades are very expensive and take time. The coastline of Somalia is comparable to the coastline of the south-eastern United States, which was blockaded during the Civil War. That took 500 Union ships; the US Navy has 289. Although the US Navy can blockade the coastline, no vital national interests are at stake for the US, and the costs to fund and operate such a blockade would be far more than the money lost to pirates each year. Even with an international coalition, the blockade would still be too expensive.

Another, more long-term proposal is to simply occupy the Somali fishing villages and give the population order, jobs, and other activities to fill up their time. However, this is an inadvisable solution. Somalia has been locked in a long-running war between the Al-Qaeda backed Al-Shabaab and the Transitional Federal Government for the past few years. With insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan still fresh in the minds of many politicians, military commanders, and citizenry, no government would want to face yet another Islamist insurgency. Although most of the major pirate strongholds are in the northern half of the country, Al-Shabaab has made gains in the past few years, pushing closer and closer towards the pirate strongholds, which would greatly increase the risks associated with occupying the villages. In addition, this alternative would take time. Essentially, this would require nation-building; albeit, on a smaller scale. The creation of capital and infrastructure in addition to turning them away from piracy to make a quick buck and towards other industries in order to improve their long-term economy are only a few of the challenges that any multinational effort would have to face in the area. Besides, the logistics required would not be worth it in the long run.

Other proposed solutions include simply sailing merchant and shipping vessels around the southern tip of Africa, having shipping companies refuse to pay ransom, and bombing the fishing villages. However, these solutions still have glaring problems. Sending the ships around the southern tip of Africa would not only take longer (an extra fifteen to twenty days each voyage), but this solution would also cost the shipping industry $23.1 billion dollars each year, nearly twice as much as what piracy costs the industry every year (Unteereiner 9). Refusing to pay ransom is also an inadvisable solution; although it will decrease the incentives given for hijacking ships and taking crews hostage for ransom, it would be a horrible public relations move for any business. As for simply bombing the villages, this proposal pays no attention to the fact that the pirate strongholds are not small towns ruled by ruthless warlords, filled with vile black market merchants trying to push their death-dealing wares on the roving gangs of Somali thugs. These are cities filled with women, children, and the elderly. Given the current obsession with minimizing collateral damage, this option is unwise as it would do far more harm than good. In addition, a sustained air campaign would require hundreds of millions of dollars in bombs, missiles, and rockets alone, not to mention the costs of maintaining strike aircraft, refueling them, and the like.

Although piracy is an international problem, it does not require an international solution. Because other proposed solutions are inadequate or logistically and morally inadvisable, shipping companies should station highly-trained private security teams aboard their vessels. These teams can provide more than adequate protection of a ship, the crew, and its cargo at a lower cost than paying ransom, training the crew, or deploying military vessels to patrol the whole Indian Ocean. With this solution, not only will the merchant vessels of the world be far better protected against the pirate threat, but this solution may even drastically reduce the amount of pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean in the long term.

Arnold Lewis is the Content Editor for ENGAGED Magazine and his interests currently lie with International Politics & Security. Currently, he resides in Boulder, Colorado.
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