Maritime Mercenaries or Innovative Defense? Private Security & the Evolving Piracy Threat

September 29, 2014

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On Sept. 23, the United States joined ReCAAP, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia. The move comes amidst deepening concern about sophisticated piracy attacks in and around the Strait of Malacca, the world’s most trafficked commercial waterway. In addition to growing involvement by governments, private security companies are also joining the effort to suppress Southeast Asian piracy. As John J. Pitney, Jr. and I argue in our new book Private Anti-Piracy Navies: How Warships for Hire are Changing Maritime Security, as pirates’ operations become more refined, so too will the private security schemes to defeat them.

When the epidemic of Somali piracy first grabbed the international spotlight in 2008, the shipping industry was caught flat-footed. Piracy was hardly new—to the contrary, it had periodically flourished off the Horn of Africa dating back at least 2,000 years. But what set Somali pirates apart from their counterparts elsewhere in the world was their business model. Instead of simply boarding ships and stealing valuables, these pirates hijacked even giant supertankers and sailed them back to warlord-controlled ports to wait for ransom. This innovation meant that the economic damage from a single attack was no longer just tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, but millions or tens of millions.

For the first time, piracy could no longer be regarded as simply a cost of doing business. The scale of the problem was soon great enough to justify countermeasures that would not have been cost-effective during previous epidemics. Shipping companies began routing vessels many hundreds of miles out of their way to avoid the danger zone, and some ships increased their speeds—making themselves more difficult for pirates to board, but at the cost of burning frightful amounts of fuel. As pirates extended their reach, though, it became clear that hiring armed private security was the only assurance of safe passage. This took two main forms: guards embarked on merchant ships themselves, and private escort vessels.

Armed private security proved a highly effective deterrent, causing most attacks to be aborted and never allowing a client vessel to be hijacked. As more ships paid for such protection, pirates struggled to find unguarded prey. Further, the use of private security in a defensive role allowed the naval task forces operating around the Horn of Africa to take a more proactive approach to finding and intercepting pirates. With ransom profits shrinking and losses mounting, Somali piracy began to drop at the end of 2011 and receded to manageable levels by 2014.

Unlike the private maritime security companies (PMSCs) that folded after piracy receded in the Strait of Malacca during a previous epidemic a decade ago, however, the key firms that subdued Somali pirates are sticking around. Many are still operating off East Africa, as observers warn that if the shipping industry lets its guard down, piracy could quickly resurge. Others are operating in the Gulf of Guinea off West Africa, which has supplanted Somalia as the world’s most serious piracy hotspot. Now some security firms are returning to Southeast Asia, where Malaccan pirates are returning with a newer, more effective method of attack.

Much like the ransom hijackings off Somalia, the latest attacks elsewhere show considerable sophistication. The so-called “signature attack” in the Gulf of Guinea has been oil theft, wherein pirates hijack tankers, offload millions of dollars worth of petroleum into a tanker of their own and then fence it on the black market. Siphoning oil cargo requires equipment and expertise, but a recent rash of oil theft hijackings in the Strait of Malacca—with 14 since 2011—suggests that the method is spreading.

Yet unlike the Somali piracy epidemic, which attracted large international task forces, the epidemics off West Africa and Southeast Asia are unlikely to receive anywhere near the same naval commitment. The simple reason is that the world’s navies are stretched too thin. Their priority is to maintain the capability to respond to flashpoints in the Black Sea, South China Sea and Suez Canal. The U.S. Navy is absorbed with strikes on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and supporting the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Warships engaged in anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia could easily be diverted to meet one of the other threats in the event of a crisis, but West Africa and the Strait of Malacca are too far away. ReCAAP is a forum for much-needed information sharing and security cooperation, but it is unlikely to blossom into an active pirate-fighting force.

This presents an opportunity for PMSCs to pick up the slack. And while private security was poorly understood and scantily regulated at the start of the Somali epidemic, the industry has matured significantly over the last six years. Initiatives like the Security Association for the Maritime Industry and a series of standards for independent accreditation of PMSCs helped the shipping industry distinguish reputable and competent firms from the adventurers and flakes that have periodically washed into the maritime security sector. National-level regulations enacted during the Somali epidemic provide all parties with improved certainty about who would bear the liability in case of a mishap, and how criminal prosecution would be handled in the event of an unlawful killing.

The established PMSCs now also benefit from a wealth of hard-won experience from the Horn of Africa. They have seen competitors come and go, often undone by imprudent business practices or a casual approach to regulatory compliance. They have evolved their training and tactics to keep up with pirates as their attacks have become more sophisticated and better armed. They have put new technologies like acoustic weapons and reconnaissance drones to the test, and they have determined which ones live up to their billing. This experience is immensely valuable.

But the transition won’t be a smooth one. While the waters off Somalia effectively were ungoverned, much of the pirate activity in the Gulf of Guinea and Strait of Malacca spills into the territorial waters of states like Nigeria and Indonesia, which are decidedly cool to the presence of what they consider foreign mercenaries. Incidents like the arrest and lengthy detention of the crew of the private warship Seaman Guard Ohio by Indian authorities last year show that PMSCs have little choice but to cultivate good relations with regional governments.

Even if those governments impose onerous restrictions, though, the shipping industry will be glad to have any protection it can get. As long as piracy remains costlier than using private security, ship owners will pay up—sometimes into the six figures for a single transit—rather than risk violence to ships, cargo and crew. And as long as armed private security maintains its perfect record of thwarting pirate attacks, even skeptical regulators will accept PMSCs as the best solution the market can offer.

 

John-Clark Levin is the author, with John J. Pitney, Jr., of Private Anti-Piracy Navies: How Warships for Hire are Changing Maritime Security (Lexington Books, 2013). Levin is currently pursuing a graduate degree at Harvard University.

Mr. Levin will speak about his book at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC on Thursday 2 October at 6PM. RSVP here.

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5 thoughts on “Maritime Mercenaries or Innovative Defense? Private Security & the Evolving Piracy Threat

  1. As someone who worked on the NATO Maritime component staff from 2007-2010, I will say that warships rather than private contractors made the difference in the anti-piracy campaign. NATO, EU, and other multinational warship groups were the key element in driving pirates away from the Bab al Mandeb strait and the Gulf of Somalia. Private contractors may have a role in Africa where the geography and lack of strong states gives pirates an advantage. Southeast Asia however has a number of small, capable navies that can more than deal with any attempts at piracy in/around Malacca. Singapore and Indonesia have gotten very good at this process.

    1. Piracy off Somalia increased despite naval forces. The improved intel-led naval operations combined with the deterrent of PCASP and greater adherence to BMP were the difference. PMSC only have a role off Somalia whilst UNSCR remains in place.
      West Africa and SE Asia all have sovereign rights to TTW, hence PMSCs cannot operate there.
      SE Asia navies and coast guard have continued to struggle to suppress recent spate of attacks and hijacks. In both regions, underreporting, criminal gangs (plus suspected inside job) have made it that bit more difficult to deter spate of incidents.
      Overconfidence in capability is the downfall of many operations. Collaboration, coordination and information sharing remain the key to driving down the success of pirates and armed robbers.
      BTW, NATO and EU maintain different mandates. Hardly the most joined up way to conduct operations under UNSCR.

  2. Sir Francis Drake called…he wants credit for this idea.

    If Privateering throughout history has taught us anything it is that it’s the first step to Piracy, which has many forms.

    As for PMSC’s, one Niccolo Machiavelli had a thought on them in his obscure, inconsequential musings known as “The Prince”…………..”The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain is not skilful, you are ruined in the usual way.”

  3. It is hoped that increased regulation will control armed security personnel, however, the desire of shippers to get their vessels turned around to tight time limits removes the incentive to investigate extra judicial killings by these security personnel on the high seas.

  4. War Ships for hire ? I hardly think so as the RUF’s will be thrown out of the window. Vessels have the right of defence not attacking a pirate vessel that is not shooting at them.
    Mercenaries are illegal as I’m sure the author knows and I would hesitate a guess and say that this word has been used to make the book more attractive to the prospective buyer!
    As for increased regulation, there are enough regulations at the moment and one does not need more to muddy the waters.
    As for ” Initiatives like the Security Association for the Maritime Industry” SAMI has contributed very little to the industry as regards regulations. They are a lobby group nothing more and nothing less.

    Of course the comment by our NATO friend above is only to be expected. It was and still is the PMSC’s that have taken the bite out of the pirates. I am not saying that NATO – EUNAVFOR have not contributed but they have hardly fought off attacks as the PMSC’s have done and that is why no merchant vessel with PCASP’s on board have been hi-jacked.
    Dennis, perhaps you could inform me of these extra-judicial killings you mention ? As apart from the Italian Marines killing the two Indian fishermen I know of no other instance.