Defending against Somali pirates.
April 11, 2009 7:07 AM   Subscribe

Recent hostage taking by Somali pirates from ships near their border makes me wonder why it's illegal to arm a ship with weapons to protect themselves from attack?

If the pirates know that they'll be on the receiving end of machine gun fire or larger weapons.....they might think twice about attacking.
posted by boby to Law & Government (22 answers total)
I heard something about this on the radio yesterday. The explanation was that countries won't allow armed ships in their ports.
posted by footnote at 7:23 AM on April 11, 2009

Here's a blog post from someone with reasonable credentials that talks about it:

Basically, it seems like "shooting back will only make them angrier!" is the dominant mentality, and with good reason. Cargo crews are generally not soldiers. Also, I imagine most nations would be unhappy at the idea of heavily-armed civialian vessels of various nationalities coming and going from their ports every day.
posted by Humanzee at 7:24 AM on April 11, 2009

I'm not exactly sure, but the only thing I can think of is that the ships being attacked are more often than not merchant ships, so there's two possibilities based on that:

a) all possible cargo room is used to transport as many goods as possible

or the more likely

b) issue of permitting. If a ship that was permitted and registered as a merchant ship to the government, I would presume having arms on board would violate that registration.

Again, I'm not a lawyer or a government expert on maritime commerce or warfare, so this is just the only thing I can think of off the top of my head.

Great question, though!
posted by seandq at 7:26 AM on April 11, 2009

Whoops, here's from an earlier thread ("how do pirates hijack a supertanker?" 11/23/08):

"1- Private ships are not allowed to carry fatal weapons by international agreement. Doing so would make them pirates themselves. Therefore, even the most massive tankers is, essentially, defenseless." - paisley henosis
posted by seandq at 7:28 AM on April 11, 2009

I'm mystified why no one tries Q ships.

Q ships were mock merchant vessels that, when attacked, turned out to be heavily armed military vessels.

Put a bunch of Marines on an empty supertanker, sail it into the gulf, and see if you can draw a pirate attack.

The pirate situation is mystifying. Any sensible person could think up a dozen ways to discourage these guys. How about escorting merchant vessels with armed boats that don't put into port? How about armed helicopters that take off before the merchant vessel puts into port? How about changing the law about armed merchant vessels putting into port?
posted by musofire at 7:29 AM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

It largely isn't illegal. But shipping companies generally have compelling reasons not to do this, as the cost of equipping, training, and insuring armed freighters generally exceeds the risk of having any particular ship be seized.

There were 42 ships seized off the Horn of Africa last year. At approximately $2 million ransom per ship, that cost the shipping companies $84 million in ransom, in addition to any costs that arose from ships being late or cargo spoiling. If the shipping companies had known in advance which ships were going to be seized, arming them would have been far less costly than that.

Unfortunately, there are in excess of 18,000 ships that pass through the Suez Canal every year. To put a real dent in piracy by arming merchants, the shipping companies would have to arm a significant percentage of their vessels. If it costs as much as $10,000 to arm a freighter--and I can't imagine it would be anywhere near that cheap--then it's worth it to just eat the losses due to piracy rather than absorb the massive expense of arming your ships. A single M2 .50 cal. machine gun costs approximately $14,000, and you'd at least four of them per ship. This represents a massive expenditure to counter what is still a pretty marginal threat.

On top of the material cost of arming freighters, the way shipping insurance works is that every single trip involves a new insurance policy, designed specifically around the route and cargo for each trip. Sending ships through the Canal, the Straights of Malacca, or other pirate-infested waters will thus be more expensive than sending them around the Cape of Good Hope or anywhere in the Atlantic. But arming vessels isn't something that can be done for specific trips: your vessels are either armed or they aren't. This will increase the cost of insuring every trip with that ship, not just the ones in dangerous waters. Thus the cost becomes prohibitively expensive very, very quickly.

In addition, freighter crews are notoriously. . . fluid, particularly for non-officer seamen. The prospect of potentially having to train the equivalent of an entirely new crew every year is a daunting one. If training a single sailor costs $5000 (which is a complete guess, but seems to me to be reasonable for a two week course in heavy-weapons use and safety) then that right there could easily amount to tens of thousands of dollars per ship per year.

Now remember that last year, the most active year for piracy off the Horn of Africa in centuries, pirates seized 42 ships. That's approximately 0.2% of the ships that used the shipping lane there. No shipping company is going to drop tens of thousands of dollars per year on such a remote possibility. They're much more likely to spend an extra thousand or two in insurance on those trips that do pass by Somalia than incur massive expenses on equipment and training which will probably never be used.
posted by valkyryn at 7:36 AM on April 11, 2009 [25 favorites]

What valkyryn said.

Additionally, the crew of merchant ships have no incentive to risk their own lives defending their ships.

As it is, there's a sort of understanding: Pirates treat the crew very well, and the crew don't offer resistance. Nobody dies, everybody hangs around and waits for the ransom payment, and then it's over. I even read somewhere that the pirates were bringing in caterers to prepare Western food for the seamen.

Now imagine what happens if Bruce Willis is on the ship. Probably it gets ugly with the other hostages.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:05 AM on April 11, 2009

Insurance costs. Insurers don't like guns. They have a tendency to cause compemsible injury and death.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:22 AM on April 11, 2009 [3 favorites]

If we've got air marshals on planes, why not the equivalent on ships? A good role for a company like Blackwater/Xe, I think. Still probably expensive, but solves the problem of shipping companies buying/owning arms and training a transient crew.
posted by blaneyphoto at 8:35 AM on April 11, 2009

The pirate problem has a simple solution but the political cost, especially for America, seems high.
posted by gnuls at 8:46 AM on April 11, 2009

blaneyphoto, I'd imagine that someone like Blackwater could easily charge $10k for a single protected ship, which may or may not see a single pirate. Simply getting insurance, which you have to do anyways, is probably cheaper.

If you actually want to do something about the pirates, you'd probably need to send in Blackwater guns blazing to pull a Tripoli on 'em. Which is problematic on a number of levels. It's just more trouble than it's worth for anything but a sovereign government to handle. So the shipping companies will continue to bitch and moan until such time as their complaints grow serious enough that a real navy/marine corps detachment is dispatched to deal with the problem permanently. India is a pretty good candidate, given both their proximity and the fact that smashing up pirates is a historically proven way for growing regional powers to show their military prowess.
posted by valkyryn at 9:11 AM on April 11, 2009

How about escorting merchant vessels with armed boats that don't put into port?

I'm pretty sure that this is called a Navy. Lots of nations have them. Some contribute ships and personnel to a task force (CTF151) that operates in the worst area(s) to attempt to protect shipping passing through that area... :-)

Seriously, though, I've seen an article online by an ex-RN minesweeper commander who argues that the task force would be better served using helicopter assault ships and their embarked helos to tackle Somali pirates...

Looks like he was right, as when I went searching for an article for that CTF151 link above, the one I found is about the USS Boxer, an LHD class helicopter assault ship being deployed as flagship...
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 9:42 AM on April 11, 2009

High-Tech Defenses
against pirates.
posted by boby at 10:04 AM on April 11, 2009

Ironmouth nailed it. P & I Clubs do not want the liability.
posted by adamvasco at 10:05 AM on April 11, 2009

Someone I know who builds yachts for rich people told me that it is fairly common practice to include compartments for storing hidden gun-shaped cargo, legalities be damned. Makes sense to me.
posted by Hildago at 11:28 AM on April 11, 2009

They just mentioned it the NY Times today. Insurance.
posted by sully75 at 11:38 AM on April 11, 2009

All of above ... AND

- Most people don't want to shoot/kill other people (so you'd need willing crew)

- Most people don't want to be shot back at to defend a load of wheat (or whatever)

- If the pirates 'get angry' or there's a firefight - what do blasts of automatic fire do to the ship and/or cargo ? (at the moment, when they're freed, the ship continues on it's journey - late but it completes its delivery)

- what amount does a ship owner have to pay to the family of dead crew members?

Now if the pirates made a habit of harming the crews, or actually stealing the cargoes, or damaging the ships - things might be different. But they don't.
posted by Xhris at 12:50 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

i like to imagine what a crisis aboard a heavily-armed tanker would look like in light of the exxon vadez clusterfuck.

not a pretty sight.
posted by klanawa at 1:40 PM on April 11, 2009

Looks like he was right, as when I went searching for an article for that CTF151 link above, the one I found is about the USS Boxer, an LHD class helicopter assault ship being deployed as flagship...

Don't forget that the USS Boxer houses and can deploy an entire Marine Expeditionary Unit, with all the instant-on kick-ass that entails.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:42 PM on April 11, 2009

I'm mystified why no one tries Q ships.

This same question was asked by a caller during a Talk of the Nation interview [advance to 06:47] last Thursday with retired Navy Cmdr. John Patch. Patch said the use of Q ships are only appropriate under formal (declared) war conditions and the situation with Somalian pirates is criminal civil activity.

Patch also maintains a) the piracy threat is overstated relative to the # of ships taken:total number of ships in the water, and b) it's all about the money.
posted by jamaro at 6:12 PM on April 11, 2009

*cough* risk of mutiny *cough*
posted by dhartung at 12:32 AM on April 12, 2009

Don't forget that the USS Boxer houses and can deploy an entire Marine Expeditionary Unit, with all the instant-on kick-ass that entails.

Yeah, I know.

Coincidentally, I was on a short course this week intro to US Navy CV and LHA/LHD design and Ops - I was hugely impressed by the LHD capability - I wasn't aware just how much they pack aboard those things.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 10:06 AM on April 12, 2009

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