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

Navy soldiers engaging Pirates. Image: Eric L. Beauregard/Wikimedia

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 29 September 2014.

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.


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