Is Arming Ship Crews the Answer?

The recent hijacking of an US-flagged ship and subsequent rescue of its captain by Navy SEAL sharpshooters has finally brought the ongoing piracy in the Gulf of Aden to the front of Americans’ minds. While Somali piracy has been happening since the early 1990’s, it has clearly escalated over the last few years.

Given that the Gulf of Aden is part of the Suez Canal, avoiding it for shipping is not a viable option. Each year, 20,000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden, including 12% of the world’s oil supply. The Suez Canal was built because the alternatives were poor.

With the almost complete absence of a functioning government in Somalia, expecting help from the land is a fool’s hope. And sending troops ashore to deal with the pirates a la Tripoli doesn’t seem likely. Does anyone remember what happened the last time we had soldiers in Somalia?

So, the issue with have to be addressed at sea. At first glance, it seems like the solution would be to arm the crews of ships.

Shipping companies are hesitant to arm their crews for a number of reasons, including:

  1. Fears that it will lead to an escalation of hostilities.
  2. Concerns that the crews would not be trained in the use of arms.
  3. Restrictions on carrying arms into various ports of call.

At this point, a hard truth must be faced: the Somali fisherman engaging in piracy have a pretty good deal. Their actions have not met much risk or resistance, and it pays millions of dollars. Even is they only personally see a tiny percentage of that, it will greatly surpass any potential earnings from the overfished Horn of Africa.

As for the first concern, unless we are wiling to accept this as a cost of doing business (and likely an accelerating cost), force must be met with force. The hostilities will likely escalate no matter what the shipping industry does.

The second and third concerns, however, are perfectly legitimate, and make the arming of ships unlikely. While training with weapons can be addressed, given the current state of training for seaman, you might not want to hold you breath.

And, the laws at hundreds of ports of call are unlikely to be changed any time soon.

Given the vast size of the Gulf of Aden, relying exclusively on military support is not viable either. There are simply too many ships and too much area to cover.

But how about putting armed personnel on the ships as they sail through dangerous waters? These could potentially be soldiers, but the private sector (e.g. mercenaries) might actually address the problem better.

Armed personnel could board the ship at sea before it enters the Gulf of Aden, and be picked up by another ship once safe waters are reached. And if this is run by private contractors, perhaps the parent company could take on the financial liability of piracy while they’re on-board.

Yes, it would be expensive, but it would be less than the millions paid for ransom. And the deterrent would quickly reduce the rate of piracy. These pirates/fisherman are bullies, not soldiers.

As the rate of piracy declines, so will the cost.

Obama made a gutsy choice by giving the go ahead to the sharpshooters. If things had gone badly, the political cost would certainly have been high (not to mention his having blood on his hands).

It was also the correct choice. Violence is the only thing these thugs will understand, and we should take steps show them a great deal of it.

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