Are Weapons the Answer To Counter Ship Piracy? Pt. 1

Published Jun 6, 2011 11:06 PM by The Maritime Executive

Written by:  Andrew Kain, CEO and Ric Filon, Director Maritime Services, AKE Ltd

This paper is intended to help inform the debate on the use of arms, in particular, armed Sea Marshals, in the protection of vessels conducting commercial business.

At the outset AKE acknowledges an interest through its support to GAC Solutions in the provision of maritime security services and support to maritime clients. This paper provides objective analysis of the situation confronting the maritime industry in respect of piracy, its growing effect on business, and the arming of ships.

A better understanding of the factors that will affect the maritime adventure with the introduction of weapons to vessels is required. The following is a summary of those factors.


The underlying motivation to arm vessels is a genuine desire to protect crews, ships and cargo. However, the debate currently seems to be driven more by the following: fear induced pressure on the stakeholders; the questionable authority of some proponents of arming ships; frustration throughout the industry at the apparent ease with which pirates can gain access and control of ships.

There is also much confusion on the subject of arming vessels, with the polarised views of the absolutely "NO" lobby and the definitely "YES" lobby, an uncertain legal environment, the effects of competing interests and the absence of real direction.

The effect of an over-dramatic media creates a perception of the frequency and impact of piracy attacks that is not borne out by statistics. Also, the argument for arming ships increasingly relies on the use of the strap line “No ship with armed escorts has been taken.” There are many equally true statements such as, “ships with particular funnel markings have not been taken”.


While piracy is a global phenomenon, as confirmed by the graph and map attached, the main focus of concern is towards the Gulf of Aden/Indian Ocean and in particular Somali sponsored piracy.

In our view, the real debate should not be as to whether armed Sea Marshals are appropriate for defence of vessels, but how to better protect shipping on a global basis. However, within the scope of this paper we will focus only on the issue of arms in protecting a maritime adventure.

Where the choice is „armed protection? or „no armed protection? we aim to provide clear guidelines as to how to evaluate the likely efficacy of weapons deployed and the capabilities of those employed to use them.

We shall also provide some practical considerations in relation to rules of engagement and responsibility. In our view, the employment of armed guards does not, and should never allow the delegation of responsibility for their actions, or the accountability for the consequences from the employer.

The Risk Assessment

The start point in the decision making process as to whether to employ armed support for a maritime adventure should be based on a full understanding of the risks that must be mitigated. In the context of this paper this is piracy, or perhaps more accurately, the unauthorised access to a vessel of unknown persons with a view to detaining the crew, ship and cargo for ransom of some kind, or the removal of cargo and / or possessions of value. (This covers situations globally).

While this risk is not exclusive to the Gulf of Aden or Indian Ocean the issue, and in particular the cost to stakeholders, is more pronounced in this region; therefore, we will concentrate on Somali pirates and their modus operandi.

It is fundamentally important to understand the MO (modus operandi) of pirates and their training and equipment; indeed, without an understanding any decision is likely to be flawed. Also, and in relation to Somali pirates, the debate as to whether they are actually pirates or terrorists, in the context of defending against them, is purely academic and has more to do with political agendas than providing a solution to the problem, and has no place in the threat assessment other than help define their motivation.

The problem in the Gulf is primarily a land-based issue and will be resolved ultimately, if ever, with a political and economic solution in what is called Somalia. It is important to acknowledge that piracy is also an economic or commercial proposition and attacking its commerciality is important. Somali pirates range from the poorly equipped criminal opportunist to the highly organised groups employing mother ships and a variety of weapons and tactics. The fundamental issue is what can be done to protect the integrity of the maritime adventure in the most cost-effective way and which will be applicable in all risk areas.

In any risk assessment, it is advisable to look at the situation from the attacker?s perspective. It is also important to understand the three elements that are necessary for any successful attack.

1. The motivation: As stated above this is clearly a commercial proposition with large sums to be made.

2. Opportunity: This is provided by the target market, i.e. ships; and in the case of transiting the Gulf of Aden it is fundamentally important to understand the opportunity a vessel presents to any potential attacker.

3. Capability: This is the resource, expertise and the training required by pirates to be able to take advantage of any opportunity presented to them.

(With regards to motivation, if we are successful in removing the opportunities that exist and restrict the capabilities of the pirates it will become a less rewarding enterprise for pirates and in doing so we attack their motivation).

A brief example of this may be that if 20,000+ ships transit the Gulf of Aden each year, this provides 20,000 possible opportunities. While other obvious factors will remove some of these transiting vessels from the "opportunity" category many more vessels could remove themselves from it if their Master and crew understood and were confident in the defensive capabilities of their vessels.

Size, speed and freeboard are characteristics that, if supported by good procedures, should require no additional security and, properly utilised, will put many ships beyond the capabilities of the pirates. In principle, the identification and removal of as much opportunity as is possible (without affecting the commercial enterprise) and the restriction of the pirates? capability to effectively deploy their resources
combined with good procedures and their effective application will substantially mitigate the risk and will reduce the threat to shipping in general

A statement of the blindingly obvious, but fundamentally important, is that to achieve their aim, pirates must gain access to the controls of the target vessel. Gaining access to the deck alone need not necessarily provide access to controls. In any attack, we need to look at it from the pirate?s perspective and the problems confronting them in achieving their objectives. They must come alongside the target vessel; they must climb the vessel to gain access to the deck; they have to traverse the deck and companionways to gain access to and take over the controls. They must make a transit to a safe port and then carry out the rest of their activities.

Resources they will require include a mother ship (particularly in exploiting opportunities that may exist out into the Indian Ocean), launches or skiffs to come alongside the target vessel, makeshift ladders or means to gain access to the handrails and thereafter the deck, and weapons (mainly to intimidate, such as RPG7s and AK47s). Difficulties that will confront pirates are such as; sea states, bad weather, height and difficulty of freeboard to climb, speed of target vessel, wash and manoeuvring, as well as weapons effectiveness (they do not have the weapons with the capabilities of stopping the majority of ships unless their intimidating image prevails!). A stationary vessel in a calm sea is a considerably easier prospect than one that is manoeuvring at speed. All mariners and pirates know this.


...Stay tuned for Part 2 of Andrew Kain's paper "Are Weapons the Answer To Counter Ship Piracy?" on the Thursday edition of the MarEx newsletter!