Arms and the Merchantman

By Larry Cosgriff and Edward Feege

The apparently satisfactory results of those two incidents and others, in which armed security personnel embarked on commercial vessels were successful in thwarting a hijacking of their respective ships, seemed to point at least toward a short-term practical solution to the piracy problem for ship owners and operators. The Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe, Admiral Mark Fitzgerald, even suggested that the use of armed guards might help U.S. and coalition naval forces as they grapple with a piracy problem stretching over thousands of square miles of ocean.

“Those security detachments that are on some of the large commercial ships have been very effective,” Fitzgerald said in early 2010. “It is up to the commercial industry to figure out how to deal with this. But I do not think that we can give them a 100 percent guarantee that we can protect them, nor should we.” 3

That sentiment matched those expressed more than a year earlier by Vice Admiral William Gortney, Commander, Naval Forces Central Command, who called himself “a firm believer” in shipboard security guards. 4

The fact that in late 2010 armed guards still remain an option, as well as a topic of debate, suggests—not surprisingly—that alternatives are nowhere near foolproof. But even with the examples of ship defense cited here (and others) and the seeming encouragement of the U.S. government, many ship owners are reluctant to take that step. Is it time for more of them to revisit the issue?

Why Even Consider Armed Guards?

Currently, most ship operators have adopted one or more of the following measures to keep vessels and crews safe. These countermeasures are discussed and promoted in certain key publications, perhaps most notably in the shipping industry booklet BMP3: Best Management Practices to Deter Piracy off the Coast of Somalia and in the Arabian Sea Area . They include:

Relying on naval protection. This protection can be provided by the U.S.-sponsored Combined Maritime Force, the European Union Naval Force, the Standing NATO Maritime Group when deployed, and national naval task forces deployed by Russia, China, and India. Obtaining protection from those forces usually requires registering with the Maritime Security Centre–Horn of Africa for group transits, sharing information with the UK Maritime Trade Office and the Navy’s Maritime Liaison Office, and moving through the Gulf of Aden via the naval-patrolled International Recommended Transit Corridor, or even as part of national convoys conducted by individual navies operating in the area. It also requires communicating with naval forces by all means, including ship security-alert systems.

Implementing ship-hardening measures. Many operators also make use of various self-protection measures, including physical barriers such as razor wire, electrified fencing, foam, and other non-lethal, self-protection measures.

Adopting the citadel concept. Fitted with emergency rations, water, and a means of external communications, these designated, physically barricaded spaces can protect the crew from pirates until marauders leave or a rescue occurs. The citadel approach, already adopted by many companies, may receive a further boost from the recent examples of the MV Magellan Star —which was retaken by the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Maritime Raid Force as the crew hunkered down in its sanctuary—and the Greek-flagged Lugela , in which the pirates left the ship after crew members locked themselves into the vessel’s engineering spaces.

Using nonlethal defenses. These include devices such as a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), which has been used with some success to disrupt pirate attacks. Water hoses and other defenses also might fall into this category.

Embarking unarmed shipboard guards. Acting almost as security consultants, unarmed guards have counter-boarding training and savvy that some crews may not. Moreover, their very presence, even though unarmed, may be enough to raise questions in the minds of the pirates, thus making them a deterrent to an attack.

Some operators believe that such countermeasures—possibly combined with affordable kidnap and ransom insurance policies—provide a suitable means of managing the piracy risk. Moreover, some navies strongly recommend that approach. Major-General Buster Howes of the European Union Naval Force, for example, has noted approvingly that no vessels comprehensively following BMP3 have been taken by pirates. 5

Less conscientious owners, however, may not adopt any of those measures and still hope for the best. As the European Commission noted last March, “about a quarter of the vessels of all states passing through the area are still failing to register with the Maritime Security Centre–Horn of Africa.” 6 For those operators, it seems as if schedule risk, ignorance, or possibly a dislike of Coalition scrutiny, is enough to prevent them from taking advantage of naval protection.

But even the regional Coalition naval presence—despite its successes in reducing the absolute number of pirate attacks—is no guarantee that a ship is safe. The International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau reported 100 incidents off Somalia during the first half of 2010, including 27 hijackings. Vessels have been taken in the vicinity of the transit corridor, and Somali pirates have shifted their own areas of operations to points farther offshore—some more than 1,000 miles from Somalia’s coast—through the use of “mother ships” and “mother skiffs.”

To some extent, Coalition forces have shifted along with the pirates, although the requirement to monitor an even greater sea area has diluted their coverage to a degree. While the chances of a ship being taken by pirates have dropped as the result of the Coalition naval presence, the odds still remain unacceptably high for some operators.

Likewise, passive measures and nonlethal defenses, while extremely valuable, have not always proved effective. In a March 2010 primer on piracy and armed guards, the U.K.-headquartered law firm Ince & Co. warned that “there has been at least one documented instance where the pirates have shot through a citadel door, killing a crewmember”—and noted that some industry sources discourage their use. 7

Although nonlethal devices such as LRADs have proved their worth on more than one occasion, on others the outcome was more ambiguous. When a private, unarmed security team on board the tanker Biscaglia , for example, used LRADs in November 2008, an unfazed Somali band took the vessel, and the guards were forced to jump overboard to avoid capture.

As that incident suggests, the overall record and capabilities of unarmed security teams are similarly mixed. Tellingly, some U.S.-based security firms canceled their unarmed-guard service offerings in the wake of the Maersk Alabama incident and subsequent threats some Somali pirates have made against U.S. citizens.

None of those methods, in combination or in isolation, has provided an ironclad method of protection against attack. Nor would it be realistic to expect that they would, given the resourcefulness of the pirates. For some ship operators, the measures cited here reduce the risk of hijacking to an acceptable level, and are more than sufficient when compared with alternatives such as armed guards. For others, they are not.

Why the Aversion to Armed Guards?

When speaking of shipboard “armed guards,” it is important to recognize that there are several types, including the following:

• Local, for-hire troops from regional nations

• Extraregional national forces, such as the six-man Russian military detachments that Clipper Group vessels use when transiting the Gulf of Aden region, or the German troops that the German Shipowners Association has recommended

• Private security firms, often relying on former members of various military services

The pro-and-con debate over armed guards has been ongoing for some time within the shipping industry. The cons are overwhelming for numerous ship owners, the International Maritime Organization, Protection & Indemnity (P&I) Clubs—mutual insurance associations that insure shipping lines against third-party liabilities—and maritime unions.

In general, most of those organizations’ concerns are centered in the following areas:

Safety. To many in industry, introducing weapons into the middle of a commercial activity is a recipe for trouble. They cite questions of basic weapon proficiency and proper tactical training, and liability issues if a crewmember, armed guard, or third parties are injured. They also point out the potentially dire consequences of a weapon being discharged on board vessels such as liquid petroleum gas or liquefied natural gas carriers. (That risk has not, however, kept K Line LNG shipping (U.K.) from using armed guards on its tankers). 8

Liability for ship operators, owners, and crewmembers. In addition to crew-safety issues, additional questions such as rules of engagement, chain of command for weapon use, and potential conflicts between flag state, coastal state, port state, and international law all come into play. There is a significant amount of small craft traffic in the western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, as well as a concurrent mixing of legal (e.g., fishing) activities, illicit activities that do not threaten commercial shipping (e.g., people and contraband smuggling), and pirate operations. Misidentifying parties engaged in those activities could result in guards opening fire on a small craft engaged in nonthreatening activities. Something like that occurred in 2008, when U.S. Navy security forces on board the Global Patriot fired on a small Egyptian boat in the Suez Canal.

Legal complications linked to firearms and armed guards. Restrictions on commercial ships carrying arms for self-defense purposes almost invariably involve either the vessel’s flag state or port-state control regulations in specific ports. Most ports will accept arms and ammunition on board a merchant ship for self-defense purposes, provided that they are declared prior to a vessel’s arrival and kept under lock during the vessel’s stay.

Regionally, however, a patchwork of rules governs the handling on ship-borne firearms. While Saudi Arabia allows ships in its waters to openly carry weapons for self-defense, Egypt will not allow vessels transiting the Suez Canal to carry weapons. Other countries, such as Djibouti, place restrictions on “armed ships”—which commercial vessels become when armed security is embarked—or on the passage of guards and their weapons through their airports, ports, or other parts of their territory.

A prime example of those types of problems occurred in June 2010, when the South African Revenue Service, on high alert over potential threats during the World Cup games there, arrested the master and six American armed guards on board the Marshall Islands-flagged MV Red Wing when she called at Richards Bay. The ship, crew, and guards eventually were released, but at the cost of a fine and the loss of 12 days on their schedule.

Threat of escalation. To date, most pirate attacks have involved the use of automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. Pirates have usually initiated these attacks with a fusillade directed at the bridge or accommodation block. Whether the Somalis can take heavier weapons on their skiffs or change their tactics in response to shipboard defenses is uncertain. Nevertheless, industry organizations such as the International Group of P&I Clubs have pointed to the threats made by Somali pirate groups against U.S. shipping in the aftermath of the Maersk Alabama incident to argue against armed guards. Others point to the “massive escalation” that would occur if pirates routinely expected to draw fire.

Cost. Although the fees for armed-security services usually are kept confidential, one source says that a three-person team costs $21,000 per day, while another U.K.-based company is said to charge $55,000 per transit, using Yemeni naval guards. 9 To place that in context, marine security consultancy Idarat Maritime estimates that the protection of a generic, 25,000 deadweight ton bulk carrier would carry a $80,000-$100,000 price tag, excluding armed guards. 10 Industry sources say those figures probably are too high for most foreign-flagged ships, and too low for U.S.-flagged vessels.

Time for Another Look?

Despite those disadvantages, some companies believe that armed guards are useful in defending their ships from attack. Thus they have developed procedures—many cumbersome—to comply with the host of U.S. and foreign laws governing shipboard weapons and teams. In general, those procedures include:

• Adhering to national weapons export and import laws if embarking weapons or an armed team

• Declaring the presence of arms on board when entering a foreign port

• Ensuring compliance with the laws of regional nations by employing members of their armed forces as guards

• Assuaging otherwise skeptical groups such as the Baltic & International Maritime Council, the world’s largest private shipping organization, by using military personnel as guards

• Developing procedures that bodies such as the Suez Canal Authority can approve in order to move arms through otherwise off-limits areas

Not surprisingly, operators of some of the most vulnerable vessels—those that are relatively slow (less than 18 knots sustained), have a low freeboard, or are encumbered by towed gear—often see the most value in armed guards. Some examples include Spain’s Albacora Group, which has seen private security guards on board its tuna ships fight off at least one pirate attack in 2010. That self-protection measure has been lauded by Spain’s minister of defense. 11

Cable-laying and seismic survey vessels, which need to maintain a slow and steady course during operations, also have embarked armed guards, at least for some voyages off the Horn of Africa. In September 2010, the Norwegian-flagged seismic survey vessel Geo Barents reportedly repulsed pirates off the coast of Kenya with well-timed gunfire. 12 Likewise, chemical tanker operator Odfjell reportedly has petitioned the Norwegian and Singaporean governments to allow it to carry weapons or armed guards on board its ships—which feature relatively low freeboards—notwithstanding a major international tanker owners’ association’s negative position on armed security. 13

Vessels whose crews would be exposed to special animosity from pirate groups—or from Islamist groups to whom pirate captives could be “shopped”—are also candidates for carrying armed guards. There are some indications that Israel-headquartered Zim has armed guards on some of its vessels, despite the fact that the crews on board its ships are sourced from around the globe by ship and crew management companies. Nevertheless, gunfire reportedly played a role in deterring a possible Red Sea attack on the container ship Zim India in September 2010. 14

And of course, with the threats made against U.S. crews and vessels in the aftermath of the Maersk Alabama saga and the sensitivity of some of their cargoes, it is no surprise that some U.S.-flagged ships routinely use armed guards. As is, the U.S. Coast Guard requires U.S.-flagged operators to have counterpiracy protocols—most of which echo BMP3 —amended to their vessel security plans before entering high-risk waters such as the Somali Basin. However, the Coast Guard also directs that such vessels transiting the Horn of Africa region “supplement ship’s crew with armed or unarmed security based on a vessel-specific piracy threat assessment conducted by the operator and approved by the Coast Guard.” 15

Armed guards are not necessary in all situations, they must be under the command of the vessel master when deployed, and need to be carefully vetted before hiring, the Coast Guard has said. But overall, the regulation makes clear that armed teams are an acceptable option under some circumstances.

A Brief Window

While the U.S. and other examples suggest that armed guards do present an effective, last-resort, point defense for commercial vessels, they do not obviate the need for any outside assistance. As with other self-protection measures, they are best suited to buying time until naval or other security forces can arrive. Many security experts refer to a “15-minute window” in describing the relatively short time period between a bridge watch visually sighting pirates and the pirates successfully boarding the ship. Unless the ship is able to outrun or deter the pirates during that brief time—or outside help appears in the form of a naval vessel or aircraft—the ship likely will be taken. Armed teams may change that equation to a degree, but most will not be equipped to engage pirates in a sustained firefight, leaving the need for assistance intact.

The liability and other drawbacks of armed guards discussed herein will remain problematic, but at least some ship operators have grappled with that risk equation and decided to embark them anyway. Likewise, the escalation dynamic between ships and pirates is unpredictable, but it appears unlikely that pirate groups would or could change their tactics significantly. And as one Denmark-based shipping-line owner put it, “Somebody is climbing on board your vessel and pointing at you with a machine gun. I mean, it cannot go much further. So if a warning shot in the air or a number of warning shots in the water just in front of the boat could stop it, then I would not say it has escalated, it has decreased.” 16

Armed guards are unlikely to be a panacea that would allow the current naval presence to be significantly reduced. But as with other vessel defenses, they can provide time for both ships under attack and overstretched multinational forces to respond to an attack. Moreover, unlike other defenses, directed fire lets pirates know that their next ship seizure will entail more than an interception and obstacle-avoidance problem.

1. John Hooper, “Italian cruise ship fends off pirates with gunfire,”, 26 April 2009 ( ).

2. “Pirates foiled in second attack on Maersk Alabama cargo ship,”, 19 November 2009 ( ).

3. Meredith Buel, “Commercial Ships Need Armed Guards to Fight Pirates,”, 21 April 2010 ( ).

4. Andrew Gray, “Armed guards would deter Somali pirates – US Navy,” Reuters , 12 December 2008 ( ).

5. Adam Corbett, “Some ships ‘playing chicken’ in Gulf of Aden, Navy Warns,” TradeWinds , 29 September 2010 (; subscription required).

6. Quoted in the Office of Naval Intelligence, Worldwide Threat to Shipping , 17 March 2010.

7. Ince & Co. International Law Firm, Piracy: Issues Arising from the Use of Armed Guards , March 2010, ( ).

8. “K Line tells what halts pirates,” Fairplay Daily News , 13 October 2010 ((; subscription required).

9. Sam Bateman, “Riding Shotgun: Armed Security Guards Onboard Merchant Ships,” RSIS Commentaries , S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, 5 March 2010. pp. 1-2.

10. Quoted in “What peace of mind costs,” Fairplay Daily News , 13 August 2010 (; subscription required).

11. “Basque tuna vessel fends off pirates,”, 4 March 2010, ( ); “‘Panic room’ creates new way to fend off pirates,”; 29 September 2010, ( ).

12. “Norwegian ship fires back,” TradeWinds , 27 September 2010 ( ).

13. “Shipping company wants armed guards,” Barents Observer, 18 August 2010 ( ).

14. “Incidents spark strait alert,” Fairplay Daily News , 10 September 2010 ( , subscription required).

15. U.S. Coast Guard, Coast Guard’s Port Security Advisory 2-09 (Rev 1), 12 May 2010, 3. PSA 2-09 is the publicly releasable version of a more sensitive document, Maritime Security (MARSEC) Directive 104-6 (Rev 3).

16. Tom Gjelten, “As Piracy Insurance Gets Pricier, Owners Try Guards,” NPR, 8 May 2009 ( ).


Mr. Cosgriff has more than 35 years experience in the maritime industry and has held several senior executive positions with leading international shipping companies. He is a principal at Maritime Lens LLC, a consultancy focusing on the national-security dimensions of the maritime domain.

Mr. Feege is also a principal at Maritime Lens LLC. He has written numerous articles and reports on maritime and transportation affairs.


More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Mon, 2016-06-13

You are cordially invited to: U.S. Coast Guard Update A discussion with: Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, USCG25th Commandant of the U.S...

2016 Naval History Conference

View All

From the Press

Guest Speaker & Book Signing

Fri, 2016-05-27

Keynote Speaker & Book Signing

Mon, 2016-05-30

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership