Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sea marshals?

No need for a dramatic rescue this time around:

The Maersk Alabama, the American-flagged ship captured briefly by pirates in April before a dramatic rescue of its captain, came under fire early Wednesday morning off the Somalia coast, but evaded the attackers.

Four men in a skiff sped within 300 yards of the container ship, firing automatic weapons in an attempt to board it, according to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. A security team aboard the Alabama fired back and managed to fend off the attack, the Navy said.
My instinctive reaction is to cheer the virility the Maersk has acquired over the last year. Whether or not it is economically prudent for cargo ship operators to hire private security forces is another question for which it is difficult to get precise data. Annually, around 20,000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden, the globe's piracy hotspot. From January to September of last year, there were 63 attempted or successful ship hijackings. That translates to 1 in 235 trips resulting in a pirate encounter. The WSJ article excerpted above also reports on an apparently successful piracy operation:

On Tuesday, pirates released 36 crew members from a Spanish tuna trawler after
holding them hostage for more than six weeks. A man who told the Associated Press he was a pirate said the captors had been paid a $3.3 million ransom.
If the average hijacking attempt results in half that payoff, it comes to $7,000 per ship journey through this susceptible area heading toward the Suez canal. A week's worth of a ten-man security team is going to cost more than that. Obviously these are very rough calculations, but presumably the ultimate conclusion is the same--a cargo ship with firepower doesn't make financial sense for ship operators, else most of them would load their ships up. Other deterrents like arming crew members or randomly equipping some ships with security could conceivably be more cost effective than putting security forces on all of them would be. The problem with the latter tactic is that those who don't lock-and-load become free riders of those who do, like I benefit from several neighbors who own guns, even though I don't have any.

If the free rider problem exists and it is not cost-effective to equip every ship with a security detail, I wonder if something akin to sky marshals for cargo ships would be desirable (the US Coast Guard has a sea marshall program, but it involves boarding searches by identifiable military personnel to ensure in-bound ships do not pose a threat to the harbors receiving them). The current generation of Navy servicemen haven't seen the action those in the Army and Marines have. The capacity is there, so why not use it? These pirates are legitimate military targets. After all, they have official spokesmen:

"It narrowly escaped and opened fire on us," said the man, who identified himself as Abdullahi Nor, a pirate spokesman. "One of our colleagues was injured in the attack." Mr. Nor said he had spoken to the would-be hijackers by satellite phone.
If you're aware of the subject being addressed in detail, please point me to the source in the comments.


Black Sea said...

Now, I admit that I know nothing about weapons, naval tactics, and so forth, so if I've got the weapons and their capacities wrong, sorry. But here goes:

Place teams of two sea marshalls on as many cargo ships as you can sustain given resources of money and manpower. Whenever a pirate boat approaches, you don't fend them off or warn them away. You use a shoulder-fired missle launcher (or something of the sort) to blow up their boat. Then you strafe the water with machine gun fire. You never, ever, take any prisoners.

It think it might work.

Vicioussss said...

Behavior modification is a desirable outcome, even if there's some temporary economic loss.

Audacious Epigone said...

Both comments capture my sentiments.

Bill said...

Maersk is a huge shipping concern. Their containers are often marked "Maersk," as are their ships. Observe this picture of the Maersk Alabama:

All they need to do is put security on board long enough to gain a reputation of "don't mess with Maersk," and then they can stop.

This could easily be cost-effective, since they are big.

Audacious Epigone said...


I would think, too, that the US placing sea marshals on ships flying the American flag would establish a similar reputation for our shipping interests.

Anonymous said...

How about dual-duty? Shipmates that also would not hesitate to pull the trigger? I think of it like the cowboys on a trail ride, herding cattle from point A to point B, their primary objective. Their secondary objective? To blow the heads off anyone messing with their inventory.