Industry » Features » Piracy and the Rise of Armed Security

Piracy and the Rise of Armed Security

OO Glynne Fletcher Barbed 356x255

The privatization of security has boomed. It has become good business – worth several hundred billion dollars in the U.S. alone – with private security forces swelling to the point they eclipse even the number of official law enforcement officers in some countries. Civilians are increasingly relied upon as the first line of protection, whether that’s an unkempt security guard sitting in a mall or a dapper ex-Navy Seal watching over a billionaire. And all this has come about despite the fact that crime has dropped drastically in the past few decades in much of the developed world.

Despite concerns, the use of armed security teams in certain regions has practically become institutionalised within the maritime industry, and the luxury yacht market is no exception. Private maritime security companies (PMSCs) have flooded the maritime market in the past several years – seemingly a combination of scandal in Iraq after Blackwater Worldwide security personnel killed 17 Iraqi civilians in late 2007, coupled with the swift rise in piracy off Somalia around the same time. By one estimate, there were fewer than 100 PMSCs before 2009; now there are close to 400. However, while land-based security falls under the well-defined regulations and standards of individual countries, the maritime security sector exists in a vacuum with little relevant oversight. The industry is itself undefined. As each new company comes along, a new operating procedure is established – especially worrisome when firearms are involved. And given the complicated jurisdictional web inherent in international transit, the lack of uniformity has become cause for concern. There are no set standards, no clear policy on use of force and no regulatory body to oversee its practices.

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A lack of consensus

Among governments, there is no consensus on how to deal with a situation that goes wrong. Some observers have said that without stricter controls and clear guidelines, the employment of some armed security guards has become more of a liability than a benefit. International bodies are reeling in an attempt to standardize the industry. In November, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is expected to review a set of standards developed by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO).

OO Quinsec armed guard2Still, the effect armed PMSCs have had on piracy cannot be denied. The International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) piracy reporting centre recently announced that pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia had dropped significantly for the first time since around 2004 – down to 177 reported incidents in the first six months of 2012, compared with 266 during the same period a year prior. However, numbers can be deceiving. Some observers say the region was over-reported in the past several years, and is now under-reported to avoid insurance complications. And while the international navies have started to get their hands dirty over the past year through a policy known as “Catch-and-Release” – basically interdicting pirates on the high seas and stripping them of their equipment – the tide appeared to shift before that, as pirates had their most active but least successful year in 2011. That year, pirates attacked 275 vessels, but only successfully hijacked 28. By comparison, pirates hijacked 26 vessels in a three-month span in 2008, and it took them far fewer attacks to reach that number. Something prevented them from getting on board in 2011. Many point to armed PMSCs.

The great gun debate

For years, the maritime industry did everything it could to keep guns off its ships – at least from an official standpoint. Guns are expensive. They jack up insurance premiums and require trained personnel. Non-lethal devices were considered sufficient until around 2008, at which point they were swiftly proven otherwise by Somali pirates armed with AK-47s and RPGs. Long-range acoustic devices were easily neutralised by earplugs. Water cannons were a pestering annoyance. The industry quickly realized that armed ships were not getting hijacked. Pirates either waited for easier targets or were turned away.

However, bringing firearms on board is also complicated from a regulatory standpoint, starting with the flagstate and continuing through any ports of call or territorial waters traversed. Each state has different regulations.

“There’s no right to take arms through a country just because you happen to believe it’s for your self-protection,” said Chris Trelawny, IMO’s senior director of the Maritime Safety Division, responsible for security and counter-piracy. “The maritime industry does not want the carriage of firearms to be institutionalised. They see it very much as a temporary measure.”

Great Britain only recently approved the carriage of firearms on its ships. Other countries, like Italy, won’t allow PMSCs to carry firearms – limiting the armed security market to the military. Germany now allows PMSCs to carry only semi-automatic weapons, which many feel puts them at a significant disadvantage, given how well armed the Somalis are. And the diplomacy of guns can be touchy. Sri Lanka recently cracked down on PMSCs after announcing that it had found proof that British PMSCs had essentially smuggled arms into the country. “There are some situations that make it impossible,” said Corey Ranslem, CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based Secure Waters Security Group. Due to the varying positions held by the 170 member states, the IMO has taken no position on the use of armed security. 

Training, or a lack thereof

Complicating matters is the question of just how well trained most PMSCs are. The IMO has issued documents guiding the use of armed guards in response to various concerns, saying that the “absence of applicable regulations and industry self-regulation,” along with the legal complexity of transporting firearms is “cause for concern.” More so, IMO expressed concern over the rapid growth in PMSCs “and doubts about the capabilities and maturity of some of these companies.”

OO Mark OConnell night watch3For starters, private security cannot operate like the military. The threshold for use of force in private security is much higher than in the military. “The military are more likely to pull the trigger if the hair on the back of their neck stands up, because they’ve got the full backing of the Ministry of Defence,” said Jez Dillon, the managing director of European operations with London-based Blackstone Consultancy. Generally speaking, if an unknown vessel comes too close to a military vessel they send off a visual alert, an auditory alert, and then they shoot at the operator.

PMSCs are expected to show more restraint. The exact policy for use of force is up to each PMSC to decide, but it must be graduated and cannot be consistent with the aggressiveness of the military. Generally, they must go through visual and aural warnings, as well. But they might also have to get on the radio and tell the ship to back off. Then come the warning shots – usually next to the boat, so they can see the rounds impact the water. Some will then recommend trying to shoot out the motor before actually resorting to shooting into the boat.

However, not everyone is properly trained on these procedures and, coming straight from the military, they are used to the much quicker call-to-arms. And guards must react quickly. “One kilometre at 25 knots and closing – that’s over really fast,” said Mchael Frodl, founder and head of C-Level Maritime Risks, which analyses risks for underwriters and other maritime players. And while the military is protected by sovereign immunity, if “you’re a wealthy executive and you put your armed guards on that ship and they kill somebody by mistake – you got a problem,” Frodl said.

The legal quandary

But even the military’s sovereign immunity has been put to the test. Two Italian marines on board the Italian tanker M/V Enrica Lexie shot and killed two Indian fishermen after mistaking them for pirates in February. They were arrested by the Indian authorities and now face criminal charges in an Indian court – now a source of great tension between the two nations. As of this writing, the marines were awaiting word from India’s Supreme Court on the issue of jurisdiction – the Italians’ lawyers saying the two should be tried in Italy. “The only good thing about that was that it was the military that did it and not a civilian security company,” said Keith Simpson, managing director of London-based Ironside Associates. “Because, had it been a civilian security company, I can’t imagine what the implications would have been.”

OO Mark OConnell on watch7A number of people in the industry worry that it’s only a matter of time before the world finds out the answer to that question unless regulations and standards are pushed through quickly. The IMO’s guiding documents are being used as the base documents to develop standards by the ISO. The recommendations are light on specifics, given that each country approaches the same situation differently. In short, the document advises that each PMSC should maintain proper documentation, be aware of all applicable law, have insurance coverage for liability and personal incident, a written policy for transport and handling of firearms, and a written policy on the rules for use of force based on a graduated response – “using only that force which is strictly necessary and reasonable.” The document also advises PMSCs to seek certification from national and international bodies – once the standards are established. The IMO is set to review the standards in November.

However, a number of people feel that true regulation will have to come from insurance providers, which can require a stricter vetting process when assessing PMSCs.

Keep your hands clean

For the time being, it comes down to how well a PMSC regulates itself and, in the current environment, a PMSC’s reputation is tantamount. In the superyacht sector, it is more important still. An immaculate record is a must – not only a record of getting the job done, but a record of getting it done in a quiet, professional manner. It’s not a job just any ex-military can do. “You’re limited on the number of quality people,” Simpson said. That’s why most of the top companies source ex-special forces with maritime experience – Royal Marines, Special Boat Service, Navy Seals.

“It’s very difficult to engage another moving target on the water successfully,” Ranslem said. “So you need to have well-trained people who understand that concept. You know – the yacht’s moving, the target’s moving, the ocean’s moving – you have so many moving factors.”

It is just care and caution that will protect owners, Dillon said. That is especially true in the superyacht industry, where cost isn’t such a determining factor, and owners are willing to pay for quality. The top firms have retained the top people and the name of the game is discretion.

“They’re prepared to pay for it because they know they’re getting quality,” Dillon said. “It won’t happen on a private yacht, because they don’t hire people with that kind of background.”


For more information on finding the right security firm, read 'What to Consider When Selecting a Security Company'.


Photos courtesy of Glynne Fletcher and Mark O'Connell:

To read more about piracy and PMSCs visit the following links:

-New York Times Magazine feature on a couple held hostage by Somali pirates:

-Bloomberg story on the benefits and risks of PMSCs:

-Vanity Fair feature on the Le Ponant hijacking:

-The IMO's recommendation on best practices:


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