Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

Private Warships and Maritime Security


Thanks to the runaway success of the movie Captain Phillips, the wider world’s attention has again focused on maritime piracy. Casual viewers often seem puzzled that Somali pirates have been out of the news lately, and are surprised to learn that private security has played a key role in suppressing them. The popular image is of suntanned ex-Royal Marines with Kevlar and assault rifles, patrolling the upper decks of merchant ships as they pass through the High Risk Area. Although such embarked guards are indeed the most common form of private security, there is another largely untold story about the use of armed escort vessels. These are the so-called “private navies.” This is all the more relevant with the Somali government reportedly under contract with a Dutch private security firm called the Atlantic Marine and Offshore Group to organize and operate a private Coast Guard.

There is a historical context of private warships in those same waters, including the English East India Company, which developed a formidable private navy in the 17th and 18th centuries to protect its trade routes from pirates. The modern market for private armed escort vessels developed to a limited extent during the height of the Malaccan piracy epidemic a decade ago, but the sector collapsed as soon as the security situation there improved.

Once the Somali epidemic began, an entirely new set of firms entered the market, led by the American contractor Blackwater. Blackwater purchased and outfitted a former research vessel to act as an anti-piracy escort, but couldn’t find clients, and abandoned the venture. This wasn’t because of any inherent defect in the plan, but rather because shipping companies were spooked by Blackwater’s reputation, which had been recently tainted by a major shooting of civilians in Baghdad. Other firms succeeded where Blackwater failed, though, soon carving out a niche providing escort vessels for merchant ships that could not, for legal or safety reasons, have armed guards aboard.

Although about a dozen companies were operating such vessels in a small, discreet way, two much larger and more ambitious schemes were announced between 2010 and 2011. The Jardine Lloyd Thompson insurance group proposed the Convoy Escort Program, a plan to save costs on ransom payouts by deploying up to 20 private gunboats to escort private convoys through the danger zone. Then came Typhon, a company developed by a former dot-com entrepreneur and the founder of a major commodities and mining conglomerate. Typhon planned to use large “motherships” to escort convoys, each capable of deploying rigid-hulled inflatable boats to intercept incoming threats. Yet both the Convoy Escort Program and Typhon lost momentum, and have yet to become operational.

Another key issue is legality. Unlike embarked guards, which are clearly subject to the laws of the flag state of the merchant ship, escort vessels create a murkier situation under international law. If pirates surrender in the course of an attack where a private escort is involved, multiple states may have jurisdictional claims over them. If personnel aboard an escort commit an illegal shooting, a similar tangle of jurisdictions would complicate attempts to prosecute them. Our book discusses how regulatory bodies including governments, NGOs, and the U.N. have attempted to provide clarity.

The most basic question is the legitimacy with which civilians can use lethal force in the first place. It’s generally accepted that escort vessels can return fire if pirates are shooting at them directly, but what if the pirates are shooting only at the merchant ship – or deliberately holding their fire during a hostile approach? A series of rules for the use of force have been devised to establish and refine sensible procedures. Another concern is licensing. Over the past several years, many underqualified firms have tried to enter the private maritime security industry, so interested parties have collaborated in developing standards for accrediting those that provide high-quality service. Still, since most of the market consists of embarked guards, escort-specific standards are lacking.

Finally, there are implications of anti-piracy escort vessels for other fields of maritime security. Somalia’s affiliation with the Atlantic Marine and Offshore Group is the most recent of several attempts to use armed private vessels in the role of a Coast Guard. Other developing nations struggling to enforce the natural resource rights of their exclusive economic zones may turn to similar measures.

The other looming worry is maritime terrorism. Thwarting pirate attacks is aided by the pirates’ vulnerability in the process of coming alongside a merchant ship and scrambling aboard. By contrast, explosives-laden suicide boats only need a single rapid approach to hit and potentially sink a large tanker. Stopping such attacks is a much greater tactical challenge. And this is hardly idle worry. Al-Qaeda has publicly expressed its intentions to target merchant shipping, and the network has powerful and violent affiliates on both sides of the African continent. If attacks like those against the USS Cole and the French tanker Limburg in the early 2000s are again carried out successfully, demand will rise for escort vessels capable of protecting tankers, passenger ships, and other high-value vessels.

With the world’s major navies under serious strain from budget austerity, planners in Europe and the United States will have to make hard choices in the years to come about what commitments they can continue to support. Private armed vessels will likely see increased use as they pick up the slack.

John-Clark Levin is the author, with John J. Pitney, Jr., of Private Anti-Piracy Navies: How Warships for Hire are Changing Maritime Security (, Lexington Books, 2014. Levin is currently pursuing a graduate degree in public policy at Harvard University. He has been published in outlets including the Wall Street Journal, City Journal Online, and Southern Economic Review.


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