Warships For Hire? A Private Solution To Maritime Piracy

The end of the Cold War brought a resurgence of global maritime piracy. With roughly 90 percent of international commerce traveling on the high seas, the importance of securing the world’s oceans for commerce is as great as ever. In his forthcoming coming book,  Private Anti-Piracy Navies: How Warships for Hire are Changing Maritime Security, John-Clark Levin argues that the private sector has a key role to play in improving maritime security as the world’s navies scale back their anti-piracy operations and defense budgets. Levin, who has written for a number of publications including The Wall Street Journal, spoke to Doublethink about the role of the private sector in anti-piracy operations.

DT: Piracy in the Gulf of Aden is actually decreasing at present. With the Somali piracy threat on the decline, why did you decide to write this book now?

JCL: The past several years have demonstrated the effectiveness of private maritime security, which played a key role in turning the tide against Somali piracy. We now have the perspective to see why, despite many individual successes, regular navies were insufficient to suppress the threat. The book’s relevance is heightened now because the Indian Ocean is at a crossroads. Piracy has been sharply down over the past year and a half, but many attacks are also going unreported. Both governments and the shipping industry are growing overconfident. If military presence and anti-piracy precautions are drawn down prematurely, while the situation on land in Somalia remains unstable, piracy could return and take the world by surprise. Simultaneously, piracy has been surging in and around the Gulf of Guinea off West Africa. In 2013, it has actually surpassed piracy in the Indian Ocean. The political and legal situation off West Africa makes that theater especially favorable to armed escort vessels – the so-called “private navies” that form the subject of the book.

DT: How can the private sector handle this situation more effectively?

JCL: At the start of the Somali piracy epidemic in 2008, the private maritime security industry was in its infancy, but [it] has made remarkable leaps in professionalism and legitimacy during the years since. Economically, the private sector has the advantage of being able to tailor its forces to the threat at hand. This is unlike a frigate in a regular navy, which must be able to perform a wide variety of roles. It typically has advanced anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, and may be designed to detect and destroy submarines. In short, it’s built for full-scale war against the militaries of other nation-states. It comes with a price-tag to match – likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars. This means that navies deploy relatively small numbers of overwhelmingly powerful warships, most of whose capabilities go unused. By contrast, private anti-piracy gun-boats are still powerful enough to easily defeat pirates, but don’t have to pay for any unnecessary capabilities. This makes them a much more cost-effective solution.

DT: What are the costs of these armed patrol ships? How much are additional operating costs?

JCL: It generally costs in the low seven-figures to purchase and outfit each vessel. Operating costs are usually in the five-figures per day. Clients might bay between $35,000 and several hundred thousand dollars for an armed escort vessel to accompany a transit, depending on the length and location of the route to be traveled.

DT: Was the U.S justified in sending military forces to the Gulf of Aden to deal with international piracy? Have international forces operating there been susceptible to mission creep?

JCL: Yes, the United States, NATO, and the European Union were all justified in sending military forces to the Gulf of Aden. Even though the economic realities of modern navies make them an inefficient solution, those forces have done a great amount of good in those waters. I don’t think there has been any significant mission creep. If anything, there has been too much reluctance to strike pirate bases on land.

DT: What are some of the legal issues private security contractors must contend with that you discovered in your research?

International law has not yet adequately evolved to handle what are, in effect, private warships. For example, such vessels’ use of lethal force is based on the doctrine of self-defense, but this has not yet been tested in court. It is not clear, for example, whether an escort could claim self-defense in killing pirates who never attack the escort directly, but only a client ship. It also remains uncertain what obligations an escort would have under international law to render assistance to pirates it may injure in the course of a firefight. Another key legal issue is who gets jurisdiction over pirates who attempt an attack, but fail, and attempt to surrender to a private escort.  Potentially six or more states might have jurisdiction in such a case: the flag state of the merchant ship, the state where the shipping company is registered, the home state or states of the merchant crew – and then also the flag state of the escort, the state where the private security company is registered, and the home state of the escort’s crew.  Prosecuting pirates is very inconvenient; if anything, these states may squabble to avoid responsibility for prosecution.

There are some other wrinkles to this issue.  Let’s say pirates surrender to an escort vessel from the UK.  They then put out a call on the radio for a regular warship to come arrest the pirates – because the escort itself cannot do so.  The warship responding happens to come from Russia, Iran, or another state where pirates might be subject to execution or even torture. International law forbids countries from transferring prisoners to such states.  But since the UK-flagged escort is not actually making an arrest, it’s not clear whether the United Kingdom would have any legal obligation not to hand pirates over to, say, Iran.

John-Clark Levin’s book, Private Anti-Piracy Navies: How Warships for Hire are Changing Maritime Security, will be released by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers later this year. Joseph Hammond is a writer based in Cairo, Egypt. Somalia Under Jolly Roger image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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