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Support Grows for Private Anti-Pirate Fleet

Mar 5, 2011 – 8:03 AM
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Sharon Weinberger

Sharon Weinberger Contributor

With too many pirates and not enough warships, the insurance companies that have been forced to pay huge ransoms for hijacked ships have come up with their own solution: They are proposing a privately operated fleet that would accompany ships through pirate-infested waters.

This convoy escort program would establish a fleet of fast, armed patrol boats to combat the spate of pirate attacks in the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and elsewhere. And the push for it is not coming from ship owners, but rather from those who pay the price when a ship is hijacked -- the insurers.

Somalian pirates
AFP / Getty Images
Alleged Somali pirates surrender to Indian naval forces in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia on Sept. 5.
"It's not a shipping industry concept, it's an insurance industry concept," said Giles Noakes, chief maritime security officer for the Baltic and International Maritime Council, a shipping trade association.

The force would be designed to help international navies protect commercial ships, not take the place of military forces, Noakes told AOL News in an interview. "The aim is to help, rather than replace," he said.

The concept is a fleet that would be owned and operated by a private company, but operated on a not-for-profit basis by recovering costs from the shipping industry for its protection. It could even provide the foundations of a regional coast guard for countries in the region, Noakes suggested.

Supporters are quick to point out this is not a mercenary force.

"The concept is not a private navy but a legitimate protection of merchant tonnage transiting this key artery of world trade," said Isabella Young, a spokeswoman for Jardine Lloyd Thompson Group plc, an insurance company that is working to develop the concept, in an e-mail to AOL News.

What is driving the concept is the increasing number of attacks, said Doug Brooks, president of the International Stability Operations Association, a Washington D.C.-based trade association for private security contractors. In other words, the increasing intensity of attacks is making insurance companies think that hiring a protection force could end up being cheaper than paying off ransoms.

"Up to now, so few ships were captured by pirates, even in infested areas, that it was cheaper to pay off ransoms when you have to do it [rather] than arming the ships and dealing with armed crews," Brooks told AOL News. "So it's basically driven by the insurance factor."

Four Americans aboard a hijacked yacht were killed by their captors last month, after negotiations between the pirates and the U.S. military forces, which sent warships to pursue the hijacked yacht, broke down.

But a private convoy force, even if adopted, would be aimed at commercial ships and would likely do little to protect people on yachts who wander into pirate-infested water. Such boats become "easy prey," Noakes said, describing death of the four Americans by pirates as "a tragedy."

Private security firms are already employed, in some cases, to help protect ships as they pass through pirate-infested waters, but insurance companies have balked at the liability of having armed security guards on ships. But the use of armed guards on ships is increasing, according to Graham Kerr, the chief administration officer of Cyprus-based Hart Security.

The larger problem, however, is that there simply aren't enough military warships to patrol the areas where pirates lurk. As more military warships increased their presence in the Gulf of Aden, for example, pirate attacks moved into the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.

"The facts are it's extraordinarily difficult for governments to provide sufficient government forces to be able to undertake those tasks," Kerr said. "If they could, I'm sure they would."

The situation on the seas is similar to the burgeoning use of private security companies in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were brought in to perform tasks once performed solely by the military. "I think it's an extension of that trend," Kerr said.

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Still, the idea of a convoy force has a number of hurdles, including getting approval from a flag state and collecting the funding from participating states to build the force, which would be made up of 16 patrol boats. The idea is that ships would pay for the armed escorts in place of the normal additional insurance premium required for crossing pirate-infested waters.

Later this month, the various ship builders associations will discuss the idea at a meeting to decide whether to endorse it, Noakes said. Even if some people regard the idea of a private security force patrolling the waters as anathema, the idea only exists because of the lack of alternatives, he said.

"However outrageous it may seem to some people," he said, "there are no other parallel strategies on the table."
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