LONDON (Reuters) - More Somali pirates than ever before may be taking to the water in the coming months, and proposed strategies against them range from installing “panic rooms” to hiring mercenary escort warships.
But it’s by no means clear that these methods would mark a turning point in the fight against pirates and there are fears they could even make things worse.
Several dozen international warships mount antipiracy patrols, but mandates end at the water’s edge and commanders say they are far too few to cover the vast Indian Ocean.
Meanwhile, up to several hundred Somalis earn many times the average salary at home by heading out in small skiffs with ladders and AK-47s, boarding ships and sailing them to pirate anchorages. Some 19 ships and 350 crew are being held.
A host of companies have sprung up offering advice, protection and specialist equipment. A handful propose operating military-style corvettes with private crews.
“Our aim is to offer close protection for money for ships passing through the danger area,” said Greg Stenstrom, founder of U.S.-based firm Marque Star — which has put down deposits on two ships and has ambitions for more than a dozen more.
“We’re trying to steer clear of the phrase ‘private navy’, although it does lend itself to that. We’d rather describe ourselves as a private maritime security company.”
The ships will be armed with deck mounted machine guns, more formidable than anything currently used by the pirates. They may also have unmanned drones and a small airship for surveillance.
Former U.S. naval officer Stenstrom says he faced widespread skepticism when he first mooted the idea two years ago.
But as piracy worsened, it gained momentum. The company is fundraising but hopes to offer escorts by 2011 or earlier.
Shipping sources say several other firms have similar plans.
The idea has been mooted periodically since pirates began to their operations from Somalia in the middle of the decade — and has long disturbed some naval officers.
Private military firms have been increasingly used in Iraq and Afghanistan, but their use has proved controversial. At worst, some fear contractors could become part of the problem.
Many navies including those from emerging powers India, China, Russia, South Korea, Malaysia and others patrol the area, loosely coordinated largely through a secure Internet chat room.
“This is a very cluttered piece of ocean,” said Major General Buster Howes, commander of the EU antipiracy force EUNAVFOR. “If you add a cohort of private contractors operating ships, it could add value but it could also be complicating... You also have to come back to what it would mean for the souls who are being held by the pirates.”
Marque Star’s Stenstrom said the ships would have strict rules of engagement would only fire in self-defense and would expect most pirates to flee without a fight.
The ships — registered with one of two regional African countries that have agreed to the idea in principle — would share intelligence with international navies and would never fire on a sovereign warship even if fired upon, Stenstrom said.
“We are not John Wayne,” he said. “We take this seriously.”
Putting private security guards aboard vessels is another option — one already taken by some shipping companies — but is seen as posing similar difficulties. Arming ordinary merchant seaman is seen impractical and potentially dangerous.
“It’s a difficult job to be armed to be protecting a ship at sea,” said EU force commander Howes. “It would change the status of civilian merchant ships and you also have the risk of provoking an arms race with the pirates.”
Several nations including the United States and Russia periodically put teams of marines on their own commercial ships for protection — but other nations lack the resources to do likewise.
Another protection strategy increasingly used by merchant ships is the use of a “panic room” or “citadel” into which the crew can retreat if the ship is taken over, allowing military forces to storm the ship without risk to the crew.
Several ships have been recaptured after crews used them. This month, pirates abandoned a Greek-operated ship shortly after seizing it is after the crew locked themselves in the engine room. Some say the pirates may have feared an assault.
Experts say the rooms can be effective — although they need to be bullet-proof, contain food stocks, communications equipment and ideally a system to immobilize the ship.
So far, pirates have not tended to fight back when boarded. But that could change, and few military officers are enthusiastic about battling through a multilevel cargo ship.
“Ship takedown is a difficult thing to do,” said EUNAVFOR’s Howes. “We’re going to think very carefully before we risk the lives of Royal Marines or other marines for a ship that had not followed best management practices.”
Western militaries and shipping associations have drawn up a list of recommendations for shipping passing through the region, and say no ship that followed them all has been pirated.
Most crucial is keeping good lookout — some ships only noticed the pirates when they stormed the bridge. They also include using water sprays, placing barbed wire on ladders, transiting danger areas at night, sticking to designated transit routes and informing military forces of their presence.
Almost everyone agrees the only long-term solution lies in stabilizing shoreside Somalia, but few see that any time soon. Most believe the international naval presence, once seen temporary, will become semi-permanent.
Once a ship has been taken, owners say they will ultimately have little choice but to pay the ransom.
“Then it becomes a cyclical repeatable problem,” said Peter Hinchcliffe, secretary general of the International Shipping Federation.
Editing by Giles Elgood