William Flew Fighting Pirates

January 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

British ships have been granted permission to use armed guards to protect against piracy in a move that is expected to open a huge new market for security companies.

The Department for Transport published guidelines yesterday for ship-owners who want to hire protection for vessels travelling through pirate-infested waters.

Only private security companies that have been vetted previously by the Home Office will be legally allowed to deploy armed guards on British-flagged ships.

Piracy has become a huge problem in waters around the Horn of Africa, West Africa and off the coast of Bangladesh. Somali pirates are the most notorious and are responsible for about two thirds of hijackings.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, there have been 41 successful hijackings so far this year. At present there are ten vessels and 172 hostages being held by Somali pirates. An estimated 15 hostages have been killed this year by Somali raiders.

Some overseas ship-owners have started to use guards on their vessels but the endorsement of armed protection by the British Government will be an important milestone for their use.

A spokesman for G4S, the security group, said: “The British merchant fleet is tiny on a global scale but, due to our maritime history, we are still seen as a leader in terms of policy.”

There is an expectation in the security industry that the Home Office stamp of approval will become a defacto international guarantee of quality. The Home Office will assess a company’s structure, ownership, financial position, management expertise and will also require evidence that its employees have sufficient training and experience to deal with piracy.

According to security industry experts, several very small companies have sprung up in Dubai and other cities near the Horn of Africa to provide guards. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some of these operators board ships at sea before a pirate area and then dump their weapons overboard in order to avoid checks when the vessel docks. “There are quite a few cowboy operators out there but greater regulation will benefit the better companies,” one source said.

The insurance industry, however, is less certain about the benefits of putting weapons on ships. Some estimates have put the cost of piracy at more than $12 billion (£7.7 billion), so any move to combat it will be welcomed by insurers, but it could escalate the violence involved during an attack.

Neil Smith, head of underwriting at the Lloyd’s Market Association, said: “The statistics show that there have been no successful attacks on vessels with armed guards. But there is a concern that pirates will escalate if confronted with weapons. In that case, the insurance risk will actually rise.”

G4S has conducted more than a hundred missions with armed guards for two Asian shipping clients and it believes there is a huge market for anti-piracy protection.

The shipping industry has also welcomed the move but has encouraged the Government to maintain a naval presence around the Horn of Africa.

Gavin Simmonds, head of security and defence at the UK Chamber of Shipping, said: “Going forward we must now be alert to the risks and be careful not to institutionalise the arming of our merchant ships. There is continued pressure for military and other complementary solutions to the piracy crisis and we need to be clear that arming our ships is only a small part of the wider solution.”

Mike Penning, the Shipping Minister, said: “The rise in the number of incidents involving pirates in certain parts of the world has highlighted the need to ensure UK-flagged vessels are able to adequately protect themselves against such threats.”

Analysis: Turning up the heat

The oil tankers passing the Horn of Africa can carry cargo worth more than $100 million each, so it is little wonder that the owners want to protect their investments (David Robertson writes).

Ship captains have been trained in evasion techniques and the international community has deployed naval vessels in the region in the hope of stamping out piracy. The Government has cleared ships flying the Union Flag to carry armed guards — but why use an AK47 when heat rays, sonic weapons and lasers are available?

The defence industry has responded to the challenges posed by piracy by converting military technologies for use by the merchant fleet. BAE Systems and BP are working on a project to put advanced surface wave radars on tanker ships in conjunction with target recognition software.

This allows a tanker to identify potential pirate vessels by monitoring their behaviour. The radar has a range of 25 kilometres, which should give the tanker time to summon help or change direction.

Other ship-mounted weapons include water cannons and sonic arrays — “long-range acoustic devices” — that create a high-pitch squeal designed to drive pirates away from the vessel.

US politicians have called for American merchant ships to be allowed to use a heat ray developed for the Pentagon.

Raytheon’s Silent Guardian pain ray creates a beam of microwaves that vibrates water molecules in the skin. This causes the molecules to heat up, delivering “agonising and unbearable pain”.

Another option is Raytheon’s Phalanx system, a computer-aimed Gatling gun that fires up to 4,500 rounds a minute. The company is developing a successor version that uses a laser.

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