14 Nov 2011
A private navy equipped with a fleet of patrol boats is scheduled to begin escorting ships through the Gulf of Aden early next year as private security forces take a growing role in the fight against piracy.
The venture has been organised by Convoy Escort Programme Ltd, and is backed by UK insurance and reinsurance broker Jardine Lloyd Thompson Group, Bloomberg reports. It is due to commence escorts in five months time.
"The bullet-proof boats will charge about US$30,000 per ship travelling in a convoy of around four vessels over three to four days," Convoy Escort CEO Angus Campbell told Bloomberg.
"We are going to be a deterrent. We are not in the business of looking for trouble, but if anybody tries to attack a vessel we are escorting, our security teams will deploy force if they have to act in self defence."
Convoy Escort will use seven ex-navy patrol boats, each with eight armed guards, costing US$30 million. The venture may expand to 11 boats, which will cost US$50 million. Campbell said venture funds, oil companies and marine insurers may invest in the business.
A private naval force was proposed over a year ago but encountered opposition over getting a state to register its ships. "Cyprus agreed to add the ships last month, following a US State Department's veto for registration in the Marshall Islands," Mr Campbell said.
In September the shipping industry called on the United Nations to create an armed military force to be deployed on vessels to counter the escalating menace from armed seaborne gangs.
While there has been a growing acceptance of using armed security guards, sovereign military forces are preferred by the shipping industry because they have clearer rules of engagement and the reduced risk of legal issues in the event of fatalities.
While naval patrols, including vessels from the European Union, the United States and other nations such as South Korea, Iran and Turkey, have curbed the number of attacks in the Gulf of Aden, piracy in the Indian Ocean has continued to rise due to the vast tracts of water involved, which represent a huge logistical challenge for foreign navies.
This has caused a dramatic increase in private security contractors moving into the maritime industry.
At the end of last month British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that British merchant ships sailing off the coast of Somalia will soon be able to carry armed guards to ward off pirate attacks.
Britain is one of only a few countries with major shipping fleets to currently ban armed guards on its vessels, alongside countries such as Japan, Greece and the Netherlands.
However, owners of ships from other countries are increasingly putting guards onboard as national navies struggle to combat Somali piracy in the Indian Ocean, a problem which is costing the world economy billions of dollars a year.
In an interview with the BBC, Cameron said that Britain now planned to licence guards to carry firearms on ships.
The International Chamber of Shipping, which represents over 80 percent of the world's merchant fleet, said that arming guards was likely to be effective in deterring pirates for now, but was not a long-term solution.
"Whilst we welcome it, it is a short-term palliative measure," ICS secretary general Peter Hinchliffe told Reuters.
"To date no ships with armed guards on board have been captured. But pirates will respond with increased firepower to overwhelm the armed guards, and when that happens the impact on the crew will be pretty dreadful," Hinchliffe said.
Hinchliffe said the ICS wanted to see more arrests of suspected pirates, military attacks on pirates' Somali supply bases and a naval blockade 12 miles off the country's coast.
Some in the industry even wonder if a special security effort is really necessary. There are around 35,000 ship voyages a year through the Indian Ocean, they point out: the vast majority are completely unarmed and make it through. One security veteran already working in the region said private contractors could spend months without ever seeing a pirate.
Officials say it costs around US$55,000 (33,684 pounds) to deploy an experienced four-man security team on a 10-12 day transit between Suez and Galle in Sri Lanka. Firms touting for business without experience have offered teams at US$15,000 to US$20,000.