Piracy at sea remains an ongoing problem, as this week’s hijacking of the MV Sirius Star (a supertanker that was carrying $100 million worth of crude oil) shows. This is a problem that the world’s navies have have been unable to solve in either the age of sail powered ships or today. Whether at sea or in one’s home, self defense is often the only viable option, as seconds count and neither the police nor navy warships can be everywhere at once:
Some background information on the modern day piracy issue
Todays pirate are not the peg-legged, eye-patch-wearing, parrot-owning type that are ingrained in our collective culture. Instead, they are militants from the war torn country of Somalia (and other regions), where there has been no functional government for nearly two decades. They operate with impunity, and use small boats to rush armed pirates out to passing merchant ships, and sometimes use larger craft to attack merchant ships that are hundreds of miles out to sea. Once aboard, the pirates take over the ship and subdue the crew. They then hold the ship, its cargo, and its crew for random. This year alone, Somali pirates have attacked about 90 ships, seized 36 of them, and extorted tens of millions of dollars in ransom fees. Crew members of the hijacked ships have been murdered, and others have endured long terms in captivity. On the economic side, ship insurance rates go up, and trade is disrupted. In short, this is a serious matter.
Why the world’s navies can’t solve the problem
The United State and other NATO members, plus Russia, India, and other countries have sent warships to the area near Somalia’s cost. Billions of dollars worth of navy ships have captured or sunk only a few pirate craft, and piracy is steadily increasing. This week’s stunning capture of a Saudi supertanker shows that it is not just small fishing boats from poorer countries that are at risk. The pirates operate over an area of 2.5 MILLION square miles, and use speed boats to strike their targets with little notice. Even if the number of warships in the area were to be greatly increased, the large size of the ocean makes it unlikely that the pirates could be easily stopped. Even when one pirate group is captured or killed, others pop up to replace them, since it is so lucrative.
A solution to the problem of modern day piracy
The world’s navies can’t be everywhere at once. Even staying hundreds of miles away from the coast of Somalia is no longer enough to keep merchant ships safe. But firearms in the hands of the law abiding merchant sailors could make all the difference. Ideally, the pirates could be stopped before boarding the ship, with long range fire. The pirates would also be particularly vulnerable to self defense gunfire as they climb rope ladders to get from their small craft to the decks of large ships. Failing that, an armed crew aboard its own ship should still have an advantage over pirates that have to make their way through an unfamiliar ship’s passageways.
I am not suggesting that every single act of piracy could be stopped by arming the crews of ships – but I bet that armed merchant sailors would have a better chance of staying alive and free from captivity. Armed crews would also act as a deterrent, as pirates don’t tend to attack targets that can fight back (think about how rarely if ever pirates try to seize a warship!)
Note: My thanks to Anders, a reader of this site who suggested that I address this topic. I was debating doing so for a while, but his suggestion spurred me to actually do so.