Pirates and privateers: managing the Indian Ocean's private security boom

12 Sep 2012

The fight against Somali-based pirates is becoming a private battle as global defence cuts reduce naval counter-piracy deployments. Because governments have struggled to contain the spread of piracy in the Indian Ocean, shipping companies have turned to private military security companies to guarantee the safety of their crews and cargo. Private armed teams have proliferated on commercial shipping and several private armed vessels are operating in the region. Meanwhile, some governments are hiring out their own national militaries as security guards onboard ships.

However, this private counter-piracy boom is creating fresh problems. Already shootings at sea have led to international disputes and accidental confrontations. And murky legal and consular difficulties loom. There is a legitimate role for private companies in fighting piracy. But the challenge for governments will be to recapture the policy agenda and define the limits of what that role is before it leads to new kinds of trouble on the high seas.

Key findings:

  • The maritime security business in the Indian Ocean is booming as ships turn to private military security companies to help in the fight against piracy. Over 140 companies now provide armed protection for ships in the Indian Ocean. At least 2700 individual contractors are employed as armed guards on ships and 18 floating armouries are operating in waters near the Gulf of Aden.
  • 40 private armed patrol boats are now, or will soon be, operating in the Indian Ocean. The most sophisticated of these private navies is outfitting three large boats in Singapore - each with a crew of 20, capable of carrying 40 private marines, and equipped with a helicopter and drones. The use of these boats, and the aggressive tactics they employ, should be discouraged by governments and the International Maritime Organization.
  • Because of shipping company demands for armed teams and shrinking defence budgets, governments are now privately hiring out their soldiers to provide security onboard commercial ships as ‘vessel protection detachments’. The use of these teams potentially has serious legal and political consequences for states should they be involved in disputes.
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