Tuesday 02 Mar 2021 | 21:37 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 02 Mar 2021 | 21:37 | SYDNEY

Piracy and the private security boom


James Brown


12 September 2012 10:45

In a Lowy Institute Analysis released today, I outline the boom in private military security companies fighting piracy in the Indian Ocean. My research, sponsored by the Australian Civil Military Centre, shows over 140 companies now provide armed protection for ships in the Indian Ocean.

At least 2700 individual contractors, mostly ex-military, are employed as armed guards on ships. Eighteen floating armouries are operating in waters near the Gulf of Aden, allowing some contractors to duck international regulations by picking up their weapons on the high seas. And up to 40 privately-owned armed patrol boats are now, or soon will be, offering escort services to merchant ships in the piracy high risk area. Some operate helicopters and drones, and offer marine boarding parties.

This boom has been driven by the rising costs of piracy and the increasing difficulties of mounting a naval response to pirate attacks spread over 8.3 million sq km of ocean. Last year Somali pirates netted $146 million in ransoms, and they currently hold over 200 sailors hostage. The high-risk area for piracy sits astride maritime trade routes critical to global commerce. $29 billion of Australian imports and $21 billion of exports  transit the Indian Ocean each year.

The presence of so many new armed players in the Indian Ocean seems already to have had an effect on Somali-based piracy. Pirate attacks have dropped during 2012 and ships with armed security on board have yet to be hijacked by pirates. Yet this piracy solution could create fresh problems that require close cooperation between civilian agencies and the military.

Most governments, and the International Maritime Organisation, have been slow to respond to the private security boom. Over the past year a number of major shipping states have changed their policies to make private armed guards on ships legal, but there has been little discussion on private patrol boats. These private navies operate in a legal vacuum, and could be considered pirates themselves.

Additionally, some governments have begun to offer their naval personnel for escort duties onboard merchant ships, effectively hiring them out to shipping companies. Already, these 'vessel protection detachments' have been involved in fatal shootings that have led to disputes between nations.

The boom in private security is changing the nature of shipping in the Indian Ocean and looks set to be a permanent rather than temporary measure. Over 3800 foreign vessels enter Australian waters every year and it will require a whole-of-government response to prepare for the possibility that some of them may carry private armed guards.

Pirates and Privateers: Managing the Indian Ocean's Private Security Boom explores the challenges of these new developments in the waters to Australia's west.