While piracy on the high seas has been an issue for years, the recent hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, a US-flagged ship, and its subsequent retaking by the crew and US Navy brought the issue a bit closer to home for Americans.
My understanding, such as it is, is that due to the variety of laws regarding weapons at all the various ports that these cargo ships stop at, it’s cheaper and easier for the company to simply not include any weapons in the ship’s equipment, and thus avoid any hassles with customs.
Personally, I don’t foresee (nor do I desire) merchant ships mounting fixed naval weapons to fend off pirates. That blurs the line between a “merchant ship” and a “warship,” and I can see that causing some issues in regards to international commerce. That said, I see no reason why some additional measures can’t be taken:
- Have sealed, for-emergency-use-only arms lockers on the merchant ships. Shotguns seem to be pretty well-accepted the world over, even in countries like the UK. Have them setup in much the same way one has the “in case of emergency break glass” locker for firefighting equipment on land. The seals would make it much easier for customs officials to inspect and verify that the arms are not being used for nefarious purposes, and the size of the shotguns means that it would be more difficult to smuggle such arms into a country (is that really a concern?). Put such lockers in key areas, like the bridge, crew quarters, and the engine room. There’s really no excuse for crew needing to defend themselves with firehoses because they are unarmed.
- Train the crews in self-defense. I don’t expect them to be Navy SEALs, I just expect them to know how to handle themselves in an emergency.
- Have passive defense around the ship. Many homes have fences topped with broken glass, for example. Could a similar means of defense be implemented on a ship? Obviously, there are numerous legitimate reasons for needing to interact with the edge of the ship (throwing lines and whatnot), so a permanent installation might be unreasonable. Surely there could be various things done that would make boarding a ship much more difficult.
- When traveling through pirate-infested waters, ensure that all exterior doors and hatches are locked. Even with RPGs, it’d be slow and time-consuming for pirates to blast their way through the heavy doors found on a ship.
- Arrange for convoys to escort ships through heavily-pirated waters. Unlike WWII, large convoys wouldn’t be needed — one or two small warships could escort a fairly large number of cargo ships with only a few minute response time, rather than being hundreds of miles away. A helicopter or two might help as well.
- Show the pirates we mean business. So far, the default course of action has been to pay the bounty. Such actions have only made the pirates bolder, as they think they can get big money from a relatively simple job. Whether it’s from crews being able to effectively defend themselves to warships escorting merchant vessels, showing the pirates that everyone opposes pirates and won’t let them easily take ships will (hopefully) go a long way to deterring pirate attacks.
That said, I offer a hearty “well done” to the US Navy and the captain and crew of the Maersk Alabama. Well done, indeed.