Piracy has probably existed since man first took to the sea, but it took on new dimensions with the advent of commercial shipping. SOFREP wrote about this very topic recently in Benghazi: The Definitive Report, which includes historical background on America’s first war on terror against Barbary pirates off the coast in Libya. Perhaps the formation of the US Marines was America’s first strike back against piracy.

When you start to look at the privateers, who were pirates that were semi-sanctioned by various governments, and the Letters of Marque, which authorized said pirates to ply their trade against enemy nations, we get into a gray area of commercial maritime activity, unconventional warfare, mercenaries, pirates, and criminals…one that exists to this day, if in different forms.

During the 1980’s and 90’s, the US Navy often pre-positioned equipment and supplies on ships around the world in places that were difficult to get to, so that if a war broke out, much of the logistics and resupply infrastructure would already be in place. Since it would be massively expensive for the US Navy to actually position their own supply ships around the world, they leased or contracted commercial vessels. Some of these ships were “gray-hulled,” while others were painted commercial colors. Of course, when these ships, filled with food or medical supplies, were stationed off the coast of impoverished countries, the locals would occasionally board them and loot the ships of vital supplies. Even in the 80’s, there were Nepalese security guards being stationed on some of these ships.

The rise of the Private Military Company and private security contractors (often bemoaned by the same politicians who make use of their services or use them as proxies while keeping their hands clean) is something that simply is not going away. With ships valued at hundreds of millions of dollars carrying equally valuable cargo on board, it only makes sense to take on a few guns for hire when these commercial vessels travel through the maritime choke points frequented by pirates.

One big difference between Private Military Contractors, such as Blackwater and Triple Canopy, and the maritime security contractors, is that those protecting ships in pirate waters are contracting directly with commercial shipping companies, whereas the more well-known security contractors have arrangements with the US government to provide security at embassies and other facilities.

In the beginning, the maritime insurance companies in England were very much against having armed security on ships. In 2000, Somalian pirates upped their game in a big way, figuring out that they could not just loot the ships they captured, but better yet, ransom back the ship and crew. Interestingly, these pirates knew exactly who to call in what insurance company within thirty minutes of capturing a ship, and knew to request the maximum payout which the insurance company would pay for the captured crew, leading to some speculation that the pirates may have been in collusion with some of the maritime insurance companies in London.

In 2008, two British and one Irish maritime security contractors were on a ship off the coast of Africa. Their company touted the LRAD, or Long Range Acoustic Device, as an effective non-lethal weapon to deter the pirates. When the pirates attempted to board their ship, the three contractors turned the LRAD on the enemy to absolutely no effect. All three contractors jumped over the side of the ship and into the ocean in a sad attempt to save their own skin.

The hidden world of Maritime Security: How piracy works

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Then the Maersk Alabama was hijacked by pirates. SEAL Team Six had to be called in to resolve the situation with carefully placed sniper shots, and thus the age of armed maritime security was born again. While the maritime security industry had been dominated by these unarmed British firms, now it was time for Nexus Consulting and Trident Group to jump into the fold.

At this time perhaps as much as 80% of the maritime security industry is dominated by British companies, well over a hundred of them, although one of the larger ones is called Control Risk. The British have a bit of home field advantage as many of their maritime concerns are focused around former colonies, such as Oman, where the Brits have deep historical and institutional ties. About 10% of the market is in the hands of American companies. These companies include Nexus Consulting, run by a former US Marine and based out of Alexandria, Virginia; Espada Security out of San Antonio; Trident Group, run by a group of former SEALs; and SeaGuard.

If the ship includes defensive measures, such are barbwire or concertina wire, around it, this would be done while at port. The security team will often fly into a country with their weapons, then get on a water taxi and meet the ship they are detailed to while it is underway. This is actually the most dangerous part of the job for the security men. There are two ways to get from the ferry to the deck of the massive commercial ships. You can climb a ladder, or get into a cargo net and be winched up to the deck. As squirrely as it sounds, the cargo net is actually the preferred method, as it is safer. One British security contractor slipped off the ladder and fell into the water between the ship and the tug boat where he was crushed to death. Other accounts of men getting their legs crushed are more common.

Once on board, the security team begins working in shifts, usually four hours on and eight hours off. At its height, maritime security guards with Special Operations backgrounds could pull in $1,000 a day, but those days are long gone as the industry settles into a decline, and many Private Military Companies seek to hire less qualified people at lower rates and cut every corner they can. Some British companies are now hiring guys for $100 a day. At that price you can imagine that you won’t be getting a highly trained former SAS operator or Royal Marine.

As with much of the private military industry, the use of Third Country Nationals (TCNs) is becoming the norm. Now, you will more often see one Brit or American supervising a team of three or four Filipinos, Thais, or Indians. The Maritime Security companies will do recruitment drives, pitching people in the Philippines, Thailand, or India who have military connections for personnel. Many TCN’s are straight shooters out of their country’s maritime commando units. Additionally, many Filipinos and Indians speak English, which makes life easy on a team with a Western supervisor.

Weapons continue to be a vexing issue in the maritime security field. It is fairly straight forward for organizations like Trident Group, which provide security for US-flagged ships leaving America and returning to America. They are able to equip their men with the proper weaponry and night vision equipment. A ship like this can even have its own armory on board. However, few ships are US-flagged in this day and age, as companies seek to avoid US regulations and unions.

While national and international laws have not changed, there have been some changes in international norms in regards to weapons on ships for security purposes. For instance, when one country sees a technique working elsewhere, they may adapt the practice for themselves, and thus a new security paradigm is born.

For example, weapons can be bonded to the ship when it makes port, and the contents of the ship are considered duty-free as they have not been processed by customs. The host nation may even post a guard on the ship to ensure compliance. Failing that, the host nation may collect the guns when the ship makes port and release them back into the contractor’s custody when the leave on the next job.

Belgian Counterterrorism Forces Beat Notorious Pirate at His Own Game

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Other companies working on ships out of other parts of the world have been more creative. While weapons are legal in international waters, they may not be legal where the ship originates from or wherever its final destination is located. In many third world countries, the situation gets even more dicey. In places like Egypt, the laws are literally changing from day-to-day. In some countries, the law is whatever a customs official decides it is until he is appropriately bribed. In some instances, contractors have had to live by their wits and bluff their way out of a one way trip to a third world prison for the crime of simply doing their job.

In order to skirt around corrupt regimes, unrealistic laws, and mitigate the risk of having contractors thrown in jail, the concept of floating armories has evolved. As the ship is nearing its destination, a small boat will pull up along side while in international waters, and the security contractors will transfer their weapons off to the floating armory prior to making port. This smaller ship will now wait 12 miles out in international waters until the next ship with a security contract is pulling out to sea, and then transfer the guns back to contractors on board.

Other times, contractors have been forced to dump their weapons over the side and into the ocean before making port in order to be in compliance with local laws. While this isn’t a big deal with fairly inexpensive AR-15 rifles, one company found the price of doing business to be a bit much as contractors were forced to toss .50 caliber Barrett anti-material rifles into the drink at the end of each voyage.

As much of maritime law is based around the concept of “innocent passage,” these floating armories fall into a sort of legal gray area, and a number of these vessels have been boarded and captured over the last few years. For instance, the Russian flagged vessel owned by a Russian security firm called Moran was boarded by the Nigerian Navy. On board were 15 Russian security guards and hundreds of rifles. In Eritrea, several floating armories have floated from international waters into territorial waters where they were captured by the Navy.

Read part 2 here.