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Vessel Defense: Firearms or no Firearms?

By • Jul 12th, 2009 • Category: General, Piracy

Vessel Defense: Firearms or no Firearms? It’s the wrong question says K&M.

Proponents and opponents of arming ships against pirate attack may be asking the wrong questions suggests Michael Murrell, Chief Operations Officer for anti-piracy specialist K&M Global Security Solutions. The company recently extended its logistics support system to key points to enable its security teams to embark and disembark vessels approaching areas presenting high threat levels of pirate attacks.

Any methodology should integrate into the vessel’s normal operations under the ultimate authority of the vessel’s Master. The vessel’s Master is the command decision-maker on board any merchant vessel. Ultimately responsible for all actions that are taken on board, the Master may have input into the operational plan. At any time during the transit, the Master may alter any plan that is in place, should he deem it necessary for the safety of the vessel and crew.

Complex legal issues surround the presence of firearms on ships while the effectiveness of non-lethal defense systems has recently been brought into question. Murrell, whose company uses its own specially designed deterrence systems, believes that a different approach is needed to meet the concerns of shipping companies, flag states, P&I Clubs and seafarers’ organizations.

Says Murrell: “Pirates don’t seem to be too afraid of gunfire. Apart from still unresolved legal issues about firearms having a highly visible armed team on deck gives the pirates a more concentrated target, which, if neutralized, gives the vessel no other options. If you engage the aggressor too early you end up with a firefight rather than ship defense. In fact it can actually invite pirates to attack even more fiercely if they believe that armed protection indicates a high-value cargo worth dying for. And let’s face it, the last thing you want on oil, gas or chemical tanker is a firearm going off.

The goal is to prevent boarding and hijacking of the vessel, not a firefight. If a correct, well-layered defense is put into place, with a proper visible defensive posture, this goal can be accomplished. Early detection and discernment of the threat is paramount in defense of the vessel. A well-layered defense begins with early detection, and should have zones from the outer perimeter, all the way into the final center of the Citadel. As a layered defense, each zone should have its own type of defense capability.

The Best Management Practices, as endorsed by international industry representatives: INTERTANKO, BIMCO, ICS, OCIMF, SIGTTO, INTERCARGO, IGP&I, CLIA, IUMI, JWC &IMB, As published in February, 2009 is a great start. However, they can be greatly enhanced with additional proper unarmed methodology in place.

One mistake that is often made is that the security team is embarked onto the vessel too late. The security team needs to embark with sufficient time to properly prepare the vessel and crew for the high-risk transit. Hardening of the vessel and proper orientation of the crew takes time. This time is extremely valuable in the preparation of a proper defensive posture and the success of countering attack, therefore ensuring the safety of the crew.

“High powered audio defense systems are a great tool and have a place but, as recent events have shown, they aren’t enough on their own and the equipment operators also become targets for the pirate firearms. But just because there are no guns onboard it doesn’t mean the ship is unarmed.”

There are many practical methods of defense already on board merchant vessels. These methods are necessary for a full defense capability and our consultants will train the crew on how to use them properly. These items include fire hoses, monitors, emergency line throwers, fire suppression systems etc.

The answer, says Murrell, is what he terms ‘less than lethal’ equipment, a sufficiently large and well-trained team and a calibrated response that provides the element of surprise should an attack take place. Much of the equipment has been designed or adapted by K&M and is legal in almost all jurisdictions.

“We have a suite of protective devices that won’t set off too many alarms when our teams fly out to join a ship. In a sense, they don’t actually exist until the equipment is actually on the ship. This equipment will disable pirate skiffs and negate the pirate’s ability to continue an attack, when used by an appropriately trained team. Firearms come with an enormous cost burden so our decision to use less than lethal force has a significant impact on the cost of protection, and nobody has to be told how important that is in an industry badly hit by financial crises.”

In the long term, piracy can only be resolved through economic, developmental and political means but it is something we have to learn to deal with, effectively and economically to protect seafarers, their ships, and the industry.”

For further reading, please see our ‘Notes on Piracy’ post

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  • captcurtsmith

    Throughout the world, Navies were brought about to protect the merchants from pirates.
    If they have to go away by force, then so be it. We should Not have to put up with them interfering with our day to day operations.

  • The Best Management Practices, as endorsed by international industry representatives: INTERTANKO, BIMCO, ICS, OCIMF, SIGTTO, INTERCARGO, IGP&I, CLIA, IUMI, JWC &IMB and i think they are the best.

  • I say no. Don't shoot at them. Hide. Step on the gas. Throw your shoes at them, like an Iraqi journalist. Or talk to your boss about fixing the problem at the source. My take on piracy:
    http://5956n.typepad.com/59_56_n/2009/09/pirate

  • I say no. Don't shoot at them. Hide. Step on the gas. Throw your shoes at them, like an Iraqi journalist. Or talk to your boss about fixing the problem at the source. My take on piracy:
    http://5956n.typepad.com/59_56_n/2009/09/pirate