The Right Coast

Editor: Thomas A. Smith
University of San Diego
School of Law

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Ships should arm themselves
Tom Smith

I agree we should smack down the pirates.  But I think what is going on here is that the shippers are holding out for the various navies to step in and protect them.  But that would be unnecessary and inefficient.  These pirates are not particularly well armed.  They have AK-47s and RPGs mostly, it sounds like.  A half dozen former SEALs with some shoulder fired rockets, such as Stingers perhaps, and some .50 calibre machine guns would keep off the bad guys in speed boats nicely.

I think the issue is economics.  Sea going mercenaries would cost probably about $1000 per man per day.  Blackwater I've read charges the USG about $950/day for security details per man.  Figure ten on a boat, and it starts to be a close call whether it is cheaper to hire security or just take a trip around the horn.  Plus I suppose there would be insurance issues if your hired guns ended up blowing an overly friendly Australian pleasure craft out of the water, or something like that.  But in any event, private security would have to be much cheaper than sending any navy in, as well as more effective.

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Tom Smith


Stingers are ground to air - see

but I think that's generally the right idea. More likely the M136 AT4 -

Effective to 300 meters, about $1500 each.

Piracy was traditionally a rather dangerous business; a return to some traditions seems in order.

Posted by: JohnS | Nov 23, 2008 10:05:07 PM

Cheaper still would be for the US Navy to provide armed guard crews to American-flagged vessels in hazardous waters. At no cost to the shipper. This was done during WWII, for example.

Of course the key is "American-flagged." You know -- paying American taxes, etc. Of course other nations could offer the same service to ships that are nationally flagged. India, South Korea, or Egypt would be examples. They could do well by doing good.

Posted by: Mark L | Nov 25, 2008 4:22:11 AM

I think the .50 cal machine gun (or even a .30 cal) would be a better bet than an unguided anti-tank rocket, against moving unarmored speedboats.

Posted by: DWPittelli | Nov 25, 2008 4:34:02 AM

Ma Deuce is a wonderful piece of ordnance. However, the modern and better weapon for the purpose is this one:

Posted by: Letalis Maximus, Esq. | Nov 25, 2008 5:06:54 AM

A .50 cal. outdistances both an RPG and an AK-47 by a considerable distance. Only a couple per ship would be necessary with some M-16s as back up. The first time the pirates have to pay a price for attempting to board a ship will cause them to think twice about doing so in the future.

Posted by: David Knights | Nov 25, 2008 5:14:49 AM

Whatever happened to the old tradition of a ship's armory? I should think the contents of the average American gunowner's gun safes would be sufficient to the task of repelling boarders, and if you enhanced it with a couple of Ma Deuce, you'd be able to prevent the boarding entirely.

An AR-15, a handgun, a pump shotgun and 1000 rds of ammo can be had easily for less than $2k per man in any US gunshop. (Well, at pre-Obama prices, anyway....)

Merchant mariners are already well trained, and therefore proven trainable. Adding gun proficiency and elementary tactics to the mix is doable, and I should think the crews would be motivated.

Companies and governments may or may not pay ransom, but nothing says "I care" like providing a well stocked armory.

Posted by: geekWithA.45 | Nov 25, 2008 5:22:17 AM

One or two men standing on deck with conspicuous looking 7.62 rifles, say M-14/M1As, would do an awful lot to deter any pirates. If they were functional rifles (note that even realistic fakes would do the trick), and had decent optics on them, then a crew of 6 guards could protect even the largest ships and be able to easily take out hostiles who attempted to board from smaller vessels. It's not like they can sink a super tanker with an RPG, the danger is in them boarding, and a .308 will remind you of just how difficult that is in a real hurry.

Posted by: Matt Groom | Nov 25, 2008 5:23:01 AM

If I understand correctly, the pirates' strategy is to shoot up the bridge of the ship and force them to lower a ladder, as the pirate boats can't do anything otherwise.

Why not just armor the bridge? Get whatever we've up-armored the Strykers with and fashion cages around the bridge of the ship. You now have a ship resistant to RPG and small arms fire. Even if this solution isn't foolproof, it can probably buy enough time for the ship's crew to radio for assistance and have some aircraft respond.

Especially in that part of the world, how much could it cost to buy Soviet/Russian machine guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition, then weld mounting points on the ship to attach them on pivots? Buy super-cheap periscopes (like were used in WWI trenches) and let the crew of the ship man the guns from behind protection of the hull. Pirates come, the crew attaches the machine guns and returns fire with impunity while the newly-resistant bridge holds out until the pirates give up or aircraft support arrives.

Posted by: Tribal | Nov 25, 2008 5:26:06 AM

How about the shipping companies train their personnel in the use of these weapons? I bet they'd do it if they got a 20% hazardous duty pay when going through known pirate waters.

Posted by: Mike T | Nov 25, 2008 5:26:14 AM

Free Enterprise, people, and I'm not talking Star Trek, here. "Letters of Marque and Reprisal", issued by the Congress, to privateers under the American flag and subject to U.S. law and regulation. Leaves the Navy to undertake more important matters, such as the Iranians.

What do you want to bet that there's Iranian money underwriting the pirates?

Posted by: section9 | Nov 25, 2008 5:33:06 AM

Mark L, you are really on to something. Perhaps the reason the US merchant marine has faded is an assumption of Pax Americana. Classic case of an economic externality: if these guys were in the Pacific, half the US would be barefoot by now.

Posted by: comatus | Nov 25, 2008 5:34:46 AM

You already have humans on board that they are paying to be there. They don't need to pay someone else to man the guns. Armed sailors have been around for thousands of years for this precise reason. Anyone that is knowledgeable enough to work on a ship can learn how to fire a 50 cal and shotgun. (I would rather have two or three more 50's then one Bushmaster but I would leave that up to the crew) If you mount 5 or 6, 50 cals on the deck overlooking any point where they could climb aboard and arm all your crew with shotguns this problem goes away. Shotguns are about as effective (if not more so) then AK-47's if you are in enclosed spaces or tight steel hallways. As discussed above, Stingers are heat seeking ground to air weapons with a very small warhead not really what you want. If you wanted to go the extra expense of having rockets aboard then the LAW rocket would be better and cheaper, or as mentioned above the M136. Both are unguided but cheap... if you had the money and wanted a guided weapon, the Javelin should also work against a moving boat just as it works against a moving tank.

Posted by: ryan | Nov 25, 2008 6:05:22 AM

In 2002 I spent some time at sea in the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean on my former partner's sailboat. He and his wife were in the midst of a 7-year-long around the world sailing adventure. He told me we were avoiding Indonesia and the Seychelles because of pirates but we were always alert, and sometimes scared shitless, wherever we happened to be. So-called "yachties" have heard plenty of stories from others about encounters with pirates. Nothing will stop your heart faster than the thought of having the pleasure excursion of a lifetime ending in death on the high seas at the hands of these villains.

Most yachties do not carry guns for fear of having their boat searched in some third world port, the gun discovered and their being thrown into some hell hole prison run by a tin pot dictator. (Most legitimate governments, Australia say, will take the gun, hold it, and give it back when you leave).

At the time I was with them there was a story circulating among some of the boats we met about a yachtie that had an M-1 rifle on board. The story was that his boat was approached by a small craft that gave all appearance of being up to no good. He had his wife retrieve the rifle from below and hand it up to him. Supposedly, he stood with the rifle in plain view but without pointing it at anyone, and the pirate boat quickly broke off and disappeared. I have no idea if the story was true, but it certainly sounds like it could be. Most yachties I met think that a gun on board will make matters worse, however. That's a common view that makes the job of pirates a lot easier.

Posted by: Flash Gordon | Nov 25, 2008 6:20:39 AM

Addition to the above: My former partner states that in 7 years of sailing and going into port in every kind of oppressive regime they never once had their boat searched.

Posted by: Flash Gordon | Nov 25, 2008 6:26:28 AM

Any defensive measures like this simply ceeds the initiative to the pirates. As we have seen they simply increase their range and strike targets thought safe. Do we really want to require armed fighters on every ship on every ocean in the world? The most cost effective (and just plain effective) solution is simply to comb the Somali coast and sink every vessel found. Harsh, but fair. Any other era in the history of man would have seen a resolution FAR more destructive.

Posted by: Mark Buehner | Nov 25, 2008 6:30:10 AM

Single 475kT W-88 warhead from a Trident II D5, fused for airburst over Eyl. Repeat as necessary.

Posted by: David Gillies | Nov 25, 2008 6:36:34 AM

Ok, We seem to have a consensus. Arming the ships crew seems the most logical and cheapest way to go. We still have the question of how much to arm them with and how to do so but none the less we all know that arming good people when they are in danger usually does more good then harm. So if this solution to the problem is so evident then it begs to question: Why are they NOT doing it?! I can understand that the "yachies" might not be afraid to do so because the stop at all sorts of countries with oppressive governments but why is a super tanker not armed? They don't stop at any place but Texas. So why?... I've got $5 on "International Law Forbids It"

Posted by: ryan | Nov 25, 2008 6:43:26 AM

You don't want to fight these guys on an equal basis. You want overwhelming force.
With the money from their
ransoms they will be upgrading pretty soon and
probably have 50's (or 12.7's) already.
Remember the investment we are trying to protect is worth tens of millions. Cargo plus ship plus ransomable crew. Half measures are worse than nothing. We want dead pirates.
I suggest going to sweden or GE for a 30MM Chain Gun
and radar sight put together as a package. Maybe a lease. Similar to a cargo container. Set it on the stern, weld it down, hookup
power leads. Radar shows an overtaking stranger, officer hits power switch, hits targeting button. Stranger approaches to within range. Officer hits trigger button for 15 second burst. Ship continues to port, files
incident report. This should do until Iran or N Korea sells the pirates a frigate or corvette.


Posted by: Will Freismuth | Nov 25, 2008 6:45:23 AM

Arming every ship that sails into the pirate infested areas is financially possible, the only problem comes from the nations that are manning, registering, or porting, the ships. Many of these nations do not allow arms among their populace for any reason. Even professional navies have limitations as to what weaponry is allowed in various countries' national waters. Countries like Great Britain have an inordinate fear of weapons, and that would include weapons in the hands of a few crewmen on incoming tankers and shipping freighters. This fear is not mitigated by what is happening thousands of miles away off the shores of Somalia. So whether a freighter is leaving or arriving in a country like Great Britain, the crew would have to be disarmed while in national waters. Such a problem is not solved even with a professional mercenary crew on board; they would still be required to surrender their weapons, or somehow store them in a manner acceptable to the national sissies, while sailing in or through national waters, and especially in port.

Posted by: Diggs | Nov 25, 2008 7:05:21 AM

Will: One problem, you just murdered 12 fishermen and a biologist from USC. These pirates don't fly the jolly rogers. They look like anyone else, until they get close enough to start shooting. At that range bolting a Phalanx on the front of the ship will be as effective as a 50 cal. Personally, I like Tribal's idea. Armor the Bridge and build some small remotely operated gun turret and weld them at strategic spots around the hull. The tactics of the situation gives us the advantage. They can not sink the ship, they want it, the crew and cargo intact. We have the advantage that as soon as they start shooting we can sink them, the quicker the better. Heck on an oil tanker you could do that with a pump, fire hose and a blow torch. There is no need to go all out with the pricey piece like a 30 mm chain gun. The real reason that any of us are even talking about any of this is that the crew is not even allowed to have a musket and cutlass.

Posted by: ryan | Nov 25, 2008 7:12:23 AM

"Of course the key is "American-flagged." You know -- paying American taxes, etc. Of course other nations could offer the same service to ships that are nationally flagged. India, South Korea, or Egypt would be examples. They could do well by doing good."

The US has a history of protectionist regulations that have effectively killed the US flagged shipping industry and encouraged the rise of flags of convenience, unless you believe that Liberia actually is a maritime shipping power. See here:

"Many of these nations do not allow arms among their populace for any reason. "

And this is the problem with a ships armory/security force. The tangle of regulations and red tape required for foreign crews to legally possess arms, up to and including fully automatic weapons and light artillery, in multiple countries/ports of call. The legal overhead/bribes would add a considerable expense on top of the actual cost of the weapons.

"'Letters of Marque and Reprisal', issued by the Congress, to privateers under the American flag and subject to U.S. law and regulation."
With a bounty on capture of pirates, destruction of pirate vessels, and recover of stolen property.

Bolt - on weapons systems
Slightly better weapon ssytem

Posted by: Ray | Nov 25, 2008 7:38:36 AM

The general trend of disarmament - at least in legal terms, if not always actuality - prevents the arming of crews and vessels. Period.

Posted by: Tim | Nov 25, 2008 7:52:44 AM

If the shipping companies got together it would not be that expensive. After all, it is only off the shores of Somalia and Kenya that they are hitting the ships. Put the guards on for a day or so, then move them by helicopter to the next ship coming into the danger zone.

In addition, small arms like your basic M-16 would probably be enough to deter the pirates. They are very vulnerable while climbing up the ship's side, plus like any crimminal they are likely to be deterred just by the thought of facing an armed shipped.

Posted by: Doug (old Army Corporal) | Nov 25, 2008 8:02:49 AM

Why don't they equip the ships with millimeter radiation devices. They heat up the skin like microwaves, but can't penetrate the skin. Leaves the target with a burning desire to get out of range. Safe and effective deterent. Other defensive weapons are availible, too. A little tech should keep the pirates in check.

Posted by: Richard of Oregon | Nov 25, 2008 8:25:45 AM

American flagged ships carry weapons as far as I know. My brother has a union card (SIU) with the small arms endorsement, the freighter he was on had a locker with M14s, which they broke out every time a DEA aircraft asked them to eyeball a suspicious boat.

Posted by: Puff65537 | Nov 25, 2008 8:38:52 AM