Posted by Fred Fry:

Here is a little diversion from some of the recent good conversations going on at the USNI Blog. I am going to take things in a slightly different direction. Partly to give a little appreciation as to how things look from the viewpoint of the ships being attacked, and partly to see what kind of other ideas this fine group of readers might come up with as ways to keep or delay pirates from boarding a merchant ship.

Sure, most of these ships are flying foreign flags and not directly America’s problem, but the cargo they carry might just be needed by US forces somewhere in the globe. Or, as in the case of the M/V FAINA which is currently being held by pirates, the cargo carried, tanks and weapons, is best kept out of the hands of pirates and their network ashore. Like it or not, merchant shipping comprises part of the US Military’s supply lines, just like those truck convoys attacked in Pakistan comprises part of the supply lines for US and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

I look forward to constructive criticism of what some might consider goofy, stupid or even dangerous suggestions. Just keep in mind that the obvious defense, arming merchant ship crews, is forbidden or too difficult rules-wise to be a valid option. That leaves either doing nothing and welcoming pirates aboard, diverting traffic away from the area entirely, or some other form of defense.

So, here is a revision of a previous article I wrote concerning my thoughts on Defending Unarmed Merchant Ships Against Pirates. This is just some ideas to get people thinking on just how best to beat back armed pirates.

Keep in mind the following three stories when reading the article below:

The Admiral talked about the “golden thirty minutes”. If the allies can get a ship or an aircraft to a threatened vessel within thirty minutes of notice the pirates can usually be deterred and the attack averted.America’s North Shore Journal


PIRATES have today hijacked an escorted German LPG ship with 13 crew in the Gulf of Aden.

The 4,316dwt Longchamp was en route to Asia from Europe, escorted by a naval convoy, when it was boarded by seven armed pirates this morning, owner MPC told Fairplay.

The crew are 12 Filipinos and 1 Indonesian, a company spokesman said.

He told Fairplay that no injuries were reported and that company satellite data shows that the ship is approaching the Somali coast.

MPC would not confirm reports that the ship was fully laden.

Longchamp is managed by Bernhard Schulte.Fairplay


Ship captain reported ‘executed’ – PIRATES executed a ship’s captain after he resisted capture off the coast of West Africa, Fairplay can confirm today.

“A guerrilla attack on a commercial vessel retaliated on the captain and executed him, a source delivering a high-level briefing on piracy told Fairplay. “We are worried about the transfer [of piracy] from East Africa to West Africa.”

The Greek ministry of shipping named the captain as Theodoros Mastaloudis.

A news agency report said yesterday that pirates had killed a Greek master of an unnamed ship on Saturday off the coast of Cameroon but gave no details.

His vessel had come to the rescue of another ship being attacked by pirates, Reuters reported on Monday. Fairplay

From these three stories we have: Confirmation that there is a price to pay for doing anything that might upset a pirate’s plans; That the Navy sees as one of their main challenges/goals is getting to a ship under attack within 30 minutes; And that even nearby naval protection/escort is not 100 percent protection from being taken by pirates. So at the end of the day, some merchant sailors are finding themselves with nothing to defend the ship except their best creativity.

Given the information above, a merchant ship should plan on having to defend their ship on their own for at least 30 minutes while waiting for help to arrive. Recent attacks on merchant shipping off Somalia show that determined pirates can take over a ship in minutes, if there is nothing standing in their way. This means that they need some short-term solutions that they can deploy to delay attacking pirates from getting onboard. In this most recent hijacking of the LONGCHAMP, being part of a convoy escorted by naval forces was not enough to prevent being taken over by pirates. In the end, they also needed to be able to protect the ship themselves in addition to having a naval vessel acting as their bodyguard.

Most merchant ships do not carry firearms but they do carry other sorts of projectiles. One merchant ship managed to disable a pirate boat by hitting it with a distress flare (or flares or perhaps even other flaming projectiles). The pirate boat caught fire and the pirates ended up being rescued/captured by the Danish Navy and are currently facing prosecution in the Netherlands. All ships have flares and many probably also carry extra expired flares. These are not little flares that you find on weekend warriors in harbors around the US, but pretty impressive ‘industrial strength’ flares that probably make pirates pause after having one shot at them. (However, doing so, might subject you to execution as noted in the story above.)

OK, that is a good start, but you are going to need a lot of flares to put up a sustained defense for a half hour. Your going to need something else.

One suggestion that I have made before was to use ‘Pepperball’ paintballs:

The PepperBall® system is unique in the industry as the first non-lethal weapon to combine multiple effects to accomplish its objective safely and without permanent injuries or death. Since late 1999 PepperBall has been deployed in thousands of situations around the globe, successfully filling a gap in the use of force continuum where no other tools are available.

The PepperBall system consists of a PepperBall launcher and projectiles. The launchers are high-pressure air delivery systems. PepperBall projectiles are hard plastic spheres built to burst on impact. Live projectiles are the foundation of the system and are filled with enough PAVA (Capsaicin II) powder to irritate a suspect’s eyes, nose and throat. As such, the PepperBall system combines a unique kinetic impact technology with pepper powder irritant as a non-lethal deployment device for peace officers. We call this combination of affects Chem-netics™ and hold multiple patents protecting our technology.

Chem-netics makes PepperBall systems effective tools for gaining target compliance. PepperBall projectiles are launched from several types of launchers appropriate for the intended use. These launchers use high-pressure air (CO2) to launch the projectiles. Because the projectiles break upon impact they do not penetrate skin, making this weapon safe even at contact range.Link

One reason that this looks like an effective defense is that the PepperBalls can be ‘delivered’ through a fully automatic paintball gun. (Video link here) A paintball ‘gun’ is not a firearm and most likely would be easier to carry onboard.

Hell, looking at the following video, any sort of fully-automatic paintball gun is sure to have a good deterrent effect. (Video link Here) Even better if you can get them to fire marbles as well, not that paintballs don’t already hurt. And unlike when playing paintball as a sport, there is no rule against hitting pirates in the head with paintballs.

One drawback to these items is that they need to be sourced from ashore, including an adequate supply of compressed gas bottles, ammunition and spares. So, until you can get your hands on something like this, what can your engineering crew build onboard? How about some sort of potato gun. Not for chucking potatoes, but instead to shoot Molotov cocktails, nuts and bolts, ice blocks, sections of pipe, or whatever that will force them to duck for cover.

Taking a page from the Sea Shepherd eco-terror group, how about tossing bottles of butyric acid onto the pirate skiffs? No, maybe not that. After all, if it won’t stop the Japanese from whaling, it certainly is not going to stop a pirate from attacking. One recent lesson learned from a repelled pirate attack on the Chinese ship was that broken glass on deck prevented the pirates from moving around freely because many of the pirates had no shoes and they were afraid of damaging their feet. So, how about showering approaching pirate boats with crushed glass?

Then of course there is the LRAD acoustic device. This is the weapon that the unarmed security team on the M/V BISCAGLIA unsuccessfully used to defend the ship against the pirates. The security company panned the device as ineffective but given that the devices are in use in Iraq and elsewhere, I am going to discount their panning the device as nothing more than an attempt to shift blame.

It was the M/V BISCAGLIA incident that reminded me of a list I had made up a while ago of how to defend a ship against Greenpeace protesters:

Greenpeace keeps getting away with this because ship’s crews are not given the GreenLight to repel them. Here are some ways to protect the ship if you find yourself being attacked by Greenpeace: (Note: Anything you do is your responsibility, although it is Greenpeace that forces you to act.)

– Use fire hoses and fire monitors. Add Foam or soap to make everything slippery. Deliver the soap inside water balloons and then use the hoses to foam it all up.

– Use the anchor wash if there is an attempt to secure themselves to the anchor chain.

– Use paintball guns. For more effect, shoot Pepper balls. [Noted above]

– Have the engineers whip up a couple potato cannons. Instead of potatoes, you can try ice cubes for a shotgun effect.

– Make use of expired flares. Just don’t shoot them skyward.

Originally Posted on Maritime Monday 76

Of course Somali pirates are not Greenpeace protesters, but the list above is a little better than nothing at all and sending a constant stream of material/scrap metal their way might be enough of a deterrent for them to seek a less challenging target, or at least delay them until naval forces arrive to take over the situation. So thinking about this failed defense of the M/V BISCAGLIA, I came up with a couple more ways to defend against pirates if they manage to get alongside:

– Molatov cocktails thrown onto the deck as they come alongside

– Drop the pilot ladder into the sea with a pirate or two, three still clinging to it

– Drop twistlocks and whatever else that is heavy on them

– Fabricate gravity-powered ‘missiles’ out of large diameter pipe that can shoot through the pirate vessel’s hull with the front end cut at an angle like a hypodermic needle to hole the pirate boat. (Not too large that it is not easy to move around the deck and deploy, but large enough to fly through the hull when it hits.)

I would think that the pirates are at their most vulnerable when they are alongside trying to get onboard so this is probably where they should be hit if they cannot be kept away. They are also in a position where if they were to attempt to damage the ship they would most likely become casualties in the process as well.

The suggestions above are of increasing effectiveness as the freeboard of the vessel increases, giving gravity a greater punch as whatever is tossed over the side strikes the vessel.

One option that does not seem to have been seriously discussed yet is having the Navy offer to place armed marines or other military teams onboard some merchant ships for the transit through the pirate area. They can board on one end, ride to the other end and then catch a ride back on another ship. Now lets say you could get these armed teams onboard merchant ships. Just how well armed should these security teams be? Technically, there are two targets. The pirate vessel itself and the pirates onboard the vessel.

To this point, most defensive actions seem to target the pirates. Perhaps the better move is to target their boat with enough firepower that can disable or sink it. This probably means deployment of a heavy machine gun or some sort of rocket or missile that can hole their boat with one shot. Or how about a couple Marines with a 40 mm grenade launcher as part of their gear?

The MGL (Multiple Grenade Launcher) is a lightweight 40 mm semi-automatic, 6-shot grenade launcher developed and manufactured in South Africa by the Milkor company (renamed Rippel Effect in 2007). The MGL was demonstrated as a concept to the South African Defence Force in 1981. The operating principle was immediately accepted and subjected to a stringent qualification program. The MGL was then officially accepted into service with the SADF as the Y2. After its introduction in 1983, the MGL was gradually adopted by the armed forces and law enforcement organizations of over 30 countries; it has since proven its effectiveness in harsh environments ranging from rain forests to deserts. Total production since 1983 has been more than 18,000 units.

The MGL is multiple-shot weapon, intended to significantly increase a small squad’s firepower when compared to traditional single-shot grenade launchers like the M203. The MGL is designed to be simple, rugged and reliable. It uses the well-proven revolver principle to achieve a high rate of accurate fire which can be rapidly brought to bear on a target. A variety of rounds such as HE, HEAT, anti-riot baton, irritant or pyrotechnic can be loaded and fired at a rate of one per second; the cylinder can be loaded or unloaded rapidly to maintain a high rate of fire. Although intended primarily for offensive/defensive use with high-explosive rounds, with appropriate ammunition the launcher is suitable for anti-riot and other security operations.Wikipedia

Using military personnel will overcome a major obstacle in the way of arming merchant ships, namely, it is damn near impossible to get private armed security teams to and from these vessels due to weapons restrictions.

There are already a number of naval vessels in the area conducting anti-pirate operations. Just have a couple stationed at the edge of the pirate areas and then have willing ships embark defensive teams onboard who can ride the vessel through the area and then be collected on the other side by another naval vessel stationed for that purpose. The team can then hitch a ride back to their ship on another cargo vessel going the other way. But this is how it would need to be done, at sea deployment, if done at all. As a bonus, naval vessel can better be tasked for hunting the pirates down and less so on escort duty as these boarding parties essentially turn the ships into additional units to protect the rest of the convoy. There is no need to place them on all the ships. Just having them on some ships (Such as the most vulnerable targets) will make pirates act more cautiously, never knowing if the ship they are about to attack is armed or not.

There is no simple answer here but surely there is more that can be done by the vessels to better prevent more ships from being taken by pirates. So what other ideas are out there?

Kennebec Captain’s post “The (Unarmed) Defense of the Biscaglia” was the inspiration for this post.


Originally posted here: On Defending Unarmed Merchant Ships Against Pirates – 1 Dec 08

Posted by FFry in Maritime Security, Piracy
Tags: ,

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  • Warthog


    I was in the Navy and we have a long established and really violent method of discouraging unwanted visitors. That having been said.

    I think a fairly aggressive company like Blackwater could form up a Maritime Protection division and provide people for jobs like this.

    It’s harder because many of the shipping companies are based in Europe with the standing gun fear that Europe has. The only way to punch it through would be to have the folks that created the cargo mandate armed protection to the delivery point.

    You could find a neutral point somewhere outside the threat zone and embark/debark your operators. The issue again, is getting the shipping companies to play along.

    I find in my own heart, that I want to cry as I consider the way my Navy is failing it’s primary mission of sea lane control. Beaten by a bunch of rag tag pirates from some 3rd or 4th world craphole.

    We should scrape up the money somewhere and build 50 or 60 FFG-7 class frigates and drop them in there a dozen at a time and exterminate those rats the moment the poke their noses out of port. That is merely my own opinion and I’m certain many will disagree, ut the history of Naval Forces v. Pirates is a long and bloody one.

  • leesea

    Just something to stimulate the discussion. Go research the US Naval Armed Guards used during WW2.

    also goto this link for current information on naval auxiliary protection:

    Know that MSC has hired marine security companies in the past

  • doc75

    Why hasn’t anyone setup a honey pot off the coast of Somalia? What I mean is a merchant ship with a surprise load of Marines or SEALs.

  • Jay

    Honey pot has been tried…like Q ships of old, it didn’t work all that well.

    All of the pirates are not complete morons…they prob communicate, so one good “hit” from a honey pot prob won’t show a lot of follow on results. As others have noted, as long as many of the pirates/fishermen are pretty damn poor, will prob remain fishermen with weapons in the boat, so if the situation presents itself…they will go for the gold ring.

  • Right now the piracy threat is still localized in specific regions. However, if the threat continues to spread, there won’t be enough naval ships to protect the ships. Placing Naval armed guards onboard might turn into a better solution than.

  • Spade


    This is a lethal threat presented by guys with guns and RPGs. Why even bother considering less lethal crap like pepperballs?

    They just need to ditch the whole “nobody but the Navy needs guns on the water” thing the world’s got going on. These ships are victims because they and various countries have let themselves become victims.

  • “Why even bother considering less lethal crap like pepperballs?”
    – Try getting some weapons through customs in a foreign port headed to a ship.
    – Try getting into some ports with weapons on your ship’s manifest.

    This problem is kind of like conceal carry of handguns in the US. I can carry a concealed weapon in Virginia. However, I cannot on days when I might have to travel into Washington, DC because not only can I not carry a weapon there, but I also cannot keep it stored in the trunk of my car. Ships travel to ports around the world and each has its own rules on this matter. The end result is no firearms on cargo ships.

  • Byron

    If I was the ships master, I’d have me a tidly little armory tucked away in a safe place, and damn the local laws. A dab of baksheesh makes that sort of inspection go away.

  • leesea

    The US Navy is all hung up on the legalities of the pirate situation. First off they put ship defense on the merchnat ships belying several centuries of naval history. Then they wanted a UN mandate, now they are working on ROE, oh and of course there is who will take them (like Davy Jones wouldn’t!), now they are “de-conflicting” with other navies that are actually doing something like attacking & capturing pirates.

    By this I guess you can see I am pretty much fed up with the USN milling around smartly and NOT doing anything proactive.

  • Spade

    Fred: “- Try getting some weapons through customs in a foreign port headed to a ship.
    – Try getting into some ports with weapons on your ship’s manifest.

    And this is exactly the problem. The legal framework is working for the pirates, in every sense of it. Hell, the only reason more people haven’t been killed is ‘luck’ and the pirates don’t want to. If it came to it, pepperballs and other things are going to be inadequate substitutes to small arms. Dropping heavy things isn’t going to work if they suddenly decide that the sailor’s death is a-okay.

    ‘Easy’ solutions: allow the merchants to be armed. If your country has a problem with scary guns, tell the captain to lock them up when they arrive in your port and have your guys inspect the contents when they arrive and when they leave (some places already allow that for personal firearms on your own yacht, even places with otherwise nuts gun laws). Tell the various warships floating about that they’ve got guns and thick rope for a reason.

    Problem eventually solved. Of course, that’s a 17/18th century solution there, and we were much less civilized back then I’m told.

    As an aside: I’ve got a VA carry permit too.

  • DavidB

    Problem I see is the vessel owners don’t care. They continue to pay. They have rationalized that as cheaper than the solution, arming your crew.

    I also have no doubt that security firms would pop up in ports around the world if there was some mandate to have training on repelling boarders. The crews are clueless what to even TRY to do to repel, and the pirates KNOW that! Hell, even a 1-2 hours basics course would cut the number of pirate successes dramatically. Heck, responsible companies could even hire a security firm to do onboard couple hours briefings just prior to sailing and a large major of boarding attempts would fail. Until the pirates decide to start shooting, at which point the crew needs to be able to shoot back!

  • Jay

    Every company, US or foreign, is out to make a profit, and they keep costs low in order to do so.

    It is rare that any company will allow firearms on board a ship, just too much potential for bad things to happen.

    Mariners are not security experts, and shouldn’t be expected to function as them.

    Yes, some non-lethal measures (firehoses, etc.) might help prevent some of the less determined attacks.

    Some companies might allow a private or government Force Protection (FP) teams on board (if a ship is carrying high value or military cargo & the company/nation that owns the cargo makes it part of the contract — and supplies & funds the FP team).

    This still has to be a two-pronged effort. 1. Hit them at sea.

    2. Improve things ashore, so piracy is no longer an attractive option.

    #2 is the tough nut to crack. However, if it isn’t addressed, #1 may be unending.

  • chief601

    “Mariners are not security experts, and shouldn’t be expected to function as them.”

    This is true. However, they can hire experts.

    “2. Improve things ashore, so piracy is no longer an attractive option.

    #2 is the tough nut to crack. However, if it isn’t addressed, #1 may be unending.”

    We may be soon trying to handle that problem at home.

    I found this a most interesting read. The answers are not easy. However, as a former Marine, my answer is answering force with overwhelming force. Don’t try to send me against armed pirates with a paint ball gun.

    If the merchant companies (I realize this is far fetched as many will not play the game) refuse to ship to countries that will not allow armed teams on board I would suggest they may come around. I will not expect to see any viable solution offered by the muttonheads at the UN. We’ve turned into a world of pantywaists. There are some people you just can’t negotiate with. Thanks for allowing me my 2 cents worth. I fully realize the viewpoints of those I disagree with are only trying to work within the parameters they are forced to work with. Very interesting site.

  • Brian S

    Most ports will allow a ship to enter if all the weapons are locked up, sealed and manifested.
    This is a phony “problem.”

  • makepeace

    Use the ‘Reaper’. That’s what it’s there for. The onsite French forces ignored the chain of command and got medals for it. How embarrasing is that? More embarrasing than what Ukrainian tanks are doing in Somalia?

  • TSBench


    Why would firearms carried as ships equipment, and not as cargo. be listed on a manifest?


  • makepeace

    Throw some methanethiol into those paintballs and I might give ’em a try. Mercaptans aren’t as easy to get over as your average captain and are the reason why skunks live to a ‘ripe’ old age.

  • David Graham

    Sound like a great business opportunity. If the Govt. will not provide protection to these ships than why not form a private escort force and get contracts with the merchant ships to escort them through the danger zones.

    The other idea above about have a couple of Blackwater guys on the ships is also good. Like any strategic fighting point in war, being higher than the enemy puts you in a great position to fight. Those ships are way above those pirate boats. If armed should be easy to defend.

    I have one question. Are most of the attacks happening in Somali sovereign waters or International waters?

  • Most all of the attacks are happening in International waters. I would think that the only attacks happening in Somali waters are against ships bringing aid into Somalia. Those ships are now protected by military escort.

  • Phil Boggs

    1. If the ships crew is not paying enough attention (24 hour Crew lookouts)then it is really going to be bad when pirates take over an ARMED Ship

    2. If there were Fire Tug Water nozzles fore, aft port & starboard and these were directed a pirates, it would provide more than a bath. Like filling up or flip their small boats

    These things will take the paint off of a deck and should be sufficient (if proper pumping system is used) to deter 90% of pirates out here

  • David J. Brown

    Rules don’t allow merchant vessels to arm themselves? Change the rules. Lock the arms away when entering (12 mile) territorial limit at port of call. Yes, I know, these are sovereign governments making these rules. Do they benefit from international sea-borne trade? Do they wish to continue to do so?

    What will buyers in a given country do if they are cut off from goods because their government doesn’t allow armed merchant vessels to trade? They’ll lobby their government to change the rules, that’s what.

  • David

    suggest merchant ships use mercenary detachments when in hostile waters, airlift detachments to a from when entering any port. Much cheaper and rough on pirates. Also recommend 20 mm close in auto firing guns on merchant vessels, 10,000 rpm is also rough on pirates, lock the unit when inside 12mi limits.