Navy Lt Kurt Albaugh’s recent piece (“The Return of the Privateers”) at news.usni.org is valuable in the discussion about an old concept made new in response to the challenge of Somali piracy off the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean. The private sector is adapting to new markets. In this case, a private security industry has emerged to address the needs of the private sector’s threat by pirates, especially in that region of the world.
Appropriate terminology is the first step in understanding this issue. Privateers were ships authorized by states to engage in armed conflict against another state’s commerce. Letters of marque were issued by a state to formalize that authorization. They were considered such an integral part of naval warfare that the founding fathers included that specific power for Congress in Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. During the War of 1812, for example, the U.S. government with a small navy of approximately sixteen ships at the war’s outset, issue some 500 letters of marque to privateers which, subsequently, captured more than 1,300 British prizes (see Charles Brodine, “The War’s Pervasive Dimensions,” Naval History, June 2012). Letters of marque were later issued by the independent Republic of Texas in the 1830s and the Confederate States of American during the Civil War. The Treaty of Paris (1856) (see “Contracts of Marque,” Proceedings, November 2007) ending the Crimean War banned the use of privateers by the war’s combatants. The U.S. later signed the Hague Convention of 1907 signaling its own end to the use of privateers.
Consequently, the term “privateer” is not an entirely accurate reflection of today’s emerging maritime security industry since the companies are a) not hired largely by states and b) not engaged to seek out and capture or destroy enemy commerce. The current termed that has gained acceptance is “PCASP” – Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel. This includes both the armed guards hired on board ships and as well as a subset of the maritime security industry.
The proposed Convoy Escort Programme, a private naval force underwritten by Lloyds, despite indications otherwise in the past several years appears poised to finally materialize. This concept is not new. Since 2007, when piracy began to emerge as a threat to shipping at first in the Gulf of Aden, several firms have claimed they had or intended to buy ships. While the former Blackwater was the first to produce a ship – the former NOAA ship McArthur – it arrived in the Red Sea without any clients and the ship never provided protection to commercial clients as intended. Other firms, including U.S. and French companies, made bold assertions that they had many boats at the ready, but upon investigation none existed and the stories rapidly changed. (see “Private Security Companies and Piracy,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, March 2009). Several companies have, however, had platforms in the region including Protection Vessels International (PVI) which has operated three escort boats on a consistent basis. Other firms have also emerged providing logistics platforms such as “floatels” (floating hotels).
The response to piracy has included both state navies and a far more robust response from the shipping industry including improvements to Best Management Practices as well as the reluctant acceptances of on-board armed guards. State navies have existed for thousands of years and control of the seas were determined by battles such as Salamis between the various Greek city-states and the Persian Empire or Actium between the competing Roman and Egyptian forces. But, on occasion, usually out of necessity, states and shipping companies (such as the East India Company) have turned to the private sector, right or wrong, to supplement their numbers or address other shortcomings.
Lt. Albaugh piece echoes the fundamental questions of accountability, rules of engagement (or in PCASP parlance “use of force”), and interests of the state – or more appropriately the shipping companies, are important. These and other questions are being debated but the answers are by no means set. Finally, the market itself may change as radically as it has in the past five or six years.
With some 20,000 ship transits in the Gulf of Aden annually, the opportunities for maritime security companies seemed encouraging, but the actual number of vulnerable ships to pirates is far less depending on the speed and ship structures which are both preventative to most attacks. Six years ago, only six to twelve firms offer armed maritime security guards (according to my co-editor on “Maritime Private Security”). Today the Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI) has over 120 firms as members. Some estimates suggest the number of firms is higher than 200. Arguably not every firm has the same capability, offers the same services, or is as robust as others. Some may simply be an individual through whom other contracts and resumes are processed. The number of Gulf of Aden transits will not markedly increase. With the proliferation of PCASPs and the decreased number of successful attacks (primarily due to armed guards), it is possible that if these conditions hold the market in that region has been saturated, that opportunities with it will diminish and marginal PCASPs with no other choice than the leave the market or to find other markets, should they arise, such as the Gulf of Guinea.
Lieutenant Commander Claude Berube is the co-editor of “Maritime Private Security: Market Responses Piracy, Terrorism, and Waterborne Security Risks in the 21st Century” (Routledge, 2012). His articles about private security as sea have appeared since 2007 in Orbis, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Washington Times, Forbes.com, and Naval Institute Proceedings. He serves on the Editorial Board of Proceedings.
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