With piracy odds in their favor, ships shun armed guards
The small number of successful pirate attacks, an increase in military patrols, and legal concerns have kept many firms from hiring security.
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Still, some private security firms have offered their services. XE, the firm formerly known as Blackwater USA, is reportedly in negotiations to contract with shippers to provide a "security escort service" in the Gulf of Aden with their own 183-foot ship called the MacArthur.Skip to next paragraph
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In the meantime, Aegis, the British security firm, is offering a land-based sensor system that could help monitor pirate ship movements. Many experts believe the key lies in targeting the "mother ships" that are used as a base of operations, sometimes more than 400 miles out at sea.
The Pentagon is looking at what role the US should play. Last month, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, charged a group of officers to look at options for not only for the US military but also other government agencies, including the Departments of State and Transportation. On Monday, the group presented an initial set of findings that included offense- and defense-related solutions for ships at sea, says a military official, as well as solutions that could be effective on shore.
That includes the possibility of a combat action – one of the least desirable alternatives – as well as diplomatic and economic measures.
Military solutions have partly worked. The presence of some 28 nations patrolling the region has pushed some pirates out from the Gulf of Aden back to the Indian Ocean, says Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical intelligence for SRATFOR, an intelligence firm.
But most experts agree that military solutions alone won't do it. The root causes of piracy stem from poverty, lack of opportunity and lawlessness, things the military simply can't address on its own.
"Piracy, although generally considered a scourge of the world's oceans, has its origins on land and has usually been defeated on land as a result of political and economic changes that have evolved over time," said Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, who chaired Tuesday's Senate panel hearing on piracy in Washington. "Ultimately, the solution resides ashore, not just through action on the open seas."
In the meantime, American officials are urging shippers to take their own precautions to keep the pirates at bay. They run the gamut from rolling up ship ladders, to keeping the perimeter of ships well-lit, to installing barbed wire fences around the sides of the deck.
Nearly 80 percent of thwarted attacks were the result of ships employing some kind of defensive measure, including armed guards, according to Pentagon officials.
"They need to do some things on their own," says one military official. "Just like ... when you drive through a bad neighborhood, you roll up the windows and lock the doors."