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To stop pirates, do ships need firepower?

Most merchant sailors are not trained to use weapons, but some maritime educators say that is changing.

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Some shipping companies, though, are moving beyond basic security training to include weapons instruction and other active defensive measures. At least one international company now issues rifles to its crews, according to a recent article in Professional Mariner, the journal of the maritime industry.

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That flies in the face of current training for most US and international merchant vessels, maritime educators say.

“We do not have armed ships and mariners are not armed, so the unwritten message is that after the prevention procedures have failed, there isn’t much you can do,” says Dennis Compton, who heads planning and assessment for the US Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y. “But now we’re looking at the first time a US crew was actually involved. It’s largely been a problem for other people and not the US. But not anymore.”

Besides weapons training, shipping companies are adding measures to beef up ship defenses. In November 2005, a cruise liner, the Seabourn Spirit, used a sonic blast from a “long-range acoustic device,” or LRAD, to repel pirates who were trying to board.

Shocks from an “electric fence” have also been tried, along with night-vision systems to prevent pirates from being able to get close to the vessels. Indeed, outrunning pirates is still one of the best approaches. Although pirate boats are faster, a large ship moving at 16 knots or more creates an enormous wake that makes it hard to board. Razor wire ringing the ship is another technique.

The extra security isn’t cheap. Sonic deterrent equipment and operators can cost $20,000 to $30,000 per trip, according to documents on the US Maritime Administration website.

But training crew members is key.

“We have an exercise that takes place, in a full mission bridge simulation for entering Singapore, a known area where pirates work out of,” says Capt. George Sandberg, director of maritime simulation at the US Merchant Marine Academy. Such training can help crew members know how to go into “lock-down,” or “citadel,” mode to defend against an attack.

Hector Morales, a former Navy Special Warfare Combatant Crew Member, who also teaches security at the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies, notes that simply arming crew members is not the solution. But something has to change, he says – and training in the use of weapons should probably be included. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Mr. Morales.]

“We have to give these seamen the tools and training,” he says. “They need proper intelligence, less-than-lethal technology, and all the ways for self-defense. Weapons are just one more tool.”

For his part, Captain Bushy won’t say whether he would arm merchant ships like the Maersk Alabama. “If this ship had had weapons, it may have helped, but I’m not so sure.”

On one hand, arms could escalate the situation so that more people are killed.

Still, he notes, “if you’re going to put weapons on a ship and train people to use them, you have to have plenty of firepower and know how to use it.”

“Use of armed crews who didn’t sign up to fight is a bad idea,” says Giles Noakes, chief maritime security officer for BIMCO, an international association of ship owners. “The industry believes very strongly that it’s not for the companies to train crews to use firearms and then arm them.... If you open fire, there’s potential for retaliation. Crews could get injured or killed, to say nothing of damage to the ship.”

Putting armed teams on board isn’t a good idea either, he says.

While it “might be successful initially, the pirates will look at this problem and come back with bigger weapons and fire them from a distance.”

One option is to have actual military teams from various countries on board, but the industry is on the fence about implementing it.

“With support vessels in proximity, it does make some sense,” Mr. Noakes says. “It’s not ideal. But it’s an idea that some companies and [ship] masters feel can work.”

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