Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Q-Ships, Pirates, and the Waters off Somalia

The Danica WhiteMy post last week about Q-ships and the Danica White generated some interesting comments and emails.

Commenter Greg B. had this to say:

In combating piracy, “Q-ships” would be permissible under US Maritime Law.

This section gives full self defense rights against pirates and even allows aggression against them such as attacking them and taking away their ship.

This section permits the President to authorize any of the armed forces to provide weaponry for civilian ships (as opposed to the owners footing the bill). Paragraph (b), if read carefully, shows that the President can do it pretty much whenever he feels it justified.

So Q-ships would be permissible. But would they be a good idea?

Reader LP thought so:

A reprise of Q-ship style decoy vessels is a great and effective idea.

I’m ex-US Navy — I’m not an expert on global maritime law, but the last I heard, the Captain of a ship is the “supreme authority” when at sea in international waters, and is the virtual president of his own floating country.

Somali piratesTo my knowledge, there are no prohibitions of any sort against him exercising the self-defense of his “virtual country” from any and all attacks, using all means at his disposal. I would really love to see this tactic put into action.

Deception, camouflage, and stabbing in the back seem to be the only way Islamists can achieve any combat success, so turning the tactical tables on them would be very satisfying indeed.

But Eagle1 did not agree:

Using a Q-ship for anti-piracy work seems to me to be dubious proposition at best. Having a specially outfitted vessel means the element of surprise might easily be surrendered if the same ship “trawls” the same pirate-infested waters too frequently. Further, these modern pirates use small teams of men in small boats, which may be easily replaced by the “pirate kings” without risk of more expensive ships or the “brains” of the pirate operation. The costs of the operation of an anti-pirate Q-ship would be high, and it difficult to think of any entity that would step up to pay those costs, especially if there are less expensive options, including increasing crew awareness in high risk areas (read the reports- most attempted boardings of ships traveling through the Strait of Malacca are thwarted by alert crews armed with powerful fire hoses). In addition, since many pirate attacks take place in territorial waters, there is the question of having the legal right to respond to what is felt to be an attack while in a state’s waters as opposed to being on the high seas.
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And we are not, generally, talking about U.S. flagged ships involved in these incidents off Somalia. I assume that most of the ship flagging countries reject the idea of armed merchant ships. Better for merchant ships to stay well off Somalia and/or to travel in convoys, escorted or not by warships.

Update: I should have made it clear that the scenario described below is a thought-experiment. I realize that arming merchant vessels is not currently possible, but some of our commenters and correspondents seem to think it is worth considering. So I am asking: What would happen if it could be done?

Let’s look at the situation from the point of view of the owners of the Danica White. Their first and foremost obligation is to their shareholders — they are obliged to take whatever actions that are necessary (and within the law) to safeguard their shareholders’ investment and maximize the return on it.

Assuming that the owners are neither heartless nor totally cynical, they are also concerned for the well-being of their crewmembers. Since the presence of a safe and healthy crew makes for the most productive use of the company’s shipping assets, the two goals are not generally in conflict.

The company sent its ship into what are known to be dangerous waters, so they presumably took the appropriate precautions — i.e. they purchased a hefty commercial marine insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London or one of its affiliates. The underwriters at Lloyd’s would have insisted on certain shipboard conditions in order to minimize the risk before they rated the insured and issued a policy.

So if I were a Lloyd’s underwriter, how would the presence of camouflaged deck guns aboard a merchant ship affect my rating of it? Which is more risky financially, an armed or an unarmed merchant vessel?

On the one hand, an armed freighter might possibly repel the pirates and prevent a hefty loss.

On the other hand, depending on the quantity and quality of the pirates’ ordnance, a firefight might leave the ship burned to the waterline and then sunk, a total loss to the company. Add to that risk the ensuing lawsuits on behalf of the dead sailors by their families — how much exposure would that be for Lloyd’s?

The insurance policy is undoubtedly written with a piracy limit, and a cap on any ransom paid. Part of the job of the “professional negotiator” would be to find out the ransom limit and communicate it to the pirates, so as to let them know what they can reasonably expect to get for their efforts. The final negotiations will probably yield a ransom payment which amounts to the ransom cap minus the negotiators’ fees.

In the end, Lloyd’s and the shipping company keep the risk at a manageable level, the vessel is recovered, and the crew returns safely to Denmark. The pirates are happy, the crew is happy, Lloyd’s is happy, and the shipping company is happy.

The downside is that consumers all over the world have to pay more for goods shipped by sea in order to cover the insurance costs.

Of course, if this sort of thing keeps happening to the company, the owners may find that insurance premiums go sky-high, or even have their policy cancelled. Then they may start to think about deck guns and Q-ships.

I don’t know which option is the best one. But I can guarantee you that the insurance company and the ship’s owners know how to find out.

Heck, there are probably entire consulting firms on the Indian Ocean littoral that make it their business to quantify the piracy risks for shipping companies and their insurers.

A little sideline in “professional negotiating” and a modest a kickback here and there from the pirates would help sweeten the pot.

Or am I being too cynical?

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According to the latest report, the Danica White and its crew are still enjoying the hospitality of their Muslim captors. Stay tuned for the dénouement of this little drama, which may take weeks or even months to unfold.


mikej said...

Point 1: Q-ships were not armed merchant ships but naval ships manned by navy crews disguised as merchant ships. They were not regarded as highly successful against U-boats in World War I. No one can predict their success against Somali pirates.

Point 2: Most governments have laws against private possession of naval guns. To my knowledge, no nation has chartered privateers since the early 19th century, and many states agreed not to charter privateers in 1856. I'm all in favor of arming merchant ships, but it seems unlikely.

Point 3: From your June 4 post, A Continent of Losers, "Heinsohn does not believe for a second that economic aid and hunger relief in countries with large youth populations can prevent wars, social unrest, terror or killings. On the contrary he is convinced that in some cases material aid may start the killings. This is because starving people do not fight, they just suffer."

I agree. Our most effective weapon against Somalia is to cut off food aid. It's the easiest and most effective way to decrease the numbers of the Somali pirates.

Lindybill said...

People have been fighting Pirates since the beginning of recorded history and we know what works. Take out their base of operation.

The Navy knows which villages harbor these people. You stand offshore and take them out with your 5-inch. Do that a couple of times and the locals get the word. No more Pirates.

We won't do it, of course. Too many "burned babies" would turn up on CNN.

Yorkshireminer said...

This is about financing war lords. If it is successful they will try it again and it will become a veritable plague along that coast more than it is now. Nothing is going to happen until the west gets it act together and does something and it doesn't have to be very expensive You just have to make it not worth there while. It is very simple when the ransom is paid and the ship leaves send it the navy seals or the special boat squadron and sink every ship that is still in the harbor where the ship was kept. The local population who earn there living from there will quickly shut the practice down. They can only do this on the suffrage of the local population. When it cost the local population more than the pirates or when they think that it will cost them more than they earn they will soon refuse docking facilities, at all the other harbors along that coast and this practice will die out. Q-ships are an excellent idea but the ships would have to be crewed by naval military personnel and forget the heavy guns, heavy caliber machine guns and personal antitank missiles would be more than adequate. A small British marine detachment almost sunk an Argentinean warship with a Carl Gustav anti-tank rocket at South Georgia at the beginning of the Falkland War. Unfortunately this will never happen, before the invention of radio Ships captains were given more discretion in there orders. Now ever decision has to go back to the admiralty to be confirmed by some desk jockey who will have a different set of priorities than the captain, result nothing ever gets done. I sometimes yearn for the days of Nelson or the late 19th century when in 1896 British gunboats declared war on the Sultan of Zanzibar at 9pm in the morning and the Sultan surrendered 38 minutes later. Things were simpler in those days and less costly he was forced to pay for the shells the British had fired during the bombar

Baron Bodissey said...

Gringo Malo --

I understand those things; I was looking at a hypothetical circumstance. I should have been more clear. See my update.

mikej said...


As I said, arming merchant ships is a great idea. Yorkshireminer is correct in pointing out that large, fixed naval guns aren't even needed. .50 caliber machine guns and shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons would get the job done. I believe that armed merchants could easily repel Somali pirates if Western governments would allow merchant ships to arm themselves. I must admit that my solution, inducing do-gooders to stop feeding the Somalis, is even less likely.

Unknown said...

Having a specially outfitted vessel means the element of surprise might easily be surrendered if the same ship “trawls” the same pirate-infested waters too frequently.

Not if each vessel that attacks never returns to port.

Red House Hunter said...

Agreed that Q-ships per se would be too expensive and one's movements too easy to track. Armed merchant ships are a good answer. A small handful of squads of private military security men, with a heavy .50 and antitank-style weapons, and enough numbers to man a watch through the night while also observing and monitoring the ship's radio traffic (to prevent "insiders" among the crews from signaling their presence), would be in position to repel an attack quite handily. If only a few pirate vessels were counterattacked, many of their numbers killed outright, their vessels destroyed, and the survivors left to the sharks, we'd surely see the frequency of attacks drop off sharply. One would think the marine insurance carriers and the Blackwater USAs of the world could get together and put an end to this rather quickly, and legally.

Panday said...

Pardon my ignorance, but if a private merchant ship is on the high seas and it obliterates a host of Somali pirates, exactly what law has been broken?

In this day and age we now call gentlemen to task for repelling boarders?

MartyG said...

I have truly been puzzeled as to why merchant vessels are not armed.

I'm just a John Q public w/ no military backround, but it seems to me having merchant ships with CLEARLY VISIBLE Mini guns and 50.cals on it's deck would be a hefty deterant. With trained security men opererating these, how can small, bouncing pirate crafts be much of a threat when they can be engaged at distance? With enough failing attacks, how long can warlords sustain them?

Geirinn said...

Ok. The reason merchant ships are not armed in international waters is because of international laws. And in territorial waters it's because of local laws.
And even if you'd allow merchants to be armed, how would you make sure that some of them wouldn't engage in piracy of their own?
I believe that this was all considered back in the 19th century and solved in a sufficient manner.
But on q-ships, I'm of the opinion that if international consensus is available to try those things out near Somalia they should. I think it'll a least get the pirates to start second guessing themselves in choosing targets.