Armed guards on ships

After World War II, governments, the shipping industry, and international maritime organisations opposed the armed protection of commercial vessels – by private and government personnel. Nevertheless, by the end of the Cold War, a growing modern private security industry centred on providing maritime security services emerged.


Ship-owners used privately contracted armed guards sporadically all over the world until it became increasingly prevalent in 2009 for ships sailing through the Gulf of Aden. This signalled the ship-owners’ shift towards another historic self-protection method: arming their ships.


However, the return of arms to ships was highly controversial.


On the one hand, advocates of arming merchant ships – either by giving arms to the ship’s crew or by hiring armed security to travel onboard – considered it a method of deterrence or an immediate response mechanism. The idea appealed because of the large geographic distances and limited responsiveness of international naval assets to pirate attacks.

Critics cited many reasons not to override the established anti-arms norm. Legal implications ranged from liability for fatal shootings to regulation and licensing compliance, particularly the transportation of arms across national borders. Many states considered vessels visiting with weapons onboard a security or terrorism risk. Ships that called at multiple ports with armed guards could find certain routes difficult to traverse. Other concerns included gun battles causing increased piracy-related violence; insufficient or ineffective training for crew members to effectively deter pirates; unequal weaponry between crew and pirates; and the increased fire risk caused by gun fire. Finally, the use of armed guards came with a considerable price tag that could outweigh the occasional ransom payment.

When did the thinking around armed guards change?

Initially, insurers, international maritime organisations, and governments frowned on using armed guards against Somali pirates.

While insurers did not consider the presence of armed guards on ships to invalidate insurance, there was quite serious insurance implications to their presence.  This thinking continued well into 2010. Then by January 2011, IMB-PRC statistics reflected that Somali pirates had never taken a ship under armed guard. Insurance underwriters began to demand the presence of armed guards on vessels, offering reductions in premiums.

By late 2011, most governments had moved in favour of armed guards. The United States began to insist that all US-flagged ships carried security personnel to defend against pirate attacks.  (It should be noted that very few US-flagged ships travelled in the Gulf of Aden.) The British Government encouraged countries to allow commercial ships transiting high-risk waters to have armed security teams onboard. By the end of 2011, over 25 per cent of ships reporting piracy incidents had armed guards onboard. Attacks plummeted from 160 to 49 in a year.

What laws governed the use of armed guards on ships?

In short, very few. From 2009-12, 38 different flag states condoned private armed guards on voyages affected by Somali piracy. Oceangoing ship-owners did not need government approval to take advantage of the isolation of their operating arena and the absence of any binding international regulations on the use of armed guards. Pre-existing private security companies initially met the demand for armed guards, employing veterans of the contractor circuit in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Floating armouries circumvented port restrictions on firearms by loitering semi-permanently in international waters, acting as a hotel and base for the guards. Guards boarded a client’s ship at sea with their weapons, rode through the piracy high-risk area and disembarked at the other end of the journey, thereby keeping weapons at sea.

International concerns that armed guards escalated private violence at sea eventuated. Armed guards had no vetting processes for security teams and no obligation to report casualties. Some overzealous or untrained guards shot indiscriminately, including at innocent bystanders, with impunity. The first pirate casualty at the hands of an armed guard occurred in March 2010 and while witness reports and leaked videos verified these incidents, the true number of casualties remained unknown.

Despite the risks and lack of regulation, by 2013, four out of five container ships and tankers passing through the Gulf of Aden carried armed guards onboard, signifying the return of violence to ships on the high seas and the rapid decline of this piracy epidemic.

So if armed guards stopped pirates attacking ships, what's the big deal?

With no legal protection from their own state, Somali pirates were considered combatants. So there were no real legal consequences for using armed guards, including shooting and killing pirates.


The problem is deterrence measures like arming ships are very expensive. And they also do nothing to stop the root of the piracy problem in Somalia: the absence of sufficient authority to stop individuals becoming pirates.