The Right Way to Use Private Contractors to Fight Pirates

Wasn't it just last year that private security contractors (PSC) were being viewed as the solution to the world's piracy problem off Somalia? To go back and look at some of the coverage published then one would have thought that private security contractors were the new IT girl of the maritime shipping world. Certainly all sorts of contractors were whispering sweet nothings into the ears of shipping companies, promising security if only maritime companies would sign a contract.

Indeed, the company formerly known as Blackwater, via its Blackwater Maritime Security Services subsidiary, had gone so far as to buy and modify the McArthur, a former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship, which was outfitted for disaster response and training. For a while Blackwater was busy pitching its availability to any maritime executive it could buttonhole.

Of course, that was then and this is now. While some security contractors have, in fact, been hired to protect commercial shipping they are still vanishingly few. And Blackwater, now Xe, has found that nobody was interested.

A post the other day on a U.S. Naval Institute blog noted:

The saga of America's private-sector pirate-hunting Navy is over. That's right.
Blackwater's (Or Xe's) Navy is up for sale-in Spain, no less!

Make an offer! Blackwater's former flagship, the McArthur, is a modified 183-foot Norfolk Shipbuilding Expeditionary Yacht. And it can be yours for $3.7 million dollars-so put your money down! There's been a "Major Price Reduction" already, so this ship won't last long!


Blah, blah...The only thing was that nobody in the shipping business saw Blackwater as a cost-effective means to fight piracy. And few in the blogosphere bothered to do their due diligence-most just joined in the hype and began braying away (it's a distressing habit that extends to the latest topic-of-the-day-be it ASBMs, piracy, or whatever-beware those who constantly hype the popular programs and suck up to the powerful people).

Sadly, blog-hype was unable to compensate for a platform that just was inappropriate for the job at hand.
In April 2008, I noted the ship had been sitting for about a year, unengaged in anti-piracy operations, and by October 2008 began wondering why milbloggers still fawned all over the concept when it just wasn't working. It all got worse last year, when, in January 2009, I found McArthur fighting pirates from a Norfolk berth.

And by May 2009, the ship had dissolved into something more akin to Animal House than a buttoned-down pirate fighter. But then what does one expect from a company run by a boss who, after reaping a political windfall, cries like a baby once the going gets hard?

USNI is right to decry all the hype but that does not mean contractors can't play a useful role in fighting piracy. But there is a better way to do it. Most people understand that preventing a problem in the first place is better than curing it. In that regard it is worth reading "The impact of private security companies on Somalia's governance networks', by Christopher Paul Kinsey, Stig Jarle Hansen and George Franklin, published last year in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs.

Their article examined how PSCs can be used to limit illegal maritime activity in either Puntland's or Somaliland's territorial waters. The case studies show how decisions about sources of contract funding, selection of security provider, attitudes to tribal tensions, levels of involvement in operations, relationships with local power structures and other factors can influence the extent to which the desired outcomes are achieved.

To cite one example from the article:

Puntland established itself as a self-governing region in the Northeastern part of
Somalia in 1998. Recognizing the problems posed by piracy and other issues Puntland hired Hart Security in 2000 to undertake anti piracy operations, to curtail illegal fishing activity and to build the capacity of the local coastguard.

Hart established its main facilities in Bosasso, a city which did not have the same clan balance as the then governing authority of Puntland, and the company is reported to have taken great care in maintaining an appropriate clan balance among its employees.

The company appears to have enjoyed success in its operations against the pirates and to have built the nucleus of a relatively efficient coastguard, which countered illegal traffic in arms and people. These elements of Hart's operations involved interaction with, and possibly operations directed against, members of the local community and so were influenced by clan rivalries and tension. Specifically, it was the tribal nature of the pirate groups that caused Hart their greatest problems. A robust operation directed against the tribally homogeneous pirates could easily have been perceived as being an attack on that group.

Hart appears to have worked carefully to avoid exacerbating tribal tensions and these
efforts enabled them to achieve some success against the pirates.