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Piracy Debate Changes Course in Washington

Armed protection for U.S. merchant crews all but guaranteed; who will do it, how and when it will come remains unanswered. Changes to existing laws being discussed at highest levels in Washington.

Tuesday’s Senate subcommittee hearing on piracy provided a very public forum that served to ramp up the debate on how best to protect U.S. merchant ships. Shipowners and crewmembers alike pleaded with Congress to allow for armed protection on board U.S. flagged assets operating in the pirate infested waters off the coast of Somalia. When the hearing ended, however, the question of who would provide that security, how it would be deployed and who would pay for it remained unanswered.

As the debate rages on, domestic and international legal issues have shipowners reluctant to unilaterally place security on board their own vessels. The implications of what could happen in various scenarios has most unwilling to arm their own crews and although Liberty Maritime Corporation President and CEO Philip J. Shapiro asked Congress to provide the U.S. legal framework to allow for ship owners to contract armed private security teams, the best way to make that happen is still unclear. For its part, the Department of Defense remains opposed to placing government security teams aboard the vessels.

Although yesterday’s hearing appeared to solve nothing, it was also clear that the debate had finally shifted from the question of whether or not to arm these vessels, to one which asked, “How best to do just that?” Following the hearing, well-placed sources in Washington told MarEx that negotiations were in progress behind the scenes at the highest levels of government. Efforts to legislate as many as three changes to existing laws that currently prevent the legal arming of U.S. merchant ships are underway and these discussions are said to be at the heart of a robust internal debate within the Obama administration. No timeframe was given for resolution of these matters.

On Tuesday, Liberty Maritime CEO Shapiro referred to the Maersk Alabama incident as a “game changer,” but the change in the debate ultimately does not solve the problem of who would pay for armed security should it come to that. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D - NJ) repeatedly pressed a Department of Defense spokeswoman as to why the DOD was unwilling to provide armed security for the merchant ships and Liberty Maritime’s CEO also called for government crews until the laws could be changed to allow for private security to be employed. Lautenberg, at one point, brought up the example of U.S. Air Marshals being employed on airliners as protection against hijackings in the sky as a prime example of why a similar technique could be employed at sea. In response, he was told, “The DOD does what it can.”

Tuesday’s hearing, entitled Piracy on the High Seas: Protecting Our Ships, Crews and Passengers, also brought out some telling statistics. Less than one-half of one percent of all vessels transiting the region are attacked and about one-third of those attacks are eventually successful. It was also reported that almost 80 percent of thwarted attacks were due to effective actions by vessels themselves. The U.S. sponsored Combined Taskforce 151, a truly international collection of naval assets, is a substantial flotilla exclusively devoted to piracy. But the efforts of this combined force have thus far been unable to stem the tide of piracy in the region.

Elsewhere this week, A.P. Moller-Maersk called for creation of a secure maritime corridor off the coast of eastern Somalia in the wake of the attempted hijacking of the Maersk Alabama and kidnapping of its Master, Richard Phillips. Phillips, now a familiar face on American television, called again for armed military or government teams on board vessels. Later, Maersk Alabama chief engineer Michael Perry echoed those sentiments, but also lobbied for adequate training and certification for what he characterized as the right people.

This week’s Senate subcommittee hearing provided good drama, bolstered by exciting video and some animated debate, but not much more than that. Also in Washington, the real discussions intended to solve the problem of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and other similar places are taking place behind closed doors. Changes in U.S. law to allow for domestic shipowners to adequately protect their assets and personnel at sea cannot come soon enough. In the meantime and in the absence of anything better, it is probably time for the U.S. government to step up and provide that security. American mariners do not need another subcommittee hearing. They need protection and they need it now. – Marex.

Read the DOD approach and position by clicking: http://www.africom.mil/getArticle.asp?art=2968&lang=0

Joseph Keefe is the Editor-in-Chief of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments on this editorial at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com. Join the Maritime Executive ‘Linked In’ group at by clicking http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/47685>