Our fellow Chicago Boy, Steven den Beste, has posted some thoughts about piracy on his own personal blog. He thinks that the recent plan to allow NATO warships to form an anti-pirate patrol off of Somalia is not the optimal solution to the problem. Instead he thinks that a few heavily armed squads of soldiers, placed on a civilian ship as it traverses pirate infested waters, would do the trick.
I have been writing regularly about maritime piracy for years now. Most of my previous posts were lost when my former ISP abruptly terminated service, but the idea of hiring mercenaries for short term security in dangerous waters is hardly new. The concept of having regular military troops perform the same job merely transfers the cost from the private shipping company to the taxpayer.
But the same problem which prevented the shipping companies from hiring private soldiers keeps them from allowing government troops on board. And that problem is higher insurance premiums.
Back when I first became interested in the problem in 2001, ship captains who had to navigate through areas with heavy pirate activity were given $20,000 in cash. The idea was that the money was to be kept in the ship’s safe, and paid to any group of pirates who managed to make their way on board. Danegeld on the high seas.
But we all know what happens if you pony up the Danegeld. The idea that a mere $20K would satisfy a self respecting pirate band today is ludicrous. And it will probably get worse before it gets better.
Anyone interested in maritime piracy is encouraged to read the ICC Piracy Report, a free weekly update listing attacks on shipping. One thing that becomes painfully obvious very quickly is that pirate attacks are becoming more frequent, the pirates are demanding ever increasing amounts to return control of the ships they take, and the pirates are becoming ever more violent in an effort to coerce the shipping companies to pay up.
One would assume that the huge amounts demanded by pirate bands recently is a prime motivator for shipping companies to hire some mercs, but that is only if you discount the enormous number of vessels that daily move through the major shipping lanes. Four, eight, ten, a dozen ships might be held for big money, but hundreds more manage to move through those waters every day without having any problems. The increase in money paid to the insurance companies if troops were allowed on board is still greater than the cash paid out to the pirates.
Right now we are seeing a fluid situation that is trying to reach equilibrium. The pirates won’t stop because they get some really good money for attacking maritime vessels, and there is very little risk. The shipping companies will continue to pay ransom money as long as it is cheaper than increased insurance premiums. The pirates will continue to demand ever larger payouts as long as they are ultimately handed the cash.
If things are allowed to develop as they have been, eventually the shipping companies would begin to balk at the huge amounts that the pirates would demand. Then I expect the pirates would turn into terrorists, executing the captured crews in public and highly visible ways in an attempt to get the money spigot turned back on. It would only be at this point, with insurance premiums climbing because of the increased chance of murder, that the shipping firms would begin to look to resisting piracy in an aggressive and effective way.
The decision by NATO to begin anti-piracy patrols is probably seen by the shipping companies as a possible solution, and one that they won’t have to pay for out of their own pocket. It would work if the warships tasked to hunting down the pirates would actually shoot a few of them, but I really don’t expect that to happen.