Private navy or raising cash for an idea that will never happen?

It’s amazing what counts as news when you don’t know anything. The UK’s Sunday Times 6th January 2013 has a big splash on Typhon, a private vessel protection force to be launched, supposedly sometime soon, to provide convoy support for ships transiting Somali pirate areas. A quick Google shows the same story, with almost identical quotes from its backers, surfaced in The Telegraph in January 2012, a year ago. It was the same story again on the BBC in May 2012, and it comes up twice in Lloyd’s List in June and in November 2012, both times about to be launched or the launch just delayed.

Typhon is backed by some big names, including the chairman of Glencore and a lot of ex top military brass, mostly, it has to be said, from the Army. But will it ever happen? Although announced to the general public as the first of its kind it is by no means the first private navy to be aimed at the Somali piracy.  There is at least one operating in Somalia under a quasi-government mandate, and a Cardiff scrap dealer was reported sending patrol boats out to set up his own navy.  In the middle of last year Dobson Fleet Management was awarded a contract to run Jardine Lloyd Thompson’s patrol vessel scheme and there are others in operation.

It is all very exciting if you like the idea of ex-Royal Marines charging about in little boats waving guns. A good boys and toys story. It is also a good way to raise cash, because investors like exciting ideas. But the reality is a bit different. Firstly patrol vessels only work if the ships agree to be convoyed, which means delay while they are mustered and organised. Secondly it costs a lot of money to maintain and operate armed vessels, especially ones which can operate fast enough to marshal and protect a convoy. If you don’t believe me, ask the navies operating in the area.

It is much simpler and cheaper to put a couple of well-trained armed guards on board each ship, harden the ship by following Best Management practices, and off you go. Two men, two weapons, no extra vessel involved and no delays. And guess what? It works. Pirates don’t hijack ships with armed guards. That is the main reason why the number of attacks dwindled dramatically during 2012. Which kills the case for private navies. Will our breathless sensationalist press report that?

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