Carrying armed guards on ships stops piracy. It’s that simple. All the navies off Somalia have not stopped piracy, but no ship with armed guards has been successfully hijacked. But putting young men with guns onto merchant ships raises other problems. Who decides when and at what they should fire?
Two Italian marines are on trial in India for shooting Indian fishermen who strayed too close to the Italian tanker Enrica Lexie. Leaked evidence shows that they claim they fired warning shots at the fishing boat only. The tanker’s captain says he could see no weapons in the boat and did not expect the marines to fire. Whatever the truth, it is a tragedy for the fishermen and their families, and also for the marines. But it was an accident waiting to happen and it will happen again.
It does not matter if the armed guards are in the military, as in this case, or civilian contractors, who are usually ex-military. The simple fact is they are young men with guns and they joined the military because they wanted action. Guarding a ship is boring. Nothing happens most of the time. So when a small boat closes on an armed merchant ship the guards are keyed up and actually want something to happen so they can shoot. It is only human nature.
On a warship weapons discipline and chains of command are clear and should, but do not always, prevent anyone opening fire on any target which is not legitimate and clearly identified. That weapons discipline is not there on a merchant ship with some embarked guards. Most small craft have learned the simple rule: stay clear of big ships in the Indian Ocean. That is not enough. Armed guards stop piracy. Now we need an enforceable code of conduct and training for shipmasters and the guards to make sure the guns are only used on real attackers. See the story on gcaptain http://gcaptain.com/piracy-private-security-trial/ and read The Reluctant Pirate www.thereluctantpirate.com for insight into other incidents.