Should merchant ships transiting high risk areas carry small arms for defense against pirates?

Selected crew should be trained and have guns available
Professional armed security teams should be hired
No guns on merchant ships, ever

May 21, 2009

Cummings wants Navy security teams on U.S.-flag ships

Federal regulations permit individual crew members to bring guns on board ship as "personal effects." At least one shipowner is using this as a means of making weapons available to security contractors, despite a thicket of other regulations that make it difficult to arm merchant ships.

This emerged in testimony at yesterday's hearing of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation on "Piracy Against U.S.-Flagged Vessels: Lessons Learned."

In his opening statement Chairman Elijah E. Cummings noted that a Coast Guard Maritime Security Directive issued this month requires vessels to "supplement ship's crew with armed or unarmed security based on a piracy specific vessel threat assessment conducted by the operator and approved by the Coast Guard." on to be considered.

"Why is it that the best our nation appears to have to offer our merchant mariners at this time is instructions on the steps they should take to protect themselves?," asked Chairman Cummings. "It is not at all clear to me why the Navy or, in the absence of a willingness to act on the part of the Navy, the Coast Guard, isn't providing embarked military personnel on the few U.S.-flagged vessels that transit the Horn of Africa region--most of which, I note, are carrying U.S.-government impelled cargoes."

Meantime, shipowners are having to provide their own onboard security.

You can read the prepared testimony from yesterday's hearing HERE.

Worth particular attention is the statement from Skip Volkle, Vice President of America Cargo Transport, Inc. ("ACTC"), as well as Vice President and General Counsel of Marine Resources Group, Inc. ("MRG").

Here's an extract:

We currently engage two different security companies; their personnel embark on our vessels when the vessels commence operation in high risk areas like the Gulf of Aden and the Persian Gulf.

Second, although we have demonstrated that arming our vessels can be done, U.S. and international laws present significant impediments to arming. As a general rule, private security teams are prohibited by various national laws from travelling with arms to embark aboard a vessel. To the extent that the U.S. Government can obtain cooperation from other governments to permit armed security to travel with arms for deployment aboard vessels, it should do so. We would much prefer to stay out of the arms business altogether, and leave it to trained security forces to bring their weapons with them when they board our vessels.

In the interim, because of these limitations, if security teams are used aboard our vessels, we must provide the weapons, and the weapons must be aboard the vessel when the security teams embark.

Under U.S. regulations, placing weapons aboard a vessel departing the U.S. is considered an "export" of weapons, even if those weapons are intended as a permanent part of ship's equipment and the weapons are intended to be brought back to the U.S. when the vessel returns. To "export" weapons as part of ship's equipment, U.S. regulations the "ITAR" regulations, require an International Arms Dealer Export License. These regulations are found at 22 CFR 123.1 et seq. Obtaining a "temporary export license," is virtually impossible because the State Department requires explicit consent from every country to which the vessel will call prior to issuing a permit. We have attempted to obtain such consent from some of the countries where we call, to no avail.

Therefore, the only way to place arms aboard a vessel is under the regulations at 22 CFR 123.17(c), which permits individual seamen to bring up to three semi-automatic weapons, less than 50 caliber, aboard the vessel as personal effects. We have had our crew sign for weapons (semi-automatic AK47s or their equivalent) aboard our vessels departing the U.S. The weapons are kept in secure storage by the Captain and are released to the security team when required.

As an example of the problems arising from these regulatory issues, we can point to a recent incident where we were loading a military cargo aboard one of our ships at a U.S. military base here in the United States. Base security prohibited us from bringing our weapons aboard the base, even under guard, to deploy aboard our ship to protect the military's cargo. We attempted to get someone in Washington to reverse the decision, to no avail. Ultimately, we had to move our ship to a commercial pier to get the weapons aboard. And this was to protect a military cargo.

It seems to us that this problem can be addressed through a regulatory change, and should be done immediately. U.S. regulations should provide that U.S. flag merchant vessels can carry arms as part of ship's equipment. To the extent that this change cannot be effected by regulatory change, we ask that Congress provide whatever statutory authority would be required to do so.

Third, the government should provide suitable vetting for private security firms and standards for those firms. Ideally, the Coast Guard should provide vetting and licensing or approval of security firms. This would help us address the liability issues attendant upon carrying armed security. As an interim measure, the Coast Guard could provide guidelines or checklists for security firms.

Fourth, the government should provide general rules of engagement, to provide some legal protection for the use of force to protect our ships; these rules, however, must be sufficiently flexible so that appropriate force may be used to repel pirates, and must provide that the discretion to use force rests with the Captain.

Fifth, the government needs to engage other governments in the region to create a regulatory regime where armed vessels may enter the various ports. We can insure weapons are secured upon entering port. If necessary, we can permit port authorities to remove the weapons while the vessel is in port, and return them when we are getting to depart. But we should be able to bring our armed vessels into foreign ports. As an interim measure, it would be extremely helpful to the U.S. shipping community if the U.S. can provide a centralized information bank which lists the various port state requirements/limitations on entry with arms.

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