Private maritime security: A new industry
Royal Fleet Auxiliary apprehends Somali pirates. (Photo: Royal Navy Media Archive/ Flickr; cropped, 2012). CC BY-NC 2.0.

Private maritime security: A new industry

Author John-Clark Levin discussed the growth of the private maritime security industry at a recent event hosted by the African Studies Center.

by Jas Kirt (UCLA 2015)

UCLA International Institute, January 22, 2015 — The maritime security industry has become privatized in response to security threats posed by Somalian pirates off the Horn of Africa, said journalist and author John-Clark Levin in a lecture at UCLA on January 14. The event was sponsored by the James S. Coleman Center for African Studies. Levin spoke about his recent book, coauthored with John J. Pitney, Jr., Private Anti-Piracy Navies (Lexington 2013).


Structural problems in Somalia enabled piracy, as the government could not exercise authority over the nation’s ports. Prior to 2008, pirates attacked merchant ships for the purpose of petty theft, but minimal damage occurred to the ships themselves. They soon changed their mode of attack and began ransoming entire cargoes and crews; individuals even invested in piracy missions and received a cut of the profits.

As the pace and severity of attacks began to increase, national naval forces were unable to meet the security needs of the shipping industry. In one attack, said Levin, a super-tanker was struck for the first time and one-quarter of Saudi Arabia’s daily output was destroyed, causing the price of oil to rise by US$ 1/barrel. Private navies consequently arose to fill the security gap.

“[Private companies] purchased surplus boats, converted them for private service and deployed them to the waters around the Horn of Africa,” said Levin. These were the first non-national vessels “for the dedicated purpose of fighting in over 200 years,” he added. Although private security forces have decreased the number of attacks by Somalian pirates, the new industry faces a number of key legal, economic and operational challenges.

The challenges of private navies

Initially, explained Levin, most major nations employed the same strict self-defense laws for guns at sea as they did for guns at home, despite the differences in the two situations.

However, as governments began to allow exceptions within high-risk areas, such as allowing armed guards to travel on cargo ships, it became increasingly difficult for countries to uniformly adhere to international laws governing maritime security. These forces “operate independently of any formal command structure. . . [and] do not answer to any government or military,” observed the speaker.

Private escorts and armed guards seek to deter pirate threats and operate purely in a defensive capacity. Here Levin cited the problem of Somalian pirates climbing onto merchant ships. Because the pirates do not directly attack the ships in this scenario, private navies are not legally allowed to attack them, despite immediate security concerns.

Many countries deploying private security ships do not have synonymous regulations on armed private escorts, raising the questions of when to use deterrence and when to use force against pirates.

John-Clark Levin. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.) Jurisdiction in cases where private navies use force incorrectly against pirates is another challenge, said Levin. Many different nations are often involved in operating and protecting merchant ships, making it unclear which laws should be applied and respected by the parties involved. These ships can be owned by one country, the crew staffed by another and the escort ship provided by a third.

The Nigerian piracy that has spiked along the east coast of Africa has recently created a more severe security challenge for merchant vessels. Whereas Somalian pirates mainly focus on ransoming crews and ships, Nigerian pirates focus on hijacking ships and extracting crude oil to sell on the black market — a process known as “bunkering.”

These pirates have less concern for the lives of crewmembers because ransom is not their goal. Malaccan pirates in Southeast Asia also use sophisticated techniques and engage in bunkering tactics similar to those of Nigerian pirates, said Levin, leading to a “private maritime security sector shift” in Southeast Asia.

Maritime terrorism

In the early 2000s, the phenomenon of maritime terrorism shook the shipping industry. In 2000, an al-Qaida suicide boat attack on the U.S.S. Cole, an American destroyer in the port of Aden, Yemen, resulted in heavy damage and the deaths of 17 American sailors. In 2002, another suicide boat attacked a French tanker.

Although maritime terrorism subsided after these attacks, Levin remarked that “it is likely we will see attacks of that sort in the next few years.” Al-Qaida and its affiliates have, he said, begun “shifting their center of gravity away from Afghanistan and Pakistan towards Africa.” According to the speaker, they have allies on all three coasts of that continent. The serious threat of maritime terrorism will create greater demand for private escort vessels, he concluded.

National versus private navies

Private navies partly arose because government-owned navies were unable to meet the security needs of cargo ships and tankers. While using government navies for security might solve jurisdictional issues, Levin noted that most of these navies do not have ships small enough to aid commercial ships.

The United States could, for example, send overwhelming naval forces to address the concerns of merchant vessels, but this would be an inefficient use of resources. The consequent “opportunity cost” would be the failure to use these forces elsewhere to address larger issues, such as providing missile defense or delivering humanitarian aid, observed Levin.

In the coming decade, Western European countries must decide whether they can afford warships with expensive capabilities that can shoot down missiles and aircraft and sink submarines. While larger countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom can justify these expenses, it is unclear that smaller countries, such as the Netherlands or Denmark, can.

In the long run, predicted Levin, “[countries will] pare down their navies, knowing that if there is some kind of crisis, it will be more economically efficient for them to bring in private security to fill the gap.”