Danger on the High Seas: Are Private Security Firms the Solution?

"Private security firms may protect vessels and crews, but their presence also introduces complications."

In 2013, 80 percent of trade was transported by sea. This number has steadily increased, a reflection of growth among developing economies and those same economies’ surging energy needs. The Indian Ocean and its connected seas have become increasingly busy due to global energy demands, South Asia’s development, and trade between Asia and Europe. However, as Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) become more crowded, various maritime security risks have also increased. Piracy, trafficking and other criminal enterprises threaten to disrupt commerce, destabilize price structures and increase maritime tensions, both between nation-states and among private firms. To counter these effects, nation-states have collaborated using a variety of methods that include joint military exercises, bilateral agreements and multinational task forces. But despite these efforts, attacks continue to occur. As a consequence, more and more private companies are looking for private security options that will ensure that their goods get safely to their destinations. While this shift carries the potential for more secure maritime transit, it also comes with a host of legal and diplomatic issues as armed private security teams take to the high seas.

Private security is entering into an environment where governments are already actively pursuing maritime security. In the Indian Ocean region, multiple collaborative government-security regimes exist to better protect trade routes. The Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) is a thirty-member organization based in Bahrain alongside the U.S. Fifth Fleet. The CMF operates CTF-150 in the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman, while CTF-152 patrols the Persian Gulf and CTF-151 conducts antipiracy operations. NATO runs its own Operation Ocean Shield in the Indian Ocean, and Europe has contributed to the security environment with its EUNAVFOR fleet. Additionally, major joint naval exercises, such as Malabar and RIMPAC, regularly integrate antipiracy training with visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) techniques. However, despite all these international efforts, pirate attacks have only slightly gone down in recent years after reaching an all-time high in 2011; during that year, there were 237 attacks and twenty-eight hijackings in the Gulf of Aden alone.

This is the security environment in which companies are shipping their goods. The government-led task forces have massive resources and have steadily grown in both size and capacity, but with such a vast expanse of sea to be covered, it is impossible to guarantee safe passage for vessels. While these forces’ presence somewhat reduces the risk, private companies are looking for better odds and many have turned to private security firms as an extra insurance policy. With the spike in pirate attacks in the past decade and a half, many security firms like Nexus Consulting and Trident Group have expanded their capabilities to accommodate the new demand for maritime security details. Their assistance can come in many forms, ranging from smaller security teams on the ship itself to entirely separate vessels devoted to the protection of a client’s goods; demand for their services has steadily risen, particularly in areas like the Indian Ocean where pirate attacks and trafficking are a common occurrence. Criminals stand to gain massively from trawling the area around or operating near to the Arabian Peninsula—there is a constant flow of ships that can allow smugglers to hide in plain sight, and the opportunity to steal cargo and ransom crews is more than enough to keep the pirate business alive and well. Criminals operating at sea are also increasingly well armed, making it all the more appealing for companies to explore private security options.

However, private maritime-security operations face a series of difficulties. In international waters, they are free to bear weapons and use them in defense against attacks, but the situation immediately becomes more complicated when their vessels cross into territorial waters. Nations’ laws regarding private armed forces vary; some will allow the vessels to enter into port as long as the weapons remain onboard, but others require the weapons to be thrown overboard before entering their waters. This lack of clarity can cause friction between the state and the private companies trying to protect their goods during transit, and it has the potential for more serious misunderstandings in international waters when armed private vessels encounter military or coast-guard vessels engaged in VBSS operations. Trade transit is not the only investment in danger of attack; offshore drilling and cable-laying requires long stints of work out at sea, and any team attempting such a project can be an easy target.