BLOG: They shoot pirates, don’t they?
31 Oct 11
At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth, Western Australia, this weekend, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a governmental plan that would empower the Home Secretary to license British-registered merchants ships to carry armed guards. This is a dramatic change from the previous policy, which had been to strongly discourage the use of such guards.
Motivation for the policy change is fairly self-evident. There were 53 maritime hijackings in 2010 (of which 49 took place in the waters off the Horn of Africa) and there is considerable anecdotal evidence that pirates shrink from targeting vessels known to be carrying armed personnel.
The motivation is clear – but what about the process? How will this work, in effect – and what are the training implications?
The scale of the problem is not as large as it once might have been. Since 1975 the British merchant fleet has shrunk from 1,600 vessels of 500 gross tons capacity or more to around 200. Officials believe that up to 100 of these may quickly apply for such licenses, should the forecast legislation be passed.
With an average of say half a dozen armed personnel per vessel, we are therefore looking at a possible immediate requirement for 600 trained shooters and a mid-term requirement for perhaps the same number again. Where will they come from? How will they be trained?
The Royal Navy is scarcely able to provide them. The number of naval cadets in training is now at “critical levels” and the average age of a Royal Navy officer has risen by 10 years in the last quarter century.
Will private enterprise step up to the challenge? Private security companies are scarcely a British tradition, though that, too, is a cultural change taking place in our society – perhaps more slowly than in other countries. But even if private security organisations are able to rustle up the required number of operators, what training facilities exist to support them?
There may be some mileage in turning to the armed response units of the Metropolitan and other police forces around the United Kingdom and seeing what spare capacity exists in their own firearms training programmes. One significant benefit of so doing is likely to be that such programmes will focus not only on marksmanship skills but also on the supremely important issue of judgement skills. The requirement focuses on – or should focus on, at least – the ability to answer the question “should I shoot” rather than “how to shoot.”
The alternative is to turn to private training facilities – and they would appear to be few and far between on the ground currently. Most of those that exist seem to be oriented towards marksmanship rather than judgement training, and that holds some worrying implications. While not wishing to accuse anybody of espousing a “shoot first, ask questions later” philosophy, the risk of having firearms incidents at sea, in cramped surroundings and with innocent bystanders potentially at hazard, is one that needs careful consideration.
Nobody should be surprised that the normally phlegmatic British are considering such a course of action. Patience with allowing the law to take its course has largely run out – of all the nations bordering the area of greatest frequency of ship-jacking, only the Seychelles and Mauritius have so far grasped the nettle and are routinely trying and imprisoning pirates, rather than releasing them with a caution “not to do that again.” But Mr. Cameron and his governmental colleagues do need to consider the implications of such a policy – and the provision of adequate training facilities to ensure rational and thoughtful implementation is certainly one of the issues that need to be carefully examined.