Earlier this week Philip Shapiro, the CEO of Liberty Maritime, testified before the Senate subcommittee with oversight over merchant marine infrastructure and argued that Congress should take action to permit merchant ships to arm themselves either by arming their crews or by hiring armed security guards for the voyage. Currently the only effective countermeasure that merchant marine ships can use against pirate attacks is the U.S. of high pressure hoses to prevent boarding.
Indeed, Shapiro described in his testimony how such hoses helped defeat a recent pirate attack on one of his companies ships. A crew member captured video of the thwarted attack.
Even so, Shapiro called for arming merchant ships and described existing barriers to doing so:
Today’s U.S. legal framework actually prevents ship owners from arming thier vessels for self-defense. While the maritime right of self defense is enshrined in U.S. law in a statute dating from 1817, more recently enacted State Department arms export regulations effectively prohibit the arming of vessels.
Although the International Traffic in Arms Regulations do not prohibit the arming of merchant marine ships, an export license would be required permitting the temporary export of the weapons to each port that the ship will visit prior to its return to the United States. This would not only be time consuming but would, for example, not permit weapons on ships destined for Chinese parts due to the arms embargo against China in section 126.1.
The narrow exemption in section 123.17(c) for crew members to temporarily export non-automatic firearms and 1,000 rounds of ammunition without a license is probably insufficient to arm properly a merchant ship against pirates with RPG launchers and AK-47s. And it entails an additional burden of a declaration by each crew member to a Customs officer prior to each departure by the crew with non-automatic firearms
Beyond the hurdles imposed by the ITAR, the bond requirement imposed by 22 U.S.C. § 463 is also a practical barrier to arming merchant ships. That statue requires that the owners of armed ships post a bond prior to leaving a U.S. port in an amount equal to double the value of the ship and its cargo
Additional Congressional action may not be required, however, to permit the arming of merchant ships. Under 10 U.S.C. § 351, the President may authorize the arming of merchant ships upon determination that the national security is threatened by the application of physical violence by foreign governments or agencies against U.S. commercial interests. Presumably, foreign pirates would fit within the definition of agencies. Ships armed under this provision are exempted from the double-bond requirement.
Even if U.S. barriers to arming merchant ships can be overcome, that’s not the end of the story. The governments of any ports visited by the merchant ship in question may forbid that the vessel be armed. Or, as in, the case of Germany and other countries that have signed the U.N. Firearms Protocol, the port countries may require that a “transit permit” for the weapons be granted prior to the arrival of the ship.
It appears likely that merchant marine ships are going to have to continue to rely on high pressure water hoses for the immediate future to rebuff pirate attacks.