To Arm or Not to Arm?

Posted by at 7:34 pm on May 7, 2009
Category: Piracy on the High Seas

Somali PirateEarlier 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.


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Copyright © 2009 Clif Burns. All Rights Reserved.
(No republication, syndication or use permitted without my consent.)


When I was reading your posting last night, the first thought that came to mind was “Federal Air Marshals.”

If it can be done effectively with planes, we should have something similiar for ships, non?


Comment by Kelly Yip on May 8th, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

I find your website to be highly informative and valuable to the compliance banking sector.
Your perceptive analysis of the articles you chose to highlight are extremely insightful and engaging.


Comment by Kelly Yip on May 8th, 2009 @ 9:31 pm

The new Barret Rifle in a .41 caliber, the 21st Century version of the Tennessee Long Rifle made famous at New Orleans and the Alamo, might be just the trick. Designed to frustrate California’s ban on .50 cal rifles, like its .50 cal. older brother currently used by the USCG to stop fast-boats used by drug runners, it can penetrate light armor and engine blocks plus has a longer range. They comes in either a bolt or semi-automatic, so they is regulated as an ordinary Cat.I(a) and fall within the exemption. Of course, the shooter had best be a well-trained sharpshooter or at least a hillbilly.

Comment by Hillbilly on May 11th, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

The comments of Shapiro earlier is very relevant to the current situation in Africa and other parts of the world. If this was a perfect world and everyone played by the rules, we would not be debating this issue. Unfortunately, it is not a perfect world and we have armed thugs boarding merchant vessels in International waters. I have researched and author papers concerning these issues,and have come to the conclusion that after all logical peaceful action have been taken by the maritime vessels (variance, convoys,etc) then stricter measures must be implemented.

Concerning the comments about export license (126.1) this only deals with the export and selling of arms to other nations and especially to states that are of ill repute. To arm a crew on a vessel is not exporting arms!! 10 USC 351 is th way to go. I will be waiting to see how these issues will change once more lives are lost and when the insurance agents can squeeze a little more money out of the maritime community. Remember this is a business.

Comment by Roger Tomberlin on May 17th, 2009 @ 11:06 am

To arm a crew on a vessel is not exporting arms!!

Wrong. You might want to read section 120.17 of the ITAR before making such an assertion.

Comment by Clif Burns on May 17th, 2009 @ 11:11 am