My post last week about Q-ships and the Danica White generated some interesting comments and emails.
Commenter Greg B. had this to say:
In combating piracy, “Q-ships” would be permissible under US Maritime Law.
This section gives full self defense rights against pirates and even allows aggression against them such as attacking them and taking away their ship.
This section permits the President to authorize any of the armed forces to provide weaponry for civilian ships (as opposed to the owners footing the bill). Paragraph (b), if read carefully, shows that the President can do it pretty much whenever he feels it justified.
So Q-ships would be permissible. But would they be a good idea?
Reader LP thought so:
A reprise of Q-ship style decoy vessels is a great and effective idea.
I’m ex-US Navy — I’m not an expert on global maritime law, but the last I heard, the Captain of a ship is the “supreme authority” when at sea in international waters, and is the virtual president of his own floating country.
To my knowledge, there are no prohibitions of any sort against him exercising the self-defense of his “virtual country” from any and all attacks, using all means at his disposal. I would really love to see this tactic put into action.
Deception, camouflage, and stabbing in the back seem to be the only way Islamists can achieve any combat success, so turning the tactical tables on them would be very satisfying indeed.
But Eagle1 did not agree:
Using a Q-ship for anti-piracy work seems to me to be dubious proposition at best. Having a specially outfitted vessel means the element of surprise might easily be surrendered if the same ship “trawls” the same pirate-infested waters too frequently. Further, these modern pirates use small teams of men in small boats, which may be easily replaced by the “pirate kings” without risk of more expensive ships or the “brains” of the pirate operation. The costs of the operation of an anti-pirate Q-ship would be high, and it difficult to think of any entity that would step up to pay those costs, especially if there are less expensive options, including increasing crew awareness in high risk areas (read the reports- most attempted boardings of ships traveling through the Strait of Malacca are thwarted by alert crews armed with powerful fire hoses). In addition, since many pirate attacks take place in territorial waters, there is the question of having the legal right to respond to what is felt to be an attack while in a state’s waters as opposed to being on the high seas.
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And we are not, generally, talking about U.S. flagged ships involved in these incidents off Somalia. I assume that most of the ship flagging countries reject the idea of armed merchant ships. Better for merchant ships to stay well off Somalia and/or to travel in convoys, escorted or not by warships.
Update: I should have made it clear that the scenario described below is a thought-experiment. I realize that arming merchant vessels is not currently possible, but some of our commenters and correspondents seem to think it is worth considering. So I am asking: What would happen if it could be done?
Let’s look at the situation from the point of view of the owners of the Danica White. Their first and foremost obligation is to their shareholders — they are obliged to take whatever actions that are necessary (and within the law) to safeguard their shareholders’ investment and maximize the return on it.
Assuming that the owners are neither heartless nor totally cynical, they are also concerned for the well-being of their crewmembers. Since the presence of a safe and healthy crew makes for the most productive use of the company’s shipping assets, the two goals are not generally in conflict.
The company sent its ship into what are known to be dangerous waters, so they presumably took the appropriate precautions — i.e. they purchased a hefty commercial marine insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London or one of its affiliates. The underwriters at Lloyd’s would have insisted on certain shipboard conditions in order to minimize the risk before they rated the insured and issued a policy.
So if I were a Lloyd’s underwriter, how would the presence of camouflaged deck guns aboard a merchant ship affect my rating of it? Which is more risky financially, an armed or an unarmed merchant vessel?
On the one hand, an armed freighter might possibly repel the pirates and prevent a hefty loss.
On the other hand, depending on the quantity and quality of the pirates’ ordnance, a firefight might leave the ship burned to the waterline and then sunk, a total loss to the company. Add to that risk the ensuing lawsuits on behalf of the dead sailors by their families — how much exposure would that be for Lloyd’s?
The insurance policy is undoubtedly written with a piracy limit, and a cap on any ransom paid. Part of the job of the “professional negotiator” would be to find out the ransom limit and communicate it to the pirates, so as to let them know what they can reasonably expect to get for their efforts. The final negotiations will probably yield a ransom payment which amounts to the ransom cap minus the negotiators’ fees.
In the end, Lloyd’s and the shipping company keep the risk at a manageable level, the vessel is recovered, and the crew returns safely to Denmark. The pirates are happy, the crew is happy, Lloyd’s is happy, and the shipping company is happy.
The downside is that consumers all over the world have to pay more for goods shipped by sea in order to cover the insurance costs.
Of course, if this sort of thing keeps happening to the company, the owners may find that insurance premiums go sky-high, or even have their policy cancelled. Then they may start to think about deck guns and Q-ships.
I don’t know which option is the best one. But I can guarantee you that the insurance company and the ship’s owners know how to find out.
Heck, there are probably entire consulting firms on the Indian Ocean littoral that make it their business to quantify the piracy risks for shipping companies and their insurers.
A little sideline in “professional negotiating” and a modest a kickback here and there from the pirates would help sweeten the pot.
Or am I being too cynical?
According to the latest report, the Danica White and its crew are still enjoying the hospitality of their Muslim captors. Stay tuned for the dénouement of this little drama, which may take weeks or even months to unfold.