The growing threat of piracy off the coast of Africa has been highlighted recently by the seizure of a Ukrainian freighter filled with tanks and other weapons. The U.S. Navy has responded to this crisis, but with fewer than 300 ships, it lacks the resources to police pirate-infested waters consistently. Local governments are even more helpless, especially when the greatest danger is off the coast of Somalia, which doesn’t have a “government” in the accepted sense of the term, much less a navy.
What to do? The U.S. Navy has had grand hopes of mobilizing a “thousand ship navy” for such tasks made up of all the world’s maritime forces working together. But our European allies are downsizing their fleets so rapidly–the Royal Navy is reaching its lowest level since the 18th century–that this remains more a hope than a reality.
There may be no practical solution except to turn to the private sector. Enter Blackwater, which has had a flourishing, if controversial business: providing armed guards for the State Department in Iraq. It has also provided lots of training for various military commando units and police SWAT teams. Now it has purchased and refurbished a 183-foot cutter called the McArthur, which it is offering to rent out to shipping lines or governments interested in combating piracy. The company, run by former SEAL officer Erik Prince, could fill the ship with former SEALs who would no doubt make short work of the motley bandits who raid merchant shipping.
There is nothing new about the idea of hiring mercenaries to take on pirates. In fact, it harks back to “letters of marque,” which were routinely issued by Western governments until the mid-19th century to give legal authority to private ships to seize enemy vessels, including those engaged in piracy. In days past, privateers could auction off their seized assets and make a bundle. That part of the tradition is unlikely to be revived but the notion of hiring private security forces for the seas should be no more controversial in principle than hiring private security forces to protect, say, gated communities.