Monday, April 20, 2009

Sea Marshals: Sky Marshals at Sea?

It’s clear to many that the Federal Sky Marshal program was a rousing success because the number of commercial US Air Carriers being hijacked dropped immediately and dramatically after the program was initiated in 1970.

Furthermore, when the Sky Marshal Program was folded up in the mid-1970’s the number of airplane hijackings didn’t immediately rise and never returned to pre-program levels. Sadly, as would-be hijackers realized that commercial aircraft were still relatively easy targets, we had periodic incidents over the succeeding years culminating in the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

In the 8 following 9-11, we’ve had the Federal Air Marshal program administered by the Department of Homeland Security with undercover Sky Marshals protecting select flights. That, coupled with measures such as hardened cockpit doors and the preflight screening of passengers, can be presumed to have been effective in preventing a recurrence of airplane hijackings.

Since we know that placing armed security personnel on a commercial transport works to prevent in-flight hijacking I wonder how this technique might be used to combat current threat of seaborne piracy now prevalent along the coast of Somalia.

Somali pirates have been raiding international shipping since the early 1990’s. However international posturing, bickering and dithering (e.g., the United Nations) has done little to effectively thwart the increasing attacks on seaborne commerce. To fill the security gap, individual countries including India, France and the United States have positioned ships in the area to provide some protection to the seaborne commercial traffic. Recently, the US Navy killed three pirates and freed an American ships captain. In a similar effort the French Navy interrupted a hijacking and captured some pirates, who they later had to turn loose owing the bizarre local regulations. Despite these efforts the rate of attacks on shipping hasn’t diminished.

I’ve read about a proposal to convoy merchant ships through the pirate infested waters, which makes a lot of sense. The naval ships in the area could be concentrated around the convoys, drastically reducing the area they need to protect. Convoys worked against Germany’s U-Boats in World War II, who were far more lethal than today’s kat-chewing Somali riffraff in rubber speedboats. However I’m guessing that ship owners will balk at having to delay their schedules to join up with the next available convoy, preferring instead to gamble that their ship won’t be among the 5% seized.

So I propose a Sea Marshal program. It’s really pretty simple. Just before a commercial ship enters the danger zone, it picks up a team of professionally-trained armed guards who have been vetted by some International authority. These guards maintain a round-the-clock vigil until the ship is out of danger, at which time they are retrieved.

Placing guards on the ships would be more effective than relying on naval response. Because the naval ships are spread thin in order to cover the vast expanses of ocean, they require hours, if not days, to respond to a hijacking. By definition, onboard guards can respond immediately to any threat. Each team need be little more than a small, well-armed squad – enough personnel that there would always be at least two people on watch. These teams could be self-supporting so as to have little or no impact on the operation of the ship. In principal, they would function something like harbor pilots who are taken on by a ship entering a difficult-to-navigate and / or crowded port.

Of course, this would require hundreds, if not thousands of trained personnel, but given the number of men and women operating the naval flotilla that currently patrols the waters – not to mention the cost of operating the naval vessels – it could represent a tremendous savings to the governments whose ships patrol the waters.

© Stephen Rustad, 2009.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not really a new idea.
That's the way how it is done since the Romans, only the folks weren't named Marshal or squad before. The only problem is that these teams are working as private security companies as the "international authority" mentioned does not exist and will never exist as nations will not be willing or able to establish an authority with the power to use force bejond the limits of their own jurisdiction.