Under international regulations, merchant vessels are generally required to travel unarmed and, in fact, would be denied entry into some ports if they were armed. For the most part, these regulations make sense. Consider the thousands of cargo ships that enter U.S. ports every year after long voyages. Would we want them to be heavily armed?
This is not to say that the commercial shipping industry should not be more proactive in better protecting itself. While some owners have invested in alarm systems, close-circuit television, electric fences, and even an occasional guard to counter the threat to their vessels, unfortunately many have done little aside from being prepared to pay ransoms which only perpetuate the cycle of violence.
Instead, ship owners' associations and seamen's unions, both of which hitherto have limited their collective action to appeals for someone to "do something," would do well to spend their energies developing, in consultation with security professionals, minimum safety and security protocols for their activities in these dangerous waters.
Port security also needs to be beefed up as it is increasingly apparent that the pirates are not mere opportunists, but coordinate their attacks on the basis of intelligence obtained from a worldwide network of informants. And while the question of placing armed personnel aboard commercial shipping is a complex one, the international shipping industry might find that it is far more economical to pool their resources and arrange escorts-which need not necessarily be on the same vessels they are protecting-via agreed-upon sea lanes through the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. This might be better than to sail individually around the Cape of Good Hope, as some have already begun to do.
The idea of using private security contractors, while not without its detractors, has received a great deal of support from high-ranking U.S. and other military officers.