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The Threat of Piracy for Merchant Ships

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

What do we know about this threat? Are pirates militias that can cause significant damages? Or perhaps are they amateur groups, just trying their luck?

The short answer: Piracy is a real threat that countries need cope with every day, all day.

They harm maritime transportation in areas crucial to merchant ships’ crossings, and in quite a few cases, their attacks have resulted in personal injuries. In this brief review, I will present the key characteristics of this threat and the principles for dealing with it.

First, the issue is a comprehensive and complex one, and not all the actions taken by many governments can be presented.


A recent story in the news read: “Pentagon Warns Ships as Pirates Again Prowl Waters Off Somalia

Over the last two months, six vessels have been hijacked off the coast of East Africa, in waters where about one-third of the world’s commercial ships travel. The US Defense Secretary urges shipping companies to step up vessel security.”

“Commercial ships must once again shore up their defenses against forced boardings at sea, United States Defense Department officials said on Sunday, warning that Somali pirates are returning to waters off East Africa after five years of calm.” (An excerpt from an article by Helen Cooper, The New York Times, published April 25, 2017.)

A recap of pirate attacks in recent times

The Strait of Malacca and Singapore: Six pirate assaults were carried out on ships sailing eastwards in 2015. In five of the six, the pirates managed to board the vessels, some of them armed with knives. In four of these cases, sounding an alarm was enough fend the attackers off without injuries to crew members, loss of cargo, or any damage. But in one case, the pirates seized crew members’ personal belongings and fled to a boat waiting nearby.

Miraculously, these events did not result in any casualties. However, there have been quite a few piracy incidents which did involve casualties, when crews of merchant ships were hijacked by the pirates.

The world has long understood the need to defend the vessels travelling these compromised routes. NATO started conducting routine warships patrols in pirate-stricken regions, in accordance with intelligence indications.

Shipping companies also eventually equipped ships passing through these areas with defense measures and employed armed guards. This film shows actual footage of a piracy incident, shows some of the difficulties in dealing with the threat, as well the crucial elements for the armed guards’ activity to be efficient and professional.

The fact is that the piracy has gained momentum over the years and has accumulated quite a few successes. As with any other threat, in order to deal with the threat of piracy, a full set of responses is needed, including the following components:


Intelligence activity is required to define which routes are under threat and which have the potential to be attacked. Analysis of the information includes past experience, operation of systems, detection and identification tools, and additional measures that may not be revealed.

After the intelligence is collected and analyzed and collaborations between the various intelligence agencies are coordinated, a full naval picture can be formulated, which enables the shipping companies to prepare accordingly. Building as comprehensive an intelligence picture as possible will facilitate the analysis of the threat and choosing the pertinent response.

Threat analysis

Threat analysis is based on past incidents – and the arms used in them, including the types of vessels serving the attackers, their weapons, and the number of assailants. Threat analysis also requires learning how the pirates approach the attacked vessels and what is their timing of choice for the attack. In most cases, the attacked vessels have been merchant ships and quite a few large yachts.

It should be understood that pirates are no longer amateurs; they have built an array of intelligence and lookouts. This gives them the capability to formulate an informative naval picture, which analyzes vessel movement quite freely and easily, as the vessels are required to operate a communication and navigation system that enables detecting them. In an attempt to cope with the pirates’ ability to locate the vessel, it disconnects some of these systems when reaching dangerous zones. This does not always produce the desired result, as the pirates also utilize a HUMINT (human intelligence) system that contributes to their success. In the past, it was found that porters in one of the ports reported a merchant vessel exiting the port, loaded with valuable equipment; miraculously, this ship was attacked.

In general, pirates prefer to attack in strait crossings, where merchant ship’s ability to maneuver and perform evasive maneuvers is very limited. In addition, assailants may attack under the cover of darkness or in the direction of sunrise in the early morning hours, taking advantage of the sun glare.

Attackers have been seen to cling to the sides of the vessel and casting a “hook” in order to secure a climbing ladder.

Technological means

Once we understand the intelligence picture and threat analysis, let’s focus on how technological means can be employed to defend the vessel. In the film Captain Phillips, Tom Hanks portrays the captain of a trafficker a container vessel attacked by pirates (a mandatory professional film for anyone working in this field).

The film shows how, following a rapid analysis of the situation, the captain quickly takes action in order to prevent the attackers from boarding, but unsuccessfully. Many shipping companies that have no alternative but to travel through regions known as assault zones, protect themselves using rigid basic technological means, such as water hoses, barbed wire fences on vessel sides, glaring lights, and other means that obstruct the attackers’ embarkment. It should also be taken into account that the pirates can also approach by helicopter and embark via F.R. onto the deck.

Sensitive vessel areas, such as the engine rooms, command bridge, etc, are secured and armed guards are positioned; as we say in the film clip, they can respond by firing at the assailants, thereby thwarting the attack. To understand what it takes to operate the security system in such an activity, let’s move on to the next step.

Security team and training

The security team aboard the ship must be mentally and professionally trained to provide a combat response to all threats and scenarios at sea in general, and to pirate attacks in particular.

Therefore, a training and instruction system is needed, to provide the basic tools for coping with the piracy threat. Such training includes use of shelter, accurate firing using night vision systems, in accordance with the ability, use of several weapon types – which requires training to switch between weapons, firing while adhering to demarcation boundaries between security team members to prevent non-intended injuries.

The picture below illustrates safety restrictions between the top and bottom deck shooters. It shows that a stray bullet or instability at the security guard’s fulcrum could endanger colleagues.

The vessel must therefore be prepared in advance for these situations, including protecting security guard positions with sandbags or shield plates, using angle limits for gun barrels, etc. Of course, under escalating danger when there is no other alternative, security guards will take every necessary action to prevent the attackers’ success.

The image illustrates the danger in the angles and firing lines between the security guards, which requires a very high level of skill.

International cooperation

As mentioned earlier, piracy is a global concern that is shared by all countries. It was therefore determined that a designated headquarters within NATO will be responsible for coordinating all related activities, from concentrating the information from all the intelligence agencies, to establishing a task force consisting of ships and aircraft that will travel through the pirate zone and provide a response to vessel distress calls.

Given concrete information, the force will escort a vessel until it leaves the threatened area. In a number of incidents, the force was called to assist an attacked vessel, by warding off the assailants, up to eradicating them. To enable such collaborations, the integrated forces are required to operate within the framework of international conventions, which legally define and regulate their activities.

To conclude:

We learned about the threat of piracy and saw how it is coped with.

The most important component that can be controlled is the human and technological factors, operated by the security team.

Maintaining a security system under maritime restrictions, firing at a moving target, operating observation and naval analysis means – all require designated training. Therefore, if you are a practitioner in this field or are addressing this issue, remember that maritime security is a profession that required familiarity and continuous learning, in light of the opponent's constantly changing capabilities and available responses to them.

Therefore, before embarking on a mission, investigate all the parameters I have covered here (intelligence, threat analysis, technological means, and required training, which also encompasses the international and local legal restrictions). Once you learn all of these issues, you will be able to optimally plan and launch the security force.

Always remember, professionalism is the name of the profession and the profession must to be learned

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