The maritime sector can protect against piracy without creating an “OK Corral” environment on the high seas by staffing ships with small teams of highly trained security professionals, Captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama said Monday.
Phillips, who rose to international celebrity after he was taken hostage by Somali pirates when his ship was hijacked this April, spoke briefly with reporters after delivering an hour-long, closed-door keynote address for the CSO Roundtable track of the ASIS International 55th Annual Seminar and Exhibits.
The shipping sector and its insurers have resisted the push to arm ship crews with deadly weapons like firearms, given the prospect of seaborne shootouts and the prospect of increased shipboard violence absent pirate attacks.
Phillips says that companies should consider establishing very small security teams, comprised of as few as two well-equipped former special operations professionals, which would be adequate to beat back most contemporary pirate attacks with support from a ship’s traditional crew.
Any arms allowed aboard merchant vessels must be kept under a ship captain’s control under lock and key, and crew training must focus not only on how to use weapons, but when to use them and when not to, Phillips said.
Phillips acknowledged that while he loves running safety and security drills, many merchant marine crew members do not. Yet a drill held aboard the Maersk Alabama less than five days before the pirate assault on the ship generated an idea that helped save lives during the incident.
Standard security procedure on merchant ships calls for designation of a “safe room” where the majority of a crew, save for the captain and a couple other crewmembers, can lockdown when a ship comes under siege. During a pirate assault drill shortly before the attack, Phillips’ crew developed the idea of a secondary safe room for cases in which crew members must fall back further into a vessel to evade capture before they can lock down. That very tactic allowed all members of the crew—save for Phillips and two designated crew members who stayed on the ship’s bridge—to hide out until they struck out autonomously to take a pirate hostage themselves.
Since the pirates’ skiff sank during their assault, Phillips and the pirates cut a deal under which his crew released their pirate hostage in exchange for Phillips’ release and use of one of the ship’s lifeboats for the pirates’ escape. The pirates, however, took Phillips with them as a hostage. The crisis ended three days later when Navy SEAL snipers simultaneously shot and killed Phillips’ three captors on the lifeboat.
Asked about promising technology for detection or deterrence of pirate assaults, Phillips noted the potential of newer radar and infrared scanners that might provide crews advance notice of raiders on the horizon.
Given increased scrutiny of the pirate threat, and the demonstrated efficacy of simple measures like safe rooms during daylight raids, Phillips predicted that pirates might turn to stealth attacks, which would be far more difficult to repel or defeat.
Asked what lessons security professionals could draw from his experience, Phillips said, “First, we’re all stronger than we realize. Two, nothing is over until you give up, and a diligent team can overcome any obstacle or solve any problem if they put their mind to it.”