Non-lethal defence for merchant ships

There’s more to ship defence than a man with a gun, suggests Lars H. Bergqvist.


In the debate regarding protection of vessels, it is very seldom mentioned that onboard a majority of ships, crew fend for themselves, even in such hot spots as Gulf of Aden and Gulf of Guinea.

Old strategies and tactics

Since modern piracy started around 30 years ago(1), crew have applied non-lethal defences(2), such as; securing doors and hatches of accommodation, stores and engine room; rigging of fire hoses; evasive maneuvers and higher speed as well as increasing vigilance by posting more look-outs.

The concept has been to give, from a distance, an impression of a prepared ship, with a crew being on the highest alert. Hence, fire hoses rigged with water spraying and crewmembers patrolling the deck. Also, at least in South East Asia waters, where piracy attacks usually occurred a few hours before dawn, to let search lights sweep the surrounding waters in order to enhance an impression of preparedness. Commonly, a few homemade dummies were placed on the poop deck, as stand-ins for crewmembers.

However, barbed wires were not often used, and some ship owners considered such a protection to be an offensive act which could provoke the pirates to escalate the violence during the attack. In short, the modus operandi was; do not be taken by surprise; if there is an attack, muster and defend the ship with available means; and if boarded, retreat and do not be a hero by physically engaging the pirates.

Mostly, the South East Asia pirates were only interested in cash, not prolonged hijackings. It was important for them to get onboard quickly, locate the Master, and force him to open the safe and then retreat. Attacks happened even where the majority of a ship’s crew did not know that they had been boarded.

New strategies and tactics

With the introduction of Somali piracy, a more violent form of attacks appeared, with dire consequences, both from a human perspective as well as economically. However, in the beginning the same defence methods were used; confront the pirates to stop them from boarding, which in some cases were effective. (3) Nevertheless, after some time such an approach was considered to be too dangerous for the crew.

Instead a new concept started to develop: the use of citadels. Since the pirate attacks happened in open waters, and not in narrow straits like in Malacca or Singapore, the bridge could be abandoned and the captain with the rest of the crew could retreat to a safe place. The citadel should be a place that, hopefully, the pirates would have difficulties finding, but more importantly, very hard to break in to. In the citadel the crew could, with enough supply of food and water, bide their time and wait for the cavalry – in the shape of a warship – to come and rescue them. In order to communicate with naval forces, VHF-radios and satellite telephones should be a part of the equipment. If the citadel was in the engine room, which is a common location, theoretically, the ship could be navigated from there.

The concept worked for many, whereas for others the pirates could break in to the safe room before naval forces arrived. Needless to say, the concept will be compromised if not all crew members can muster in the citadel before pirates take control.

There were also other novelties when it comes to protection against Somali pirates. Apart from that concertina wire to dress rails and ladders leading up to the bridge, trailing ropes were another invention used by some ships. And for personal protection, exposed personnel started to wear Kevlar helmets and bullet proof vests.

An industry in its own right was developed, marketing purpose built equipment such as trailing ropes, barbed wire and remote-controlled water cannons. Further, the well-known publication, IMPA Marine Stores Guide, has in its latest edition a section for anti-piracy equipment, including anti-piracy dummies. (4)

The importance of maritime domain awareness became another highlighted aspect. The look-out capabilities were augmented with such tools as night vision binoculars and CCTVs. Piracy reports from International Maritime Bureau were supplemented by intelligence reports from commercial firms. Several of these intelligence companies were also offering services when it came to voyage planning, computer programs assisting the Master to choose the safest route.

With the presence of naval forces establishing control over the maritime domain; reporting and tracking systems, group transits and convoys were other means to safeguard the merchant marine. Just to have naval forces present, were something that shipping industry only could have dreamt about some years before.

Although guidelines had been issued years back by different actors such as IMO, flag states and ship owners organizations(5), the whole shipping industry cooperated and published, as well as distributed, a very informative document: Best Management Practices for Protection against Somalia Based Piracy.(6)

In spite of presence of naval forces and improvement of the non-lethal defense, vessels were still being hijacked. To a certain extent this could be explained in that many vessels due to ignorance or complacency did not implement Best Management Practices at all, or only partially. However, the continuation of hijacking caused many ship owners to further harden their ships by hiring armed guards. This practice was also fueled by an economic incentive since ship owners would receive a discount on insurance premiums. Also, with high fuel prices, to transit the High Risk Area on economic speed with armed security onboard, could balance the cost for a maximum speed without armed guards onboard. However, not all flag states allow armed guards and those that do, have strict rules.(7)

Future strategies and tactics

Unfortunately, the complete concentration on armed guards led to the fact that the shipping industry lost focus on the use of non-lethal defence (8). As an example, the guidelines “Best Management Practices” have not been updated since August 2011. There are still very much ad hoc solutions onboard vessels, using what is available. Naval architects, seafarers, ship operators, classification societies and other stakeholders need to thoroughly study vessel design from a security standpoint, as well as keeping in mind the safety aspects.

A certain security design standard should be developed, for implementation on new builds and for modifications on existing ships.

To start with, the maritime domain awareness should be enhanced for all ships, by making it mandatory to install equipment like CCTV and night vision devices. Further, water under pressure is an excellent weapon of defence. With improved pumping capacities and remote controlled high pressure water jets, mounted for coverage of both sides of the ships, a wall of water can be established.

If pirates have penetrated the first line of defense, the next obstacle should be the superstructure. There are numerous ways to gain access to the superstructure, through the obvious ones like doors, but also by breaking into portholes or hatches. All the access points should be fortified in order to stop potential intruders.

The locking down of the superstructure/accommodation should be remotely controlled. Presently, doors are locked from inside; you can get out but you can’t get in from outside. That is sufficient from a security point, but can be disastrous in case of a fire when fire fighters need to access the ship from outside.

The nerve centre of all operations onboard, the bridge, should be additionally fortified with strong doors, bullet proof and tinted windows. Further, the ventilation of the bridge should be self-contained; there should be no opportunity for the pirates to “smoke out” the crew. Briefly, the bridge itself should be a citadel.

Non-lethal weapons are defence systems in their own right, applicable to many sectors within the military and law enforcement, including anti-piracy. Obviously, while water could be used as a deterrent, there are a range of weapons that could be modified for use onboard, such as propeller-entangling nets that can be launched from a distance.(9)

Equally important is the early detection of a threat, with the following cycle of assessment, decision and action. Sophisticated support systems need to be developed to assist Captains and Officers Of the Watch in their duties.(10)


1. IMO was concerned already in 1983 and issued Resolution A.545(13), “Measures to prevent acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships.”

2. In this article, non-lethal defence refers to passive defence, like evasive maneuvers, as well as more active methods as the use of water cannons. It could be argued that non-lethal is a misnomer, filling a small skiff with water from water cannons can obviously, indirectly can be lethal.

3. M/S Boularibank successfully fought off armed Somali pirates with fire hoses and
wooden blocks.

4. International Marine Purchasing Association, Marine Stores Guide, 6th Edition, 2013.

5. International Shipping Federation/International Chamber of Shipping published in 1986 the first edition of “Pirates and Armed Robbers: A Master’s Guide.”

6. 50,000 copies were printed and distributed to the world merchant fleet.

7. According to regulations issued by United Kingdom, armed guards can only be used in exceptional circumstances;

8. A topic highlighted in 4th issue of The Bridge.

9. European Working Group on Non-Lethal working group has been established to study the subject.

10. The EU-project PROMERC has been set up with aim to reduce the vulnerability of EU merchant ships.

About the author: Lars H. Bergqvist is a Swedish master mariner and a reserve officer in the Royal Swedish Navy.

The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of Maritime Security Review and its partners. 

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