News & Politics

‘Maersk Alabama’ Update: Why Giving Merchant Seamen Weapons Won’t Help


While a crewman aboard the M/V/ Maersk Alabama seems to imply in a note to friends that merchant vessels need weapons to battle future Somali pirate attacks, a leading maritime security expert says that’s not such a good idea.
“I assume the company will be forced into taking some kind of action to assure our security from now on,” writes the unnamed crewman in a note obtained yesterday by the Voice.
Indeed, one of the lingering questions about the pirate drama off the coast of Somala is why the crew didn’t have weapons onboard to fight off their attackers. The questions are relevant because there are still more than 200 people being held hostage by Somali pirates (none, however, are American).
Capt. Joseph Ahlstrom says, however, that onboard weaponry could spark a kind of arms race, where pirates, noting the increased defenses, go out and get bigger weapons themselves.

“If a guy is going to fire an RPG (Rocket-propelled grenade) at you, there’s not much you can do,” says Ahlstrom, a captain of freighters and tankers for 10 years. He currently teaches at the SUNY Maritime College, and has written a book on maritime security.

International maritime authorities advise against merchant ship crews
arming themselves. Some ports don’t allow armed ships into their
waters. And there’s the ever-present specter of lawsuits.

“The companies are reluctant for liability reasons,” Ahlstrom says.
“The guns are loose and someone gets shot. Or someone shoots himself in
the foot. And what if someone wants to sell the guns?”

Each crewman would have to be trained in the use of firearms, and then undergo annual retraining, he says.

“You also have to keep track of every firearm and every bullet,” he
says. “If anything is missing, the captain can lose his job. It’s a

In hijacking instances, Ahlstrom advises crews not to fight back. “You
do everything you can to keep them off the ship,.” He says. “Once they
get on board, they have the upper hand. You need to get to a secure
place and wait for the cavalry, which is pretty much what they did in
this case. I think what they did was exceptional.”

Ahlstrom isn’t a big fan of paying ransoms. He says companies like
Maersk should simply draw the line and refuse to pay. A recent fad of
shipping companies buying insurance, which pays off in hostage
situations, is a bad idea.

Ahlstrom does believe that the U.S. Navy should increase its presence in the region–probably an effective if expensive notion.

“It’s a major shipping lane,” he says. “Every time you up the ante on
these guys, they will do it too. We put weapons in, they get better
weapons. The only way is the U.S. Navy.”

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