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What It Takes To Work In Onboard Maritime Security?


An armed soldier with a mustache

There has been much made about the effect on Somali pirates that the various navies have made in the Indian Ocean. Another major element in deterring piracy has been the use of maritime security. However, there is still much confusion and uncertainty about using guards and weapons. Here we try to debunk some myths – we also hope to make sure you can know the right questions to ask and of who.

Somali piracy crisis and how being an armed guard became a profession

At the peak of the Somali piracy crisis – 2008 to 2010, there was a real problem protecting seafarers and vessels. Navies had begun to recognise the need for patrols, a transit corridor was established, and convoys were used. Add to that, the shipping industry began producing best management practices. But still the pirates kept coming and vessels were repeatedly taken.

An armed guard aiming

Unfortunately, maritime security maybe possible only with weapons. nowadays.

It was clear that something else was needed – and however drastic, there had to be some means of protecting the most vulnerable vessels. A deterrent was needed…and armed guards were the most obvious and effective answer.

This prompted a boom in the maritime security business. Companies sprung up almost overnight, and there was something of a gold rush as they grabbed as much market share as possible.

At the start most guards were former Royal Marines or Special Forces –and there was a feeling that only the best would do. This model worked well – but there was still confusion evident. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) was prompted into producing guidelines, and there was a lot of disagreement between flag States as to what should be done, when and by who.

From Royal Marines and Special Forces to PCASP

A boat with pirates approaching a ship

Piracy is the biggest threat to maritime security.

Adding weapons to shipping was not an easy thing to do – morally, ethically and legally. But it was a response that was necessary – again the pirates were still coming, and seafarers were being taken hostage.

Armed guards were the better of two evils – they were able to protect and defend seafarers and ships, and they were an incredibly effective deterrent. But – there were and remain massive and significant complications when they are used.

The term used is loosely “armed guards” – but actually they are “Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel (PCASP) – and they work for Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSCs). They carry weapons which need to be legally sourced, licensed and properly accounted for.

The complications of carrying weapons on ships is something of a minefield. It impacts so many areas of the way in which ships operate. From charter parties to insurance policies, it can impact the concept of innocent passage – and it can lead to all kinds of legal and contractual disputes. However, if all is done right – then the fact remains that no vessel with armed guards onboard has been taken by pirates…and that is a very compelling argument.

Key aspects of recruitment for PCASP

A female marine

There are cases when women marines join maritime security organizations.

There are a number of key considerations before armed guards are deployed, and this is not a decision which should be taken lightly by the Master or the company. The first issue is whether the flag State will allow armed guards. If the answer is no, but it is considered vital to security, then the ship can, of course, shift to a more accommodating flag State. This has happened in the past, and the Dutch flag reportedly lost a number of vessels as the owners considered it vital to have armed protection.

Once it has been established that PCASP are allowed, then a decision must be made on recruiting the guards. At their most basic level a set of IMO guidelines require that a risk assessment should be carried out, this is underpinned by a formal assessment.

The assessment should include and document the following factors and considerations, prior to making the determination to take such actions:

  • Vessel and crew security, safety and protection;
  • Whether all practical means of self-protection have been effectively implemented in advance;
  • The potential misuse of firearms resulting in bodily injury or death;
  • The potential for unforeseen accidents;
  • Liability issues;
  • The potential for escalation of the situation at hand; and

In addition, the Company Security Officer (CSO) and Master should consider issues such as:

  • PMSC Selection Criteria – Deciding on using the IMO guidelines alone, or checking against ISO Standard 28007.
  • PMSC Background Information – Exploring how the PMSC checks out the selection and vetting of personnel
  • Training and recruitment of PCASP – What systems are in place within the PMSC to recruit and train guards to the level desired
  • PCASP Team Size, Composition and Equipment – What levels of armed manning are being proposed by the PMSC, is this appropriate. Also what weapon system will they be using?
  • Command and Control of Onboard Security Team – How will the relationships onboard be managed?
  • Reporting and Record Keeping – Is there an adequate and appropriate reporting mechanism?
  • The Rules for the Use of Force – Does the PMSC apply and use appropriate rules for the use of force (RUF), such as the 100 Series RUF. Is the captain aware of the RUF and implications for the armed response?
  • Weapons Licenses and Serial Numbers – Are these legally sourced and licenses weapons? Does the paperwork support this, and has this been checked against the serial numbers of the actual weapons brought onboard.
  • Contractual arrangements – Has the PMSC signed an appropriate contract, such as GUARDCON to deliver the service required?

On board code of conduct for PCASP

Soldier saluting

Maritime security is impossible without discipline hence, a code of conduct is taken very seriously.


Security needs to keep seafarers, cargo and vessels safe. That is what it exists to do – if it can’t do that, then it is the wrong type of security. Armed guards have been proven to be effective, but there are other criteria too.

One acronym perhaps sums this up – and that is S.L.E.E.P.…as security should provide peace of mind, and seafarers should be able to rest soundly in their bunks if the right responses are in place. So a security response needs to be:

Safe: The solution cannot threaten the safety of the seafarers or vessel. It cannot contradict the safety management system onboard.

Legal: It has to be legal as no shipping company could risk having illegal solutions onboard, as this would threaten the commercial viability of the operation.

Ethical: Shipping increasingly has to be seen to be doing the right thing – there is more spotlight than ever on the industry, and so an ethical response to security threats is vital.

Effective: The security in place has to actually be capable of protecting the ship. There is no point in pretending – if something doesn’t work, or cannot protect the seafarers onboard, then it is not a solution.

Pragmatic: Cost plays a significant part in shipping – and so the solution must be pragmatic from a cost perspective, it must also be practical for shipboard use and in the marine environment. A realistic security solution is one which protects the vessel, but in a way and at a cost which the company can stand.

Having armed guards onboard is not an easy or straightforward option –but it is one which is still in place, and even though Somali pirates are considered to be far less of a threat, guards are still in place on many vessels. Hopefully all those vessels have considered the guidance and issues which we have outlined.

The key to using PCASP properly is asking questions and consulting with relevant parties. Flag State, insurers, unions, seafarers, cargo owners, charterers, all must be part of the decision making chain – the use of weapons can work well, but only if done right.