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Should Cruise Ships be Armed?

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We originally ran this editorial just two weeks ago. Now we want to say “congratulations” to MSC Cruises for taking the initiative to protect their passengers.

The Easter piracy event showed us one thing – the use of power works when dealing with Somali “pirates.” But why aren’t we taking any steps to prevent these acts of “piracy” in the first place? I hesitate to use the cutesy term “pirates” ( arrgghhhh ) and think “hijackers” is far more accurate.

Three cruise ships have been unsuccessfully attacked by Somali Pirates in the last three years (The Seabourn Spirit in 2005, The Oceania Nautica in 2008 and the Fred Olsen British liner Balmoral just last week on March 5th, 2009).

In the case of the cruise ships, evasive action was just enough to avoid capture, but they each got away, luckily. The ships were able to elude and outrun the pirates by using evasive actions such as zig-zagging and faster engines. In the case of the Seabourn Spirit, the ship used a less violent weapon called a “sonic cannon” which emits what is described as a “horrible, disabling” highly directional sound. They also used water cannons (firehoses) which were powerful enough to knock men off of ladders.

But the Seabourn Spirit was under attack by pirates with AK-47s (Russian automatic rifles) and even RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). One of the ship’s security officers was mildly wounded as he manned the sonic cannon. One grenade tore through the hull of the ship and barely missed a passenger hiding in her cabin. The ship was able to steer into the pirate boats to knock them off course and then run away at top speed in the other direction.

Each cruise ship was lucky to get away. History reminds us that at one time a passenger vessel was captured and held hostage – the Achille Lauro in 1985. In that event, the captors were the Palestine Liberation Front – a highly militant organization whose main goal was not capturing ships for ransom, but to use hostages as leverage to free captured members of their own organization.

The PLF killed one passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, and held the ship in hostage in Port Said, Egypt until they could negotiate an escape plan. An aircraft was sent to fly the hijackers to Tunisia; they abandoned the ship and boarded the plane – without having gained the release of the 50 PLF hostages they demanded. At the orders of President Ronald Reagan, the flight was intercepted by U.S. Navy F-14 fighter jets and diverted to a U.S. airbase in Sicily. At that point some of the hijackers were arrested but others were let go – due to intervention by the Italians after an Egyptian government protest over the F-14 maneuver. In the long run, many of the hijackers got away, but none of the passengers other than Klinghoffer were injured. This was not a winning situation for either party.

In light of the successful Easter 2009 rescue of Captain Philips of the Maersk Alabama by Navy Seals, and the successful release of passengers on the Achille Lauro (except Klinghoffer), we see that the United States can manage these situations once they occur but with a high degree of danger and uncertainty of the outcome. Sadly, there are no plans or contingencies in place to prevent such hijackings from happening in the first place.

Are Somali pirates capable of capturing a cruise ship full of Western passengers (mostly U.S., British or European citizens) and place all of the passengers in a hostage situation? Apparently yes, it has happened before and there are still no methods other than non-violent weaponry in place to prevent it.

Should our cruise ships, or any ships, be allowed to carry weapons onboard for security and self-defense? It should be noted that right now no commercial vessel is directed to carry weapons by its owners – mostly for fear that other things could go wrong and these weapons would be used for reasons not related to security or piracy. They fear accidental shootings, suicides, etc. This is mostly because insurance companies have told shipping companies that paying ransoms is cheaper than the possible claims that could arise from other possible incidents if they allowed weapons onboard.

Do you agree with this? Keep in mind that after 9/11 several airline pilots entered a program to learn how to handle firearms and many jet pilots do carry weapons onboard air flights as a result. In addition, the US government now has a program of air marshalls who travel on flights purely to thwart possible hijacking situations.

So – why should ships be any different than airplanes? Why are jet pilots allowed to arm themselves within the United States, but ship captains cannot carry weapons even when rounding the Somali horn?

On cruise ships – not only is there the possibility of piracy, there are other potential dangers for which an armed guard may be a very useful deterent.

Personally, I think cruise ships should be able to arm their onboard security forces, not only in cases of piracy, but just in case a crazy person ever smuggles a weapon on board and threatens a meaningless act of violence onboard a cruise ship. Thank goodness a University of Texas sniper type of situation has never happened, but it could one day.

And getting back to the use of the word “pirates” to describe the terrorists. I actually heard a more liberal (than I, anyway) commentator say on ABC News Sunday morning that this isn’t piracy, it’s an “alternative business model” for poorer Somalis. What? her logic was that we were in their waters and what they were doing was not against Somali law. Well, it should be – especially when the ship is carrying food aid for starving Africans.

What do you think? Should we arm the security officers on cruise ships?

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Comment from Dave Beers
Time April 13, 2009 at 9:07 am

I’ve read that some cruise lines recruit security personnel from the ranks of the British Gurkhas – certainly some of the finest soldiers in the world. To not allow them access to firearms is ridiculous. As long as the ship’s security team is well trained and strict protocols on the control and use of firearms are implemented, I see no reason to not go forward with arming ships.

Comment from Rick Mayville
Time April 13, 2009 at 10:06 am

As long as the crews of these ships are not armed the pirates know that once they are on board they are in command and the passengers and crew are sheep to the slaughter.

Comment from Paul Motter
Time April 13, 2009 at 10:17 am

It is true that several lines use Ghurkas (if you do not know who they are try a google). Most of them do. The man on Seabourn who was injured is a ghurka.

If ships were armed (and I am not saying they are not – no cruise line has ever affirmed or denied they are not armed) then should we let the terrorists know?

The element of surprise certainly seems to work on them. The Maersk crew surprised them, and the Seabourn people were able to fight them off with non-lethal weapons.

These “terrorists” do not seem all that tough or bright, actually. I would just like to se a deterrent rather than a reactionary approach to hijacking security.

Comment from Richard A Stacy
Time April 13, 2009 at 4:25 pm

Well here’s what I think. As a fare paying passenger a long time cruiser, and former federal law enforcment official, I think every cruise line, at a minimum, owes me and my family (and you and yours) the maximum possible security. In today’s world, where Islamic terrorists and pirates are a reality, I think they have an obligation to a carry effective arms capable of deterring pirates and terrorists from boarding, to include rapid fire Gatling type machine guns and highly accurate shoulder fired rocket launchers. At least twenty members of each crew should be super vetted by intensive background investigation, have a military or law enforcement background and be rigorously trained and retrained in the use of such weapons. Anything less exposes us all to unnecessary risk of serious injury and death. No cruise ship that fails to meet these standards should be allowed to sail –ever. The international community should recognize the necessity for such measures before an unspeakable tragedy forces the recognition upon them.

Right now, cruise ships are an easy mark for pirates and an ever more enticing target for a big splash by terrorists!

Comment from Marc
Time April 13, 2009 at 4:35 pm

Cruise ships are armed. Here is a report from a passenger on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager about their crossing through Gulf of Aden this past week.

“So, we set off for the Gulf of Aden and the pirates! One day out and we were given a briefing by the head of the British Anti-Piracy team, a British naval commander, who was sailing with us. He told us our risk of even contact with the pirates, who are extremely poorly resourced, was 0.06%. The risk of them getting on board us was zilch. He has 29 warships at his disposal the majority of which are patrolling a corridor through the high-risk area. They have helicopter support within a maximum of 15 minutes from contact being notified. All ships travelling from the Persian Gulf through to the Red Sea are encouraged to use this corridor which, since this system was set up in January has been virtually incident-free.

“These warships from 13 different countries are working well together and the commander told us that it was a real, yet almost unbelievable, treat to see high ranking officers from Russia, China, US and Israel all meeting, co-operatively, around the same table.

“The next afternoon, we entered this corridor, accompanied by seven other merchant ships, and for the next twenty-four hours we cruised at our 14 knots towards Aden and the entrance to the Red Sea. Apart from having a helicopter fly overhead to investigate some small fishing vessels off our port beam and seeing three warships sail past us going in the opposite direction, there was nothing that set this apart from any other sea day.

“We did hear that, while we were traversing the Gulf of Aden, Somali pirates were very active around the south of Somalia and just north of the Seychelles. They were now working from a mother ship, 400-600 kilometres off shore and that they had actually hi-jacked 3 or 4 ships. Obviously the security around us has made them shift their operation some 1000 miles to the south.”


As for normal operations, on what to you base your premise that cruise ships that the Nepalese Gurhkas onboard are not armed?

Comment from Marc
Time April 13, 2009 at 4:47 pm

Here are some photos from another source onboard Seven Seas Voyager.

Comment from Mike
Time April 14, 2009 at 7:28 am

The issue is much larger than just that of priates, one has to look at the whole issue of Somalia what is taking place there and indeed whose fault it is in the first place, that of course does not excuse blatent terrorism which should be condemned absolutely – however if as it seems that cruise ships are at risk in this area then the safest and best course of action is not to take them there in the first place, if a cruise line wishes to cruise the area in search of profit then it is up to them to pay for extra security, naval protection etc out of their own pockets. Many many commercial / cargo shipping lines are now sending their ships around the Cape (South Africa) while it is longer they are reducing speeds and reducing costs where possible thus removing the targets and the additional insurance costs etc. It is better to be safe than sorry and just one pax shot at or injured is a price to high. Yes it should be that you are free to go where you please etc but this is a silly argument when lives are at risk and frankly you have never been free to travel at will anyway – the Iron Curtain etc .

Comment from Norm
Time April 14, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Alternative business model??? A certain reporter needs to get a clue! Her statements are factually wrong on at least three counts.

>> 1. Piracy might not be against Somali law, but piracy most assuredly IS a direct violation of international maritime law, which every nation has a right to enforce.

>> 2. International law limits each nation’s territorial waters to twelve nautical miles from its shoreline at normal high tide. Nearly all of the recent boardings have occurred well beyond this twelve mile limit, and thus in INTERNATIONAL waters. (International maritime law allows any country to regulate economic activity such as mining and fishing in an “economic zone” that may extend up to two hundred nautical miles from its shoreline, but such an “economic zone” remains international waters for shipping purposes.)

>> 3. But even if the boardings had occurred in territorial waters, international maritime law provides an absolute right of “innocent passage” through the territorial waters of any nation. The invocation of “innocent passage” imposes restrictions on warships (weapon systems must remain in their normal steaming position and submarines must remain on the surface), but those restrictions would not affect unarmed merchant ships. Thus, the pirating/hijacking acts would constitute violations of international maritime law even if the vessels had been in Somali waters.

As to the nature of this piracy, there are some very clear similarities to the emergence of terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad. Like these groups, the pirates thrive in a land of political chaos that has no legitimate government, where Taliban-style thugs freely brutalize civilian populations. It’s also quite clear that the pirates are highly trained, well equipped, and well funded. In particular, the “mother ships” from which they are operating on the high seas don’t come for free.

So how should we respond?

>> 1. We should identify the “mother ships” from which they operate on the high seas and give our navy orders to sink the “mother ships” on sight.

>> 2. We should launch a series of amphibious raids to clean out their bases on shore. A more extensive military/naval operation to rout the “bad guys” out of Somalia and restore legitimate government there would be optional.

>> 3. We should also take out any regime found to be funding and equipping the pirates. Here, Iran is the obvious suspect.


Comment from Fireba11
Time April 17, 2009 at 2:40 am

The best defense is a good offense! All cruise ships should be armed and ready to repel an attack from pirates or hijackers.

Think about how much money and jewelry are on board a ship at any given time, lot’s I am sure.

The fact that pirates could have as many as 5000 passengers (mega ships) as hostages is also another big lure to terrorists, who want to make a statement as the U.S. Navy would have a very hard time rescuing that many people from the terrorists clutches.

What do you all think about allowing Americans who have concealed Carry permits to carry handguns with them on a cruise, just in case?

One last thing….It behooves the cruise lines to ease passengers minds by letting them know that they can handle this type of situation. I wonder how many would be cruisers have been scared off over this recent news of Piracy on the high seas?

Comment from Jaxon
Time April 18, 2009 at 10:14 pm

Ever since this has become a hot news item (I just heard of a cruise ship near the Seychelles being taken, today, but a small one and not one which I recognized) all I can think about is the USSCole.

I concur with the other poster, that cruise ships should not be sailing in this area, presently. I also think that ships should hire trained, armed, security, and not just because of pirates. Small towns have policemen, and a ship is a small town.

Great article — I didn’t know how the pirates had been fended off except for the out running of them.

I truly fear that the bravado of the pirates will give jihadists ideas. Jihadists are not after a ransom.

Comment from gerry willis
Time April 20, 2009 at 6:24 pm

Absolutely they should be armed and if faced with a threat by pirates, they should shoot immediately!

Comment from Paul Motter
Time April 26, 2009 at 10:06 am

April 26 – MSC Cruises’ Melody thwarts a pirate hijacking attempt by firing back at the Solamis with pistols. This is the first recorded incident of a cruise ship carrying weapons, and we are extremely happy that they did.

Now – let’s see if the Obama Administration condemns the cruise ship for using illegal methods to protect themselves. Nothing would surprise me anymore.

We say “Kudos” to MSC for taking the initiative to protect themselves. I personally have friends sailing in the same region right now and on cruises in the very near future. I hope their ships are armed as well.

There is nothing like giving these international criminals a little taste of their own medicine.

Comment from eileen
Time April 26, 2009 at 11:15 am

i think cruise ships should be armed to kill. when pirates are captured they should be taken off the coast of their country and hung just like in daysm of old. and finally raids should be stages on their home bases and everyone in the home base killed. no ransom should be paid. just death to all the high jackers and their families.

Comment from Dave Beers
Time April 26, 2009 at 11:24 am

Note to the pirates…don’t mess with Israeli security officers. They will most definitely kick butt and are not shy about using deadly force. I’d love to see security teams such as this on all cruise ships.

Comment from Snoozeman
Time April 26, 2009 at 11:39 am

Great photos, Marc.

Comment from Kim
Time April 26, 2009 at 3:33 pm

The history channel is running a show about piracy and it’s very interesting. They say that so much of this is going unreported: A- because the ships don’t want to be delayed, most have deadlines to meet and B- because the local governments are RESPONSIBLE for the pirating itself. Really really scary stuff. I’m getting ready to go to Jamaica in November and now I’m pretty shook up after seeing this show.

Comment from Paul Motter
Time April 26, 2009 at 3:34 pm

Plese don’t worry about Jamaica waters, this is not where the trouble is. That is in North-East Africa near Somalia.

Comment from Bailey
Time November 18, 2009 at 9:33 am

Arm them without question. When seconds count the Navy could be 2 hours away. It is a duty to keep people safe. People that can fight back often do not become victims.

Comment from stuart
Time September 17, 2010 at 6:56 am

Security Officer (handles all shipboard security for the vessel , drugs interdiction). All applicable certifications by a recognized maritime government body required. Extensive experience in security and firearms handling required. Military background preferred. Fluent English Language skills required. Salary range: 2200-2600 U.S. dollars a month, depending on the cruise line.
Security Personnel (handles all shipboard security of the vessel as directed by the Security Officer). Extensive experience in security and firearms handling required. Military background preferred. Salary range: 1600-1800 U.S. dollars a month, depending on the cruise line.

I found this on a cruise ship recruitmant page. Why do they require extensive weapons handling experience if you dont have weapons to handle???????

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