Private security firms have begun to increase their use of floating armories to store weapons at sea. These arms stores, located in international waters, are key for contractors, who in many cases, are not permitted to carry weapons aboard ships entering certain ports.
The floating armories are in fact ships, stocked with assault rifles, ammunition, night vision devices and personal armor. There are nearly 20 of these floating around the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden.
There is cloudiness surrounding the many legal questions that have come up regarding the use of private-security contractors aboard merchant vessels in the Indian Ocean. One certainly involves the legality of these armories, for which there is little written law or precedent. Many in the industry are concerned that without regulations addressing the security of the armories themselves, they could be vulnerable to pirate attack.
Poorly secured armories could wind up reversing much of the progress that has already been made combatting pirates in the region. If these stockpiles fall into the wrong hands, it could make the job of the international naval task-forces and the private armed-guards aboard the ships, much harder.
Overall, the increased presence of private security contractors in the Indian Ocean has helped the significant reduction in pirate attacks since 2011. But their presence has also caused complications, because of the varying restrictions from countries whose ports merchant vessels call upon.
Some countries have strict arms embargos, and others have weapons smuggling laws that prevent any merchant ships from entering ports with weapons on board. Some ships risk detention and impoundment if caught with weapons on board. Additionally, each country has its own restrictions about what ships that fly its flag are allowed to do. Certain countries completely ban weapons from merchant vessels flying their flags, regardless of local port-of-call laws.
Before the use of these floating armories, security firms had to get creative to comply with the varying legislation. Some companies would stash their arms legally within countries that allowed them to access armories on land. Sri Lanka was a common destination for this strategy, but has recently raised concerns over the practice, and may close the doors of these armories for good. Other companies would use the less-than-legal practice of buy illicit arms in countries such as Yemen, and then dump them into the ocean before accessing a port that banned them.
Thanks to private armories, these security contractors are now able to simply stash their weapons there after returning from risky waters. Some private companies have seized the opportunity to specialize in maintaining these armories. As Sri Lankan armories on-shore close their doors, some of the operators of those contractors have taken to the sea.
Some of these armories are run in part by the navy, and have approval from Malaysian maritime security authorities. While these are at least somewhat regulated, armories that sit in the middle of the ocean in international waters have no rules governing their operation whatsoever. Some countries, such as Great Britain, have banned their private security firms from using such armories, although they are considering use of approved Sri Lankan armories.
Overall, these floating armories are vital to the private security industry. But without any meaningful regulation established, poorly run armories may become marks for the pirates themselves. However, because of the importance of private-armed guards in combatting piracy, if these armories disappear, piracy in the Indian Ocean will possibly begin to rise from the ashes. The solution is seemingly simple: All it takes to establish international regulatory legislation to address the gray areas of private maritime security contracting is a multilateral discussion and action by the nations involved. But until governments and non-governmental organizations stop dragging their feet, the entire industry and security of an ocean hangs in the balance.