WASHINGTON — The global shipping industry should consider placing armed guards on its boats to ward off pirates who have become increasingly violent, the U.S. military commander who oversees the African coastline said Friday.
Gen. David Petraeus, who came to the Capitol to talk about a wide variety of issues, told a House committee Friday that just trying to outrun or block pirates from boarding cargo ships isn't enough to deter sea bandits off the Somali coast who are becoming more aggressive. The Pentagon is starting to study how to better protect merchant shipping, but hasn't yet come up with a formal plan.
The shipping industry has resisted arming their boats, which would deny them port in some nations.
In response to questions from a House Appropriations subcommittee, Petraeus said defensive preparations short of armed guards "can work. You can have water hoses and others that can make it more difficult."
But in a wry tone, he added: "It's tough to be on the end of a water hose if the other guy is on the end of an RPG. So you've got to think your way through that calculation as well."
An RPG is a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Naval forces from several nations currently patrol the waters that Petraeus described as many times the size of Texas. But he said there is no way for any military to be able to safeguard all commercial ships that ply those waters.
The region is one of the world's most crucial shipping lanes, with oil vessels and other merchant ships carrying billions of dollars worth of cargo. Authorities say pirates are well aware that ship owners have been willing to pay an average of $2 million ransom for each seized ship.
Petraeus said the Navy would continue to patrol the region, but added that some shippers in the past hadn't taken even basic steps to avoid pirates.
"We started off by saying, 'If you just speed up, when the pirates approach you that will help. If you take evasive action, that's even better. And if you unbolt the ladder that allows the pirates to climb onto your ship before you set sail, you get extra credit for that,'" Petraeus said. "These were not being taken before."
Joe Cox, president of the Chamber of Shipping of America, cautioned that deploying armed guards aboard cargo ships could escalate violence if pirates expect a gunfight.
"If you asked us two weeks ago, we would say, 'No guns on ships,'" Cox said Friday. "Now the reaction is, 'Let's talk.' That's not a ringing endorsement of going in that direction. But we know, under the current circumstances, something has to be done."
The Washington-based trade association represents 32 shipping companies.
Cox also called on the government to remain committed to securing the high seas. "We don't want them to abrogate the responsibility," he said.
Pirates have hijacked more than 100 ships off the Somali coast over the last year, including one in a dramatic standoff between pirates and the U.S. Navy earlier this month in the Indian Ocean. A U.S. sea captain was held hostage for five days before three of his captors were shot and killed by Navy SEALS. A fourth pirate is now being held in New York, where he awaits prosecution.