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Snipers on Ships….Good Idea…or Overkill? (Pun Intended) January 26, 2012

Posted by Chris Mark in Piracy & Maritime Security, weapons and tactics.
Tags: , , , , ,

I was reading a website today of what appears to be a new entrant into the maritime security world.  It is clear that they are trying to differentiate their services by offering ‘Maritime Marksmanship’ services.  According to the website, their former Royal Marine Snipers can add protection to 900 meters by adding precision, long range fire.  As a former US Marine Sniper I am very familiar with, and have great respect for the Royal Marines’ sniper course and while we like to argue and debate with each other over whose course is superior, the truth is that the discussion is academic.  Whether you believe it is the USMC or our UK brethren, the reality is that they are both arguably the most rigorous sniper courses in the world. We will continue to argue 😉  So back to my post.

While I don’t disagree that having trained snipers onboard provides a level of precision shooting, the question that must be asked is “how much is good enough?”  The truth is that not a single armed vessel has been successfully hijacked to date.  Many of the vessels are armed with M4s (or varients), AK 47s, G3s, FALs etc.  Is there truly at need at this juncture for a trained sniper on board?  A more fundamental question, I think, is whether you increase liability by placing a sniper onboard.  If a pirate is approach a vessel at high speed and shooting then there is a threat.  Using the force continuum it is expected that first evasive maneuvers are taken, followed by warning shots etc.  If they approach close enough then, possibly, you need to take more direct action and fire at the assailants.  International law is still somewhat unclear as to when you can and cannot use deadly force on a suspected pirate.  I question what would happen to the shooter if he shot a pirate out of a boat at 900m.  It would be extremely difficult to justify such a shooting as ‘defensive’.  (I suspect such a shot would be nearly impossible for any trained shooter…see next post as to why).

I believe at this point that having trained Commandos, US Marines (with appropriate background), or other well trained military members provides sufficient protection against pirate attacks.  Any Commando, US Marine, Ranger etc. with an M4, or similar weapon system can engage a target to 300 meters with relative ease.   Extending this range to a theoretical 900 meters does not, in my mind, reduce risk but may actually increase the risk should a suspected pirate be engaged at that distance.

For companies considering maritime security, it is suggested that the following be considered before considering the more esoteric aspects of armed services.

1) Are the company’s leaders experienced in maritime security and have they established and documented operating procedures consistent with the rules of force and international law?  You do NOT want a bunch of gunslinging cowboys on your ships.  Consider BlackWater as an example of what happens when undisciplined people with weapons are unleashed.

2) Are the armed guards appropriately vetted and trained?  As much as I love my USMC, the fact remains that in the USMC, we have a number of Marines that are cooks, mechanics, etc.  In the UK, all Marines are Commando trained.  The point being that just because someone has a particular title, does not mean they are right for the job.  Ensure that the company is selective and vets their personnel.  Additionally, ask about following on training.  Are the guards taught the rules of force?

3) Are the guards provided with appropriate kit and weapons?  I have heard horror stories of guards being deployed with Moisan Nagant rifles, and other ‘pre WWII’ weaponry.  While the debate over whether .50 sniper rifles provide good fodder for arguments, at a minimum the guards need to be armed with effective, modern weapons in working order.  M4s, G3, FAL, M14s, AK 74, AK 47 are probably all sufficient to rappel an attack by Somali pirates.  I personally do NOT believe that a shotgun is sufficient.  A shotgun is great for close quarters fighting but does not have the range or accuracy to defend against an attacker with an RPG or AK 47.

4) Does the company’s principals have experience with maritime traditions, rules, and communications?  It is imperative that the guards understand how to work on ships and how to interact with the ship’s officers and crew.  Ultimately, it is the ships captain that has responsibility for the vessel and her crew.  The guards need to understand how to integrate into the ship’s plans to ensure effective protection of the vessel.


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