It spent the Second World War escorting ships through the treacherous waters of the North Atlantic, armed with two 4.7in guns, a single 3in gun and a collection of depth charges to drop on enemy submarines. Now, gleaming in the morning sun on the Thames in central London, the HQS Wellington is surrounded by the UK landmarks it fought so hard to defend: St Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament and – just two miles to the west – Buckingham Palace.

But though it may seem the Royal Navy has given this Grimsby Class sloop a comfortable retirement, the reality is that her fighting days are still far from over. Tucked away in a small room on the Wellington’s starboard side are the Security Association for the Maritime Industry’s (SAMI) headquarters, a global organisation representing private maritime security companies (PMSCs) – many of which provide armed guards to shipping companies passing through pirate-infested waters. Founded by Peter Cook, who was educated by the Merchant Navy and has 24 years’ experience as a Royal Marine officer – much of which involved maritime security policy and procedures – SAMI is at the forefront of the international struggle against 21st century piracy.

The eastern horn

In the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia’s coast, it is a fight the pirates seem to be losing. Since SAMI entered the fray two years ago, the number of attacks in the region has tumbled from 236 in 2011 to just 72 in 2012, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). For Cook, the numbers are encouraging, though he warns it may be a misleading representation.

"There’s no doubt piracy has decreased in the region," he says, glancing out the Wellington’s window at the Thames’ river traffic. "But I’m not convinced the reduction’s as extensive as some people claim. Shipowners don’t always report everything that happens – sometimes, it’s just not in their interest. There’re also areas outside the Horn of Africa where piracy is getting worse."

Three key factors lie behind the current piracy dip off Africa’s eastern horn. The first is the unprecedented military cohesion between the European Naval Force (EUNAVFOR), the Combined Maritime Taskforce 151 and NATO, and additional forces from Iran, Russia, China and India, all of which patrol a 1.1-million-square-mile area. The second is the widespread uptake of best management practices (BMP) by ships, including maintaining a constant lookout, installing razor or electrified barriers to prevent boarding, and daily reporting to the UK Maritime Trade Office based in Dubai.

But by far the most effective measure has been the employment of PMSCs. According to Rear Admiral Duncan Potts, commander of EUNAVFOR, not a single boat with armed security guards has been successfully boarded by pirates. Such an impressive record may at first seem like statistical jiggery-pokery, but as Lieutenant-Commander Sheriff points out in The Economist: "Pirates go to sea to make money, not die in a fire fight". In most cases, a warning shot is enough to deter any would-be attackers.

Legal framework

Yet, despite such success, the use of armed guards to protect commercial ships is still highly controversial. The case of the two Indian fishermen shot by a pair of Italian marines who reportedly mistook them for pirates in February 2012 highlights the potential dangers of a poorly regulated force. The subsequent wrangle between Italy and India over where the trial should take place points to the added legal complexities involved; under what laws do PMSCs operate? To whom should they ultimately answer?

"Since SAMI entered the fray two years ago, the number of pirate attacks in the region has tumbled from 236 in 2011 to just 72 in 2012."

SAMI has made some progress in answering these questions. Along with its involvement in a standardised contract produced by the Baltic and International Maritime Council, and an additional specification of the criteria to which PMSCs must adhere (ISO/PAS 28007), the company is also finalising legislation detailing the rules for using lethal force at sea.

"We’ve formulated the ‘100 Series Rules for the Use of Force’ and are currently running that by the industry," says Cook. "The aim is to create a clear legal framework for potentially lethal self-defence. So, if a young man is standing on the back of a merchant ship and genuinely believes his or a member of his crew’s life is in danger, he can shoot a pirate, and not be hung out to dry in court.

"Making sure everyone involved with the decision-making process is held to account, not just the man who squeezes the trigger, is integral to achieving that. The shipowner must show that he and his security officer thought carefully about whether they needed armed guards, as does the insurer, and the flag state. It’s only by making people liable for the actions of armed guards that we’ll start to make a change. In the past, I think there’s been a certain amount of lip service paid to these issues."

Geographical responsibility

As is so often the case with criminality, when one problem is close to being solved, another appears: piracy may be falling in the Gulf of Aden, but it is rising on the other side of the continent in the Gulf of Guinea. Stretching from Cape Lopez in Gabon to Cape Palmas in Liberia, the IMB reported 51 pirate attacks in the area in 2012, an increase of 42% on the previous year. This will require an entirely new approach to that seen in the Gulf of Aden.

Unlike the failed state of Somalia, the Gulf of Guinea is bordered by a number of sovereign authorities, including Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria and Togo. It is therefore the responsibility of these countries, rather than the international community, to tackle the issue. Local corruption, a lack of resources and complex international maritime legislation, however, are hampering progress.

And yet it is a situation that demands immediate attention. Commercial vessels operating in territorial waters within the Gulf of Guinea are required to have armed local troops on board, led by a special security adviser employed by the shipping firm. With a company employee giving orders to soldiers against pirates – also technically civilians – a host of legal questions are raised: which rules of engagement are to be used? What happens when the ships are outside territorial waters? How do the rules change?

"There’s also the worry that the hired troops are secretly involved with the pirates, will turn their guns on the security adviser and say he got killed in a fire fight," Cook adds. "This is well within the realms of possibility in such a corrupt region. It’s really an extremely complex situation."

"These guys are far more desperate than any large democracy trying to stop them. It’s only a matter of time before they come up with something new that out-thinks our current defences."

Similar problems exist in the South China Sea, another growing piracy hot spot. Territorially disputed by seven countries – China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines – political tensions in the region make effective international policing all but impossible.

The piracy situation is exacerbated by the atmosphere of uncertainty such bickering creates; where the law is unclear, organised crime proliferates.

"It’s by no means impossible for these countries to work together to tackle the problem," says Cook. "The cooperation between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore in policing the Malacca Strait proves it can be done. But it will be more difficult in the South China Sea. It’s a much broader area, and far more politically complex."

Private protection

With piracy in neither the Gulf of Guinea nor the South China Sea looking likely to be resolved by national authorities any time soon, shipping companies are increasingly looking to the private sector for protection. The demand is such that, along with the PMSCs and BMPs already seen off the coast of Somalia, shipowners will soon be supplied with a third defence option: private navies.

Typhon, a British company, is leading the way in this field. This April, it launched a 10,000t ‘mother ship’ to accompany a convoy of merchant vessels off the coast of Somalia, and has plans to expand its operations into the Gulf of Guinea before the year is out. Housing 60 mostly British, mostly armed ex-soldiers, it will deploy unmanned drones and speedboats to watch and intercept hostile boats.

Anthony Sharp, Typhon’s boss, claims it’s a more efficient approach than putting guards on individual ships. He also argues that shipping companies using Typhon will save on insurance due to the reduced risk.

"Private navy companies such as Typhon look likely to be part of the piracy solution," Cook says. "But there’re still a lot of issues that have to be worked through, not least the question of whether local governments will find them acceptable, and how the legislation for that will work."

In the meantime, oil companies operating offshore installations in the Gulf of Guinea have already begun to invest in anti-piracy technology. The current focus is on detection. Companies have a choice of technologies including radar, thermo-imaging, image-intensifying cameras and sonar. Once a potential attacker is identified, the appropriate response can be taken.

"The investment from oil companies has been relatively small so far, but it looks likely that there’ll be more soon," says Cook. "What’s important is that PMSCs can see there’s a future in the East and West African oil and gas industry, and they’re working with the energy companies to find a solution."

Root of the matter

Although this bodes well for ships and offshore facilities operating in these areas, piracy is ultimately a reflection of the situation on land. Until the people of West Africa and countries bordering the South China Sea feel they do not need to steal in order to survive, these waters will no doubt remain treacherous territory.

"Unless people have good lives and don’t want or need to get involved in piracy, we won’t see an end to the problem," Cook says. "These guys are far more desperate than any large democracy trying to stop them. It’s only a matter of time before they come up with something new that out-thinks our current defences."

The International Maritime Organization recognises this line of thinking, and has set up regional initiatives in Somalia and West Africa to develop local economies. Some large energy companies are also involved: Chevron Nigeria has spent $50 million establishing the Niger Delta Partnership Initiative Foundation to address the area’s socioeconomic challenges.

But while these are steps in the right direction, there is still a long way to go before anything like a resolution is reached. For the foreseeable future, companies operating in these crystal-blue waters can expect to continue relying on private protection from pirates.