Armed guarding shouldn’t be cheap. It should be expensive

James Wilkes from Gray Page writes today about the dangerously low price levels private maritime security companies are offering.

Rolls-Royce cars are world renowned. For decades, they have been owned by the very rich and famous.

The Phantom is Rolls-Royce’s signature car. A new one will cost you north of £363,600 ($476,000). At that price, you expect the best. The definition of excellence. The benchmark by which all luxury cars are measured. It’s where the saying, “The Rolls-Royce of… something” comes from. The Rolls-Royce of something is to be the very best of its kind. A synonym for the zenith of quality and standards. Which is why they are expensive.The price-tag is a promise of that.

To get the price to the level where it’s at now, compromises have been made, short-cuts taken, standards lowered

If I was to offer you a brand new, never-been-driven, Rolls-Royce Phantom for £50,000 would you buy it?

I doubt it. The offer doesn’t make sense. The price is too low. An indicator that there is something wrong. An implausible promise. Common sense would tell you to reject it because it’s probably a fake, broken or stolen.

Even if it was legit, wouldn’t you feel a bit of a fraud owning and driving it? A Rolls-Royce isn’t supposed to be cheap, it’s supposed to be expensive.

Armed guarding shouldn’t be cheap, either.

Putting men with guns on merchants ships to protect from the threat of attack by armed assailants should be an expensive exercise.

If I was to offer you a brand new, never-been-driven, Rolls-Royce Phantom for £50,000 would you buy it?

The logical consequence of hiring armed guards is, fundamentally, to countenance the potential use of lethal force to defend a vessel in extreme and proscribed circumstances.

It is a serious business, with potentially serious consequences. Consequently, it should put ship operators and managers to a serious decision.

But armed guarding is cheap because that’s the world of shipping; a world of low-cost cheapness. A world in which the price tag of armed guarding has been driven so low that it’s barely a decision anymore.

If you can arm- guard a ship for a transit through the Gulf of Aden / Indian Ocean range for a few thousand dollars, who cares what the threat really is?

And if you don’t care enough to look hard at the threat and assess it properly, you’re not likely to care too much about the financial substance, capabilities and operational standards of the private maritime security company (PMSC) you employ and the guards they provide.

Which is how you end up with incidents like the Jaeger, and others that have gone unreported in the public domain.

What happened on board the Jaeger was a product of many factors most of which did not start on the ship.

At the micro-level, an armed-guard, ostensibly driven out of his mind by desperation, lost the plot and hijacked a ship for three days.

There is no doubt that it was a grievous criminal act. It’s fortunate no one was injured or killed.

In mitigation perhaps, five months-plus stuck at sea, without pay and no prospect of relief can evidently drive a person beyond the edge. You can point to the crisis at sea that COVID-19 has precipitated. And it demands much further attention. But the roots of the problem are older, and run more deeply and widely than anyone wants to admit in the public square.

At the macro-level, armed guarding is too cheap. To get the price to the level where it’s at now, compromises have been made, short-cuts taken, standards lowered, blind-eyes turned, ignorance and indifference ingrained on both sides of the supply and demand equation.

So a service that should be purchased against and provided to ‘Rolls-Royce standards’, isn’t because you can’t have the best for next to nothing. If you’re offered it, it’s probably because somewhere along the line it’s broken, fake or stolen. If you accept it, you surely have to take some measure of responsibility for the problems that flow from it.

Armed guarding should be defined by excellence, by the highest of standards, synonymous with quality at its best. The price tag should be a promise of that, which is why armed guarding should be expensive.


  1. You are encouraging private security companies to start selling us stolen Rolls-Royces for the price of new. Besides who wants the Rolls-Royce of armed-guarding on board ships. A clock-working Opel-like armed guard service is what stake holders want to get. The issue much bigger than that unfortunately. Shipping is not supposed to maintain private armies or navies to protect itself from the threat of piracy on the high seas. I leave it for you to work out yourself, whose duty the protection of shipping and life of crews on board, it should be.

    1. “You are encouraging private security companies to start selling us stolen Rolls-Royces for the price of new.”
      No I am not. My point is to the contrary of that. Ordinarily, where a product or service is made or provided to the highest of standards, it’s price tag will reflect that. If it doesn’t – if the price is significantly lower than you’d expect – you would intuit a disconnect between what is being “promised” and what is being “delivered”. I’m highlighting that there are obvious downsides and, potentially, profoundly negative consequences to being indifferent to that instinct.

      1. With due respect James, I got your point very well, the first time. However one must not lose focus on the real issues at hand here. The rogue operative did not act as he did because his wages were low, but because even his low wages were not paid. There is a difference. My point, albeit trying to play devil’s advocate, was that we may get the same result if a well trained operative does not get paid his higher wages for a couple of months. One needs to consider why the private security company did not pay their employee’s wages. Your proposition that making arm-guarding ships expensive will solve the problem, while implying that such cost increase warrants the use of better trained operatives, which command higher wages, fails to explain why wasn’t it possible in this case for the company to pay the lower wages of this operative. My concern is that invariably, the answer would be GREED. It all would depend on what slice of the pie the private security company would like to keep for themselves as PROFIT. This is why I am saying making the service more expensive is not a guarantee of similar occurrences. We may never know the real cause of why this happened, and whether the allegation made by another reader, that the rogue operative was not well trained would be a matter of fact in each particular case, which needs to be put to proof. Of course I understand your logic, but I am afraid that due to human nature, which we all know the good Lord did not created us perfect, your otherwise common sense, would encourage private security companies to to up their rates, while keeping much more for themselves, and we would be back to square one. How about better regulating of this business. I recall there was SAMI, which for some reason, unknown to me, was disbanded.

        1. I agree with you George that price is not a guarantee of quality. But it would be a very short-term-minded PMSC that charged top dollar and delivered a pretty crappy service. They wouldn’t command much business for very long; or you’d hope they wouldn’t. Skin me once, more fool you. Skin me twice, more fool me. What I observe is an inversion of that; a crappy price begets a crappy service. And a crappy, cheap service is not conducive to minimising the risk of “insider threat” – evidently.

        2. Goergi, very valid points. However, there’s always a balance.

          People that spend years and considerable amounts of money to train, wouldn’t rend their skils for pennies. If they have no other option they may do this once or twice, but cheap selling their experience for nothing is something that they would not do.

          This is contrary to low skilled people that, anyway you see it, do not have this sort of background to support better salaries. 2K without med insurance and pension plan is easily achieved by working in an easy, non hostile environment (e.g. being a waiter). Even deckhands earn more money than that.

          The problem is that PMSCs are not thought of as seamen. Which is not ideal – a PMSC is one alright, whose responsibility is armed crisis management; the captain is another, whose responsibility is to command the ship, so on so forth. You get my point.

          Needless to say that no matter who you are, if you don’t get paid you will react somehow. This is an especially intriguing thought, when it comes to disgruntled armed people. But a trained professional will understand the difference between objecting to unfaireness and committing a crime and will act accordingly. It’s exactly the same as the distinction of a soldier and an armed criminal. A soldier will obey rules and laws, even in unfavoured situations. A criminal will not.

      2. Well put, sometimes it’s painstakingly hard to understand the depth of ignorance displayed.

    2. Georgi, do shipping companies buy cheap engines, cheap marine fuel, when repairs are done; cheap paint, sub-standard wielding or safety systems? No? Why not?
      Because to do so would cost the shipping company time, business and money. But you say it’s a requirement for security companies to only offer cheap “Opel” like services for the security and protection of ship, cargo and the lives of the crew?? So you are saying the least important element aboard and the one that demands the least expenditure, is the lives and security of the very crew that deliver the business for the company? What an interesting admission but unfortunately, not a surprising one.

  2. I completely agree with the comments and observations made by James, having served in the British Army and was a PMSC from 2010 to 2013 I saw back then the quality of the individual operator diminish from the expected standard to individuals who struggled with basic weapon handling. This is a very dangerous scenario where the employer (Shipmanagement Company/Owner) is awarding contracts with no real understanding of the complexity of fire control orders, weapon handling tests and marksman ship principles and is only guidance is based on a self certificating industry. Calibration and testing of equipment on a vessel is a matter of routine and yet Owners, Managers and Masters are more than happy to allow four complete strangers onboard their vessel with weapons without seeing proof of their competency. Test fires are no longer the norm, this is probably down to cost cutting by saving ammunition, but would definitely highlight the substandard skill set of the individuals and their inability to deliver a single round at a given target at a given distance, this also opens a multitude of legal issues if there was a contact and unarmed perpetrators were wrongly shot it could be proven weapons were not calibrated (zeroed) for that particular individual. At the end of the day if the industry demands these low rates then there has to be some give somewhere, the PMSC companies still want to make profits and therefore it is the armed guard who feels the pinch.

  3. A 8-hour training course is enough to be an armed guard at Gulf of Aden. Any subway guard has more training than that.

  4. If Companies were in the business of buying the Rolls Royce of everything, they certainly would not be buying ships at the lowest possible price, flagging at the most convenient flag, manning with seafarers who deserve top dollar salaries but get stiffed out by the cheapest possible crew from the jungles of nowhere.. And I could go on.

    Your article, though nice to read, has flawed logic that companies are interested in the best of something. They are, but at the lowest possible cost.

  5. A thought provoking article and one I concur with. Thanks for highlighting this concerning topic. Please rest assured that there are still some in shipping that have not acquiesced to using “cheap” teams and do gladly pay for Rolls Royce teams.

  6. I find the analogy to be rather misleading.
    Battle hardened professionals from countries like Sri Lanka, India, Philippines etc. can provide the same quality at a fraction of the cost. The reason for the difference in cost in these cases is not because of the quality of the product (professional credentials of the security personnel), but is instead because of the comparitively lower cost of living in the countries they come from.

    1. Although in principle I agree, this is overly a simplified view of the world. The quality of service is always tightly coupled with one’s culture. Low level of living standards also means that people don’t have high expectations of quality products and services. In turn, they do not offer such, either.

      So, what you say is subject to interpretation, depending on whom you ask.

  7. I don’t think it is so much what the guys and girls get paid, it is more the fact that the company that was supposed to pay the individual his wages, is probably corrupt. Would be better to investigate the company that did not pay the wages, than to blame the issue on low wages. This does not only happen in maritime security, but also with security companies that are land based.

  8. The biggest issue in this whole debate which, the article doesn’t cover is the endemic late or non payment of services from shipping companies. The price is the price but everything falls down with not honoring contracts and paying late which is the culture sadly.

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