Despite the legal grey area that surrounds floating armouries, they may be permitted if private maritime security companies prove they can fulfil licensing requirements.
One PMSC told Lloyd’s List that almost all companies operating in the Gulf of Aden use “flotels” to store weapons, equipment and men offshore to avoid port charges and weapons regulation.
Lloyd’s List understands that some 12 floating armouries are stationed in international waters around high-risk areas. Due to a lack of formal regulation for the industry, practices like this have evolved as PMSCs looked to reduce their costs.
This has been controversial. “It is very bad practice and logistically hard to undertake and police,” says one critic. No international laws specifically prohibit PMSCs storing weapons offshore, but industry bodies are vague in their recommendations to members.
The Security Association for the Maritime Industry said it required accredited companies to hold relevant and correct licences.
The UK government-mandated Security in Complex Environments Group said that floating armouries must meet legal and jurisdictional requirements and “be in support of effective and high-quality operations”.
It said its members were “completely firm on the imperative of all aspects of operations being transparent to scrutiny and regulation” and that it was working “to develop a maritime standard that is robust and credible to national and international clients as well as to the industry itself”.
SCEG said: “The standard will — like all standards of this nature — have guidance annexes on important operational issues like training and weapons storage.”
Most PMSCs are based in the UK and must apply for an open general trade control licence for maritime anti-piracy to export or move weapons. Companies that apply for an OGTCL must list the armouries they propose to use.
Although the terms of the licence are not restricted to land-based armouries, any vessel used to store weapons must secure Export Control Organisation approval during the application process. It is not clear whether any vessel has received formal approval for weapon storage.
The International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers is voluntary but moves are under way to turn it into an oversight mechanism for the industry.
The code requires accepted policies or procedures for management of weapons and ammunition to be put in place. These include secure storage, controls on issue of weapons, records showing to whom and when weapons were issued, identification and accounting of all ammunition and verifiable and proper disposal.
One source said: “Whether this is done on a floating platform or ashore, the needs remain the same and the issue will ultimately revolve around the flag states of the vessels used.
“If they provide the right environment and the flags allow them to act as floating armouries, then it wouldn’t seem to be too much of an issue.”