Gen. David Petraeus told a congressional committee that ocean cargo carriers should consider putting armed guards on ships traveling through pirate-infested waters off the coast of Africa.
The U.S. military commander, testifying before a House Appropriations subcommittee, said efforts to ward off attacks, such as trying to evade attackers or firing water cannons, have proved ineffective as pirates have stepped up their attacks.
"It's tough to be on the end of a water hose if the other guy is on the end of an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade),” he said. “So you've got to think your way through that calculation as well."
The U.S. Navy has sent ships into the waters off Somalia to try to protect commercial ships going through the region but pirates based on the coast have pushed their attacks further into the Indian Ocean, making it increasingly difficult to patrol the large area.
Only a day after Petraeus testified, an Italian cruise ship with 1,500 passengers on board warded off pirates when Israeli-trained private security forces opened fire on a small boat that tried to attack the ship. The attack came in darkness Saturday night in the Indian Ocean.
According to media reports from the region, the cruise ship fired water cannons and weapons, forcing the attacking pirates to flee.
The cruise company, Italy-based Mac Cruises, said all its ships around the world carry private security guards.
There are numerous legal bars against putting weapons on commercial ships but maritime attorneys in Washington are studying the national and international prohibitions. Maritime companies, too, say they are considering ways to add stronger protection since the attack this spring on the Maersk Alabama, a U.S.-flag vessel operating for Maersk Line Limited.
The IMB Piracy Reporting Center says reported piracy incidents have nearly doubled this year, from 53 in the first quarter of last year to 102 incidents reported in the first three months of 2009. The attacks increased 20 percent from the fourth quarter of 2008 to the first quarter this year.