WITH the Somali pirating season about to begin in earnest, one US company is proposing a radical solution to increase maritime safety around the lawless Horn of Africa country - privately operated warships.
Several dozen international warships already mount anti-piracy patrols, but mandates end at the water's edge and commanders say they are far too few to cover the vast Indian Ocean.
"Our aim is to offer close protection for money for ships passing through the danger area," said Greg Stenstrom, founder of US-based firm Marque Star - which has put down deposits on two ships and has ambitions for more than a dozen more.
"We're trying to steer clear of the phrase 'private navy', although it does lend itself to that. We'd rather describe ourselves as a private maritime security company."
The ships will be armed with deck-mounted machine guns, more formidable than anything currently used by the pirates. They may also have unmanned drones and a small airship for surveillance. Mr Stenstrom, a former US naval officer, says he faced widespread scepticism when he first mooted the idea two years ago. But as piracy worsened, it gained momentum. The company is fundraising but hopes to offer escorts by 2011 or earlier.
Shipping sources say several other firms have similar plans.
However, the idea has long disturbed some naval officers. Private military firms have been increasingly used in Iraq and Afghanistan, but their use has proved controversial. At worst, some fear contractors could become part of the problem.
"This is a very cluttered piece of ocean," said Major General Buster Howes, commander of the EU anti-piracy force EUNAVFOR.
"If you add a cohort of private contractors operating ships, it could add value but it could also be complicating. You also have to come back to what it would mean for the souls who are being held by the pirates."
Currently, several hundred Somalis earn many times the average salary at home by heading out in small skiffs with ladders and AK-47s, boarding ships and sailing them to pirate anchorages. Some 19 ships and 350 crew are being held at the moment.
Marque Star's Mr Stenstrom said the ships would have strict rules of engagement would only fire in self-defence and would expect most pirates to flee without a fight.
The ships - registered with one of two regional African countries that have agreed to the idea in principle - would share intelligence with international navies and would never fire on a sovereign warship even if fired upon, Mr Stenstrom said.
"We are not John Wayne," he said."We take this seriously."
Almost everyone agrees the only long-term solution lies in stabilising shoreside Somalia, but few see that any time soon.
Most believe the international naval presence, once seen temporary, will become semi-permanent.
Once a ship has been taken, owners say they will ultimately have little choice but to pay the ransom.
"Then it becomes a cyclical repeatable problem," said Peter Hinchcliffe, secretary-general of the International Shipping Federation.
Another protection strategy increasingly used by merchant ships is the use of a "panic room" or "citadel" into which the crew can retreat if the ship is taken over, allowing military forces to storm the ship without risk to the crew. Several ships have been recaptured after crews used them.
Earlier this month, pirates abandoned a Greek-operated ship shortly after seizing it after the crew locked themselves in the engine room. Some say the pirates may have feared an assault.
Experts say the rooms can be effective - but must be bullet-proof, contain food stocks, communications equipment and have a system to stop the ship.
Pirates have generally not fought back when a seized ship has been boarded.