By Bernd Debusmann

The views expressed are his own.

Better late than never. After years of debate, there is growing consensus among governments, major shipping companies and maritime organizations that armed private security guards are a potent deterrent to high-seas pirates. That view is certain to crimp a criminal business already showing signs of decline.

Numbers tell part of the story: In the first nine months of the year, Somali pirates attacked 199 ships, a hefty increase over 126 attacks in the corresponding period in 2010. But the number of ships they hijacked dropped from 35 in 2010 to 24 this year. Expressed differently, their success rate declined from 28 percent to 12 percent. Not a single vessel carrying armed guards was taken.

Which is why the United States and Britain changed policies on hired guns a few days apart in October. In the United States, the change was so quiet it almost escaped notice. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron said in a television interview his government was reversing opposition to armed guards on British-flagged vessels because “the fact that a bunch of pirates in Somalia are managing to hold to ransom the rest of the world … is a complete insult.”

That’s also a tacit admission that the naval flotillas on counter-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean for the past few years face a problem without solution — too much water, too few warships. The pirates have launched attacks up to 1,000 miles from the Somali coast.

As Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, put it to an advisory panel on November 9, “with so much water to patrol, it is difficult for international naval forces in the region to protect every commercial vessel.” Therefore, he explained, the United States had established a national policy encouraging countries to allow commercial ships to have armed security teams on board.