Modern day piracy, it seems, is rather like plugging a badly leaking pipe with one finger — just when you think you might have stemmed the flow from one area, another jet of water shoots out to hit you in the face. The recent approval by The United Nations Security Council for the use of foreign naval ships to protect vessels off the pirate ridden coastline of Somalia has immediately resulted in Somali opposition leaders coming out against the six month UN Security Council authorization, stating that the UN's intentions are to 'usurp their coast and loot marine resources.'
Even if some long-term solution is reached on this front, a more sinister and sustained outbreak of piracy (and militancy) has once again arisen in Nigeria. Increased threats to the oil industry (including on ship and offshore rig personnel) from well organized and armed militant groups in the Niger Delta have become more and more prevalent, and at the time of writing Nigerian militants have launched two attacks in as many days on navy ships patrolling the country's oil-producing region. The resulting reduction in oil production comes at a turbulent time for the oil market, and highlights further how much of a ripple effect attacks like these can have on the wider world.
Other high-risk areas that see spikes in pirate activity at various times during the year include the waters off Bangladesh, the Gulf of Aden/Red Sea, Tanzania and Peru. Sri Lanka and the Yemen have also previously been added to the Lloyds 'war risk' list and the latest RAND organization study shows the number of piracy incidents worldwide increased 68 percent from 2000 to 2006, compared to the previous six year period.
The report's author and senior analyst at RAND, Peter Chalk says that we can expect more from the pirates. "The maritime environment will likely remain a favorable theater for armed violence, crime and terrorism given its expanse, lack of regulation and general importance as a critical conduit for international trade."
The potential risk to all shipping, and the continuing need for guidance, advice and support for Masters and crew on how best to prepare and deal with such situations should they arise have never been greater. However, confusion still reigns, with mixed messages emerging from those specific regional governments and organizations who advocate armed response on the one hand, and others in the sector who see the danger of a potential arms escalation as a risky option.
The solutions offered by RAND are to place more emphasis on crafting policies to combat more common and probable attacks rather than the additional terrorist threat. While 'lower level' attacks should be a major consideration in this regard, it should not be forgotten that piracy and militancy are interlinked, and escalation to terrorism maybe only a short step away.
RAND also shines a warning light on potential for strikes on cruise ships or passenger ferries. While they generally have better security in place to begin with when compared with other commercial shipping, both are attractive targets for pirates and terrorists alike for different reasons. The taking of a cruise liner would be lucrative for pirates and a major headline grabber for a terrorist cell.
In light of all of the above, it is remarkable how little has been done internationally to combat such attacks, despite the obvious costs in terms of human life and potential economic instability — the issue of oil production being just one example of this.
There are a number of 'lower level' measures that can, and should be addressed by vessel owners and port authorities alike in preparation for possible piracy incidents, and issuing guns is not necessarily the only consideration when examining deterrence and counter measures.
Interestingly, the RAND report rightly concludes that expanding maritime security and conducting assessments on a more regular basis are the way forward. The commercial maritime sector is also encouraged to engage the use of defensive technologies and other communication tools as a further measure.
Modern day piracy is far more organized and violent than ever before, and the perpetrators have access to far better equipment. Attacks cost the maritime industry millions of dollars and so any investment to prevent and counter it should be considered.
Essentially, what we are looking for here is 'best practice'. Experienced maritime security companies have a pivotal role to play in providing the backbone to legislative compliance, and appropriate experience, transparency, and high standards of training are definitely part of the answer in the prevention of, and response to, attacks on vessels.
But what exactly is the right level of protection? The 'route one' plan, for some, is to meet force with force — by having specialist, armed security or arming the crew. But should ships, rigs and port facilities have specialist armed guard teams aboard, or issue firearms to ordinary crew members? Arming crew is not necessarily the answer.
The risks of providing weapon training to ships crew are considerable. It may appear an obvious point, but allowing anyone to take up arms without instruction (or providing incorrect instruction) will at best render the whole exercise ineffective when it comes to the moment of truth, and in the worst case scenario, result in a fatality. Firing over the bow of a ship is one thing, but once on board, drawing and effectively using weapons inside the close confines of a vessel is the last thing anyone wants to see, and only those skilled in this kind of conflict should ever be called upon in such tense situations.
Training in the use of firearms is a lengthy and serious business. All of our armed Security Officers undergo weapons specific training, handling, maintenance and Rules of Engagement at one of our training facilities, and specific refresher training is conducted (where possible) on board vessels.
While it would be inappropriate here to reveal the actual rules of engagement when using weapons, there are strict rules that apply. These may be written in support of a Ship's Security Plan, agreed with the client (and ship's master), and any armed Security Officers must be well rehearsed in all aspects of these regulations.
Furthermore, although we have qualified instructors on vessels we generally do not provide security training to the crew as it can lead to numerous issues particularly with client's insurers and P&I clubs who are very reluctant to extend cover to crew. We have to carry substantial additional insurance cover ourselves for the deployment and use of firearms.
The issues of deploying arms on board do not stop with insurance. There are strict rules to adhere to for the Master, who retains ultimate sovereignty over weapons on a vessel. Also, it must be remembered that some ports around the world do not permit vessels to berth with weapons on board - even if locked away in bonded store, and there are serious legal implications for those not obeying these regulations.
The International Maritime Organization actually discourages the use of weapons and the attack on the cruise ship Seabourn Spirit demonstrated that aggressors can be dealt with through sound security procedures and countermeasures rather than weapons. The delivery of a carefully crafted and tested security routine proved to be a highly effective deterrent to this particular armed assault. This is where the experienced, reputable maritime security provider can help, by offering security assessments, with practical solutions and responsible advice. During this process risk analysis will always consider all options, and often identify 'non lethal' methods of deterrence and response.
Effective lighting is a must but is frequently overlooked. Constant watches and, even physical barriers erected on low free board vessels are all methods that are easy to put into operation. A visible deterrent such as regular deck security patrols day and night also helps.
Non-lethal acoustic devices, such as LRAD, are frequently effectively employed on vessels, and better use of radar, video cameras, thermal imaging technology and electrical fencing should be first considerations before firearms.
That said, there is a misconception that these methods do not require training. Such devices are only as good as their operators and it is vital to properly train operatives and establish good operating practices and procedures for their use.
The issue of piracy is clearly not going away. Tackling the problem is more a balance of time over resources (and finance). Except for those areas that have been touched on by RAND, there seems to be no clear guidance on how the security void between overstretched naval resources and overworked commercial shipping crews should be filled. In order to put into operation all of the methods mentioned above it is clear that outside help is required and a responsible, maritime security service provider should be able to assist without over specifying security requirements.
If governments want to be seen to be taking effective steps against piracy they could do no harm by sanctioning a global standard of performance and vetting procedure for all security companies, and put forward funds to help shipping companies and facilities with the financial burden of achieving maritime security. After all, it will be the consumer who has to foot the bill when the costs of additional security eventually trickle down to the high street. It will be the vessel's crew who could pay with their lives if help is not provided.
(Reprinted from the August 2008 edition of Maritime Reporter & Engineering News)