Countering Piracy: More than just Countering Pirates

By Michael S. Brewer, N. Scott Brewer, Lawrence E. O’Connell (taken from Maritime Professional, 3Q 2012)
Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The mechanics of the piracy problem are no mystery to readers of Maritime Professional.  Piracy’s scope, purpose, and resilience have been thoroughly detailed in just about every article on the subject for the past two years. The question that remains: what is the best way to deal with piracy? Many of the steps currently taken to counter the piracy problem are really just reactive in nature – steps taken to counter pirates as they approach a target vessel, and not before.

From the most basic ad hoc measures, such as barbed wire and fire hoses, to the most capable and well-trained security teams available, shippers are still responding to the piracy threat only when that threat is imminent. This puts shippers in a perpetually defensive posture, one step behind the adaptations and advancements pirates will continue to make, and disregards the advantages inherent in a proper risk mitigation strategy. Getting the initiative back may be the difference between finding a long-term solution to the problem and spending hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars in a perpetual game of catch-up in which all of the advantages lie on the pirates’ side of the equation.


PACE: 4 levels deep

Under conditions of asymmetric warfare (not unlike piracy), U.S. Special Operations Forces are trained to plan their operations at least four levels deep. They use an acronym, “PACE”, to remember that a good plan will always account for the Primary, Alternate, Contingency, and Emergency options, and those options regress from the best case to the worst, in order of precedence. The Primary course of action is what you want to happen if operating in a perfect world. The Alternate is what happens when Murphy’s Law exerts itself, and the things that can go wrong indeed begin to go wrong. The Contingency plan is what happens when things really start to fall apart or get out of control, and the Emergency plan is exactly what it sounds like: what to do when the mission itself is no longer the priority. 

Shippers can use a variation of the same concept in preparing and implementing a piracy risk mitigation plan. This time, however, PACE stands for the actual steps in the plan instead of for its phases: Prevention, Avoidance, Control, and Escape.  By adopting the PACE Methodology for counter-piracy planning, shippers are no longer in a reactive position.  Initiative swings back in their favor, and it’s the pirates who are forced to adapt at a cost of their own time, expense, and safety.

Prevention: Piracy attacks that never happen cost shippers nothing; no lives are placed at risk, no ransoms are paid, no crews or cargos are lost. Prevention, then, is the most preferable method of dealing with the piracy threat. Shippers currently take some preventive steps, such as following Best Management Practices and planning routes that do not run afoul of the highest-risk areas. But prevention is more than typical route planning or cruising at the right speeds. Shippers don’t have infinite routes available to them, and sometimes cargo and timetables require that they transit high risk areas. When they do, they should have the services of specialized analysis and reporting on the types of threats they can expect to encounter. Armed with detailed knowledge of the pirate methodology and operating tempo, analysts can distill the threat environment, then advise shippers and insurers in a standard risk-based decision process.

Avoidance: While preventing an attack is by far the best option in mitigating the pirate threat, avoidance, comes in a close second. For our purposes, avoidance is defined as “becoming aware that a threat exists and reacting in such a way as to eliminate the potential for that threat to affect you.” It means staying a step ahead, and it requires professionals who are well-trained in the discipline of threat warning analysis. In the same way a threat warning analyst can help prevent an attack by assisting in the route planning process, analysts imbedded with security teams or even the ship’s crew can maintain close contact with militaries, government organizations, and even private cadres of analysts on shore and at sea. Applying their specific knowledge and expertise, they can then provide on-the-spot assessments to help ship’s captains avoid emerging trouble spots. To be truly effective, however, the analysis must be proactive. Avoidance of potential threats entails more than keeping an eye on the map for the latest attacks or listening to the radio calls reporting pirate activity; it requires knowledge of the unique environmental conditions within which piracy functions, and recognition of their development, in the same way a meteorologist looks for patterns in the weather to predict dangerous storms.  

Control:  This is the phase at which the best laid plans fall short and a threat appears.  Controlling an attack means combining passive and active measures that work effectively in concert to foil an attacker’s means of presenting a threat. For example, use of evasive tactics and emerging barrier-interdiction technologies reinforce embarked security teams. This integration of defensive measures creates an economy of force that again shifts the initiative to shippers. Under this model, pirates are no longer dealing with a known problem – fire from security teams – or even one problem. Now, they have to worry about the effects of defense-in-depth, the most serious of which is being funneled into a “chokepoint”, where security teams can pick them off. Having complementary defenses means shippers can sail with far less risk to the vessel, the cargo, and ultimately the crew.

Escape: The ultimate objective in a critical-threat situation is to escape.  In an ambush (which is actually what a pirate attack is), this is often referred to as “getting off the X.” It is the ability to put as much distance between you and a threat as possible, as soon as possible. Done effectively, all the other previous measures support this goal. Strong situational awareness can help make sure that an escape path won’t run the ship through yet another high-threat area, and a defensive capability that not only deters the attackers but physically disables their skiffs can maximize the time shippers have to put distance between themselves and the threat. All truly effective counter-piracy solutions require the maximum possible degree of situational awareness, strong and diverse defensive options, and a cohesive unity of effort between all the moving parts. The PACE method can be an effective way to make sure all these aspects are addressed.  As a result, they can help keep the initiative where it belongs – with shippers instead of pirates.


(This article taken from Maritime Professional's print edition, 3Q 2012)

Lawrence O’Connell is Executive Vice President of International Maritime Security Corporation (IMSC). Scott and Michael Brewer are Principals and Co-Founders of IMSC, a Washington D.C.-based firm specializing in maritime consulting and risk mitigation.


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