There is a new focus on technological solutions for ship self-defense against pirate attacks. Although some systems have been around a bit longer, the surge in new products is attributable largely to the dramatic increase in attacks on ships by Somali pirates over the last few years, the expanding areas of their attacks, and the worldwide attention these attacks have garnered. Suppliers have rushed to adapt existing products and develop new ones for the counter-piracy mission. In some cases, however, little consideration has been given to the economics of the shipping industry or to real-world testing of products’ efficacy
Before investing in new technology, ship operators should first ensure that they have fully implemented the latest industry-sponsored Best Management Practices to Deter Piracy (BMP), which include many practical and relatively inexpensive recommendations that have contributed to foiling pirates from Somalia in the past. Indeed, the naval forces attempting to suppress piracy in the region have reported that most of the vessels these pirates have successfully hijacked have been ships that had failed to put the BMP into effect. Beyond the recommendations of the BMP, operators of US-flag ships in high-risk waters must comply with the requirements mandated by the USCG’s Maritime Security Directive 104-06 (Revision 3). Following both documents results in a significant “hardening of the target” from the view point of the pirates.
Given the reservations many shipping industry groups and others have about employing fire arms aboard commercial vessels, the focus of this article is on non-lethal means to deter and defeat piratical attacks. Systems to counter pirates have been developed for all phases of the attack cycle: some focus on pushing the detection range farther out, others on deterring pirates outside the range of their weapons; some seek to impede pirate skiffs from coming alongside a target vessel, others to prevent pirates from boarding the ship.
Expanding the detection range is one of the most important contributions technology can make in the fight against piracy. The more warning of an impending attack a ship has, the more time there is to implement defensive measures that can cause the pirates to break off and search for a softer target or that can prevent the pirates from boarding long enough for help from naval forces to arrive (if any are close enough). Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras with zoom lenses have been available for some time. More recently some manufacturers have paired them with infrared sensors that can aid in detection during periods of low visibility. At the high end, British defense contractor BAE has announced a sophisticated system combining a special radar able to pick up small boats at up to 15 miles, a 360-degree video camera and display system with motion detection, threat level alarms, plans to incorporate infrared, and improved lighting to detect nearby boats at night and to act as a deterrent. Controls for water canon, acoustic devices, and laser systems can be incorporated into a two-person control station. The necessary structural modifications, additional manning requirements, and a probable initial cost of several hundred thousand dollars make this system of questionable utility to the shipping industry. Less costly are a variety of thermal imaging systems with varying ranges, some paired with daylight cameras. Although known for nighttime applications, thermal imaging can be useful in picking objects of interest out of the background in daytime as well. FLIR now offers the First Mate line of hand-held thermal imaging cameras, starting at around $3,000. The trade off is reduced range—2½ miles, or less depending on model.
Standoff “weapons” designed to keep pirates from approaching a ship include equipment employing sound or light. Acoustic devices, such as LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) and MAD (Magnetic Audio Device), provide the capability to issue warnings out to almost two miles. The warnings provide an indication to the pirates that the their target is aware of, and has prepared for, them. Warnings that are ignored help clarify the intent of approaching small craft. At closer ranges, the sound output from these devices can be disorienting and even quite painful. Laser devices, such as SeaLase, are painful to look at ranges out to about 1,000 yards and the pulse pattern can induce nausea. Beyond that range, glare obscures view of the pirates’ target. At closer ranges, effects may include temporary blindness. The ShipRay BBL-3 combines visible and infrared illuminators, for detection, with an Optical Incapacitator that uses an intense beam of incoherent light to disorient and incapacitate without the permanent harm that a laser could cause at close range. There are also hand-held visual disruptors available, but they require someone on deck to operate them, with the risk of exposure to live fire. This is also a drawback of the most affordable (about $20,000) acoustic devices, which lack remote controls. Additionally, as Somali pirates usually use at least two skiffs to attack, and lately have occasionally used larger “swarms,” more than one acoustic or visual device would be necessary for an adequate defense. Technologies designed to prevent pirates from getting close enough to target vessel to board include equipment designed to create a barrier with water and systems using lines intended to foul pirate skiff propellers. Water barrier systems seek to improve on the standard practice of operating fire hoses continuously while in pirate country in order to make it more difficult for the skiffs to approach and for the pirates to climb aboard. As manual operation is not recommended, because it puts the operators in harm’s way, the hoses are generally tied down, which may leave coverage gaps for the pirates to exploit. Some water barrier systems create a curtain of water for complete coverage, but, in the process, dissipate the initial water pressure produced by the fire pumps. In contrast, the Nemesis 5000 units use rotating marine tank cleaning jets to produce a moving set of overlapping high-pressure water streams off the vessel’s sides. The units, which attach easily to rail or gunwale, do not require anyone on deck after they are tied into the ship’s fire system. The author attended a demonstration of this system last summer and came away impressed with the difficulties a pirate would face attempting to climb up a moving vessel through the shifting high pressure streams. The system is designed to accommodate the addition of irritants and creates an even more unpleasant environment when connected to a tank cleaning heater. Each unit costs about $4,000, so completely outfitting a low-freeboard vessel would run $40,000-$80,000 depending on length.1
As an example of propeller fouling systems, P-Trap by Westmark BV employs booms rigged out from both sides of the ship to trail numerous floating lines. Once deployed, the system operates 24/7 without further intervention or requiring anyone on outside decks in pirate-infested waters. Should a line snag a pirate’s propeller, it will break off before the skiff is towed any distance. The lost line can be quickly replaced. There is also at least one propeller fouling system that uses a compressed air canon to fire a floating line in front of an approaching pirate skiff, but it requires an operator cool enough to aim carefully under the stress of the pirates’ approach, including incoming rounds. The same disadvantage accrues to hand-held systems designed to launch non-lethal projectiles at pirates to stun them. Such systems are best left to professional security teams.
Whatever type of technology a vessel operator investigates to aid in the fight against piracy, it should not be considered in isolation. Rather, the question should be what and how does the system contribute to a layered defense that starts with a trained and well-drilled crew implementing appropriate Best Management Practices.
About the Author
John C.W. Bennett , is CEO of Maritime Protective Services, Inc., a leading authority in MTSA and ISPS Code training, with offices in both the US and the UK. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
* In the interest of full disclosure, Maritime Protective Services (UK) Ltd., the British affiliate of the author’s company, supplies anti-piracy training and security teams to those Nemesis 5000 customers desiring these services. The author does not benefit from these arrangements.
* as published in the October 2010 edition of Maritime Reporter & Engineering News