Maritime security professionals looking for success stories in the fight against Somali piracy can look to September’s capture of the German container ship M/V Magellan Star in the Gulf of Aden. When pirates boarded the ship, crewmembers simply disabled the ship’s engines and retreated to lock themselves in a secure “citadel” within the vessel. The 11-member crew was in luck: the USS Dubuque sailed closeby and responded to the distress call; on board was a U.S. Marine Corps maritime raid team. At dawn the next day, 24 marines stormed the ship and secured the pirates’ surrender without firing a shot.
Secure cabins are one example of the latest tactics being used to fend off pirates, though in the vastness of the ocean, crews cannot count on speedy rescue.
Generally, the objective is to mitigate risk by avoiding, deterring, and delaying pirate threats. For ships to defend themselves requires a robust risk management program, including intelligence acquisition, detailed vessel threat and vulnerability assessments, voyage security planning, and plan development.
As of mid-October, roughly 20 ships and 420 crews were being held captive by pirates in the Gulf of Aden region. As for the risk to any one ship, that varies depending on route, cargo, etc. In addition to the risk factor of cargo value, high-risk vessels are generally heavily laden, sailing slow—typically less than 13 knots—and low in the water, maneuvering slowly and with great difficulty, and cannot accelerate or change course rapidly in order to escape a pirate attack. The amount of freeboard, or the distance from the waterline to the main deck, is minimal and therefore provides easy access by scaling the vessel’s sides with the use of grappling hooks or other climbing apparatus.
The way pirates attack and where also affects risk and that has evolved over time. In the initial stages of the current Somali piracy epidemic, vessels would navigate no closer than five hundred miles from coastal Africa. Then pirates, through the use of large mother ships, moved further out to sea in the Indian Ocean to the extent that no vessel was considered safe within 1,000 miles of shore. Regardless of that expanded range, passage between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula shrinks to 20 miles at the Bab el Mandeb Waterway between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
Limited Avoidance Options
Avoiding the threat altogether means rerouting vessels around the Cape of Good Hope, with significant fuel expenses and lost time jeopardizing the profitability of a voyage. Vessel costs per day can vary greatly, but international maritime authorities place the cost of the 2,700 mile detour at about six days, while operating costs excess of $40,000 per day are not uncommon, which serve to emphasize the dramatic financial impact of rerouting vessels to avert pirate attacks in high-risk areas if that option even exists.
For shippers that tolerate the risks off the Horn of Africa, naval authorities established a narrow anti-piracy shipping lane along the southern coast of Yemen, patrolled by international naval forces. The coalition fleet has acted as an on-scene rescue units for vessels under attack that were able to communicate their distress successfully, as in the case of the Magellan Star. It is effectively impossible, however, for naval forces to interdict sudden pirate attacks in progress. Therefore, it is up to shippers to deter and delay them.