Mitigating the risks of maritime piracy requires thorough risk assessment, including intelligence acquisition, vulnerability assessments, and voyage security planning. (Online Exclusive)
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.
Dealing with the Threat
Given that avoidance is difficult, ships must find ways to employ the “deter and delay” elements of counter-piracy strategy. These rely heavily on exploiting elements of the ship itself, and establishing procedures to follow should the vessel fall under pirate attack.
In the early phases and well into the current stages of the piracy epidemic, reports suggest that only about 25 percent of vessels transiting pirate infested waters are adequately prepared to follow maritime industry best practices as established by the leading global maritime authorities such as the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). Piracy experts have worked diligently to make counter-piracy best practices available to vessel operating companies and mariners alike. Recent accounts of vessels and crews successfully surviving piracy attacks indicate that there is a move toward improved planning and training.
Best practices include having a secure area to which the crew can retreat, as was the case with the Magellan Star, and adequate training so that their use is understood by all members of the crew. The designated safe areas must be provisioned with adequate food and water, have effective communications and navigation capabilities and proper sanitation at the very least. Properly secured after-steering spaces lend themselves to this approach to crew survival and protection and there may be other suitable below-deck engineering areas depending on vessel design.
As part of the voyage-planning process, vessels sailing in high threat areas should regularly report their position to local and designated international naval authorities such as the Royal Navy’s Maritime Trade Organisation, and vessels must ensure receipt of up-to-date intelligence with regard to pirate activity as furnished by the IMB and other entities.
Another risk mitigation measure is convoying, although the practice can cost shippers time and money in today’s just-in-time marketplace. Use of extra lookouts, evasive maneuvering and piracy resistance equipment, from water cannons to concertina wire strung along a ship’s deck railing may offer heightened security against pirate attacks as well.
Training and Drills
In some cases, having qualified security personnel on board may make sense, but programs can only be effective when the entire crew is properly trained and drilled on procedures. Mariners who sail on high-risk vessels in coastal and restricted ocean areas which may harbor pirates should be required to undergo specialized security training in several key areas.
Crew training should focus on fast occupation of the citadel or established safe areas in the event of an attack, and they must ensure that proper habitability and communications systems are there for the crew. Vessel disablement or special navigation techniques are situation-specific and may be incorporated into different training scenarios. The crew should also be taught successful hostage survival techniques and given guidelines for behavior while captive.
Piracy attack and recovery drills should be scheduled and conducted prior to entering high-risk areas; these drills should focus on evasive action, repelling pirates, and the orderly occupation of the prepared safe areas followed by the disabling of the vessel or navigation toward naval forces with related communications as circumstances permit. The use of duress codes and other communications may also be included in planning and training as part of the response and recovery phase once.
Crews should also be well versed on the procedures that will take place at the ship owner/operator’s headquarters if the crew is taken hostage. There should be a clear process by which their loved ones will be informed of their situation and a procedure for the ship’s owner or operator to respond to the issue.
Hostage crew members must be trained to remain as calm as possible and work through any difficulties under the guidance of the shipmaster, or senior crewmember on hand in a well-coordinated process with an overriding sense of teamwork. They should avoid personal interaction with their captors as much as possible, but they should be trained to be cooperative and to avoid aggressive action or trying to escape as that will endanger their shipmates’ safety.
Hostage scenarios are usually situationally specific, however, and the behavior of the maritime protection agents may vary from that of the crew members accordingly.
To Pay or Not to Pay?
Ransoming of vessels, heretofore accepted as a standard practice on the part of the traditional maritime establishment, has only provided incentive for the dramatic growth of the current Somali piracy epidemic, while various segments of the global maritime industry legal and insurance communities have also profited.
In April the Obama administration added a number of Somalis to a Treasury Department list of persons with ties to terror or violence, some of them with suspected ties to piracy. The designation forbids Americans and U.S organizations from financial activity with them, essentially forbidding ransom payments for pirated vessels and crews. It is an attempt to end appeasement and to prevent ransom funds from falling into the hands of terrorists and is well intentioned and a step.
No ban on ransom payments, however, can guarantee that ships and their crews won’t fall into pirates’ hands, and the complete absence of a ransom motive can place crews’ lives in the gravest of danger. That prospect only lends greater urgency to sound risk management and shipboard security measures.
Crews of high-risk vessels cannot always repel the pirates by themselves. Licensed mariners in general are not trained and ready to successfully fight off pirate attacks using deadly force and should not be involved in that highly dangerous process.
Employment of properly screened, trained, and certified maritime protection agents (MPAs) is a successfully demonstrated countermeasure, advisable until permanent nation-building solutions can be put in place to eliminate the shore-side support infrastructure used by the pirates.
Risk-averse shippers with adequate means have hired armed security contractors to be on board, among them former naval commandos like ex-U.S. Navy SEALs. Outside former military personnel with clear, specialized qualifications, at present the maritime sector lacks legitimate frameworks for specialized training and certification of shipboard security personnel. That’s expected to change next year when the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy’s Global Maritime and Transportation School (GMATS) plans to launch a multi-week course covering the range of issues unique for MPAs, including intelligence collection, assessments, firearm qualifications, tactical operations, use of force issues, criminal and civil liability, first aid, and abandon-ship procedures.
If MPAs are used, in addition to the rigorous selection, training, and qualification process, vessel crew and security team integration training will be required so that a coordinated and balanced security program exists prior to the employment of any deadly force in repelling and defeating the pirate attacks.
Separate, integrated training for both crew and MPAs should occur before high-risk voyages for maximum readiness. It should involve additional worst-case scenario training based on current hostage survival and escape techniques, hostile environment captor interaction behavior and basic firefighting, first aid, abandon-ship, and water-survival procedures, most of which are covered by the standards of training and watchkeeping required for international mariner licensing.
Twice daily meetings between the vessel Master and security team leader are required at a minimum, and security team members should participate in the regularly scheduled security training and drills which are part of the vessel security plan.
Rules of engagement. The rules of engagement in piracy attacks require clear identification and warning by the vessel being attacked that it has deadly force capability. The attacking pirates’ hostile intent must be clearly identified using visual recording equipment, and they must be warned off repeatedly with all communications means available including radio and loud hailers. If warnings are ignored, weapons fire should be directed near, but not directly at, the attacking vessel in an attempt to turn back or ward off the attack. If the attacking vessel does not turn away, a vessel-disabling barrage may be next mounted in order to avoid loss of human life. If this attempt fails to turn the attacking pirates away and they continue to close in and maintain the attack, use of deadly force is necessary.
The trade of maritime piracy is believed to be as old as that of legitimate seamanship, and is not expected to abate at any time in the future. Complacency and high-risk tolerances have cost shippers millions and put thousands of mariners in harm’s way. Yet shippers that build a strong foundation of risk management, observe best practices, and seek expert help will have the best chance of leaving that threat in their wake.
John Tomoney is principal of Maritime Security Solutions.