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Combating the Pirate Threat: A Rising Risk on the High Seas

Last year, 430 ships were attacked by pirates throughout the globe. The bulk of these occurred in the Gulf of Aden, the strategically and commercially vital waterway off the coast of Somalia that links the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. It is used by more than 30,000 ships annually.

As these numbers illustrate, the chance of any individual ship being attacked is small. But these vessels that were successfully attacked have been held for ransom, costing millions in payments and often much more in lost revenue. Worse still, most of these incidents could have been prevented.

A group of maritime organizations have jointly published "best management practices" (BMPs) for ship owners, operators and crews. Each company and each vessel must have a security officer who is charged with implementing BMP. The stated vulnerabilities exploited by the pirates include low speed, low freeboard (the height of the deck above the water), inadequate planning and procedures, poor visibility, low state of alert, lack of self-protective measures and slow response. 

"Some underwriters are making following BMP a requirement under their business, so it makes a difference" said Captain Pottengal Mukundan, who heads up the London-based International Chamber of Commerce's International Maritime Bureau (IMB). "Many owners are doing much more than what the BMP requires."

The waters off Somalia can be crowded with fishermen, however-something that makes following protocols complicated. Pirates operate with the same type of skiffs as these fishermen, and weapons are not a tip-off to malicious intent since most Somalis are armed anyway. The only telltale sign is often the presence of a ladder that they use to board a larger vessel. If a skiff suddenly increases speed and approaches a ship, warnings can be transmitted using flares to alert potential pirates that the crew is aware of their presence. But it is vital to determine hostile intent before escalating force, such as deploying armed security guards.

The Global Patriot, a U.S. Military Sealift Command chartered cargo ship that had armed security aboard, was approached by small boats as it entered the Suez Canal in March 2008. The ship used its radio and other means to warn the boats to stay clear. One boat continued to approach and shots were fired. One of the men in the boat, which was trying to sell the mariners cigarettes and other sundries, was killed. Such a case underscores the gravity of misreading the intent of an approaching vessel.

Another important aspect of the BMP concerns hardening a vessel from attack to fortify its defenses. This can include adding razor wire around the decks, installing high-resolution radar to track nearby targets, mounting security cameras and using night vision capability to monitor activity after sunset. 

"Vessel hardening is a science," said John Burnett, head of maritime security for Maritime & Underwater Security Consultants in London, and author of Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas.

And this science is only becoming more advanced. One more recent innovation is the long-range acoustic device (LRAD). These devices, developed for maritime use and often effective for crowd control, emit high-decibel noise as a deterrent to advancing ships.

"LRAD enables crews to demonstrate their preparedness and cause attackers to abort and seek out less prepared vessels," said Scott Stuckey of LRAD Corporation. "[It] is not a weapon, but a means of communicating. Using LRAD lets pirates know you are aware of them and determines intent before deciding to escalate force protection measures."

Mike Rawlins of maritime security training and consulting firm M-P.A.C.T., based in the Port of Palm Beach, Florida, agrees and believes that ship owners must continue to expand their arsenal of hardening techniques. "There is a nonlethal industry now, with the latest long-range acoustic devices, water cannons and infrared technology," said Rawlins. "A phalanx of vessel escort services see new business opportunities, especially as work has dried up in the Middle East."

But according to Rawlins, the insurance industry is sending mixed signals to those who try to mitigate risk through such means. "On the one hand, [insurers have] indicated a possible willingness to consider cutting premium breaks for hardening vessels but then threatened to raise rates if said hardening encourages the bad guys to try harder and raise the risk of damage," said Rawlins.

Regardless of the debate over the level of hardening that ships should undergo, the numbers suggest that the BMP works. Out of 31 successful attacks in 2009, only one of those ships was following BMP, said Burnett. Ships were boarded in 78 cases and 31 vessels were hijacked, with 561 crew members taken hostage, 19 injured and six killed, according to the IMB's quarterly report. The attackers were heavily armed with guns or knives in most of the cases.

According to one former officer, however, even these numbers are exaggerated. Writing in the December 2008 edition of the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, retired naval officer and Army War College professor, Commander. John Patch, USN (Ret.) expressed that the IMB is biased in its reporting. 

"Just as well-intentioned humanitarian aid groups occasionally exaggerate the scope or intensity of a crisis for effect-to draw more international attention and resources-so, too, is the IMB vulnerable to bias," wrote Patch. "Further, the bureau is almost exclusively funded by maritime shipping companies and insurers, with vested interests in keeping piracy in the headlines. Profit-oriented businesses loathe implementing costly preventive measures, naturally preferring that international organizations, national law enforcement agencies and armed forces take care of the problem instead."

IMB head Mukundun rejects the notion. "It is in our view baseless to claim that the industry has a vested interest in keeping piracy in the headlines," he said. "From the industry's perspective, it is undoubtedly better for piracy not to be in the headlines."

At least in part due to this, Mukundun believes that the industry cannot rely solely on itself for protection. It needs military help. "This is the responsibility, just as it is in a neighborhood ashore, of governments and law enforcement bodies who are mandated by law to carry weapons and use them to arrest and prosecute the criminals," said Mukundun. "Anything less is an abdication of responsibility by governments. It is also important to remember that merchant seafarers do not sign on to work on ships in order to face violent criminals, automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades." 

This is the major issue facing the area today. With about 90% of all global trade traveling by sea, the closure of a choke point such as the entrance to the Red Sea or the Straits of Hormuz can cause significant delays and have a major impact on the world economy. In response, nations have been sending naval ships to the region in increasing numbers.

The unprecedented flotilla of warships includes likely partnerships, such as NATO and the EU, as well as strange bedfellows like China and Iran. Some ships are participating in coalition efforts. The European Union, for instance, has established Operation Atalanta to protect humanitarian shipments bound for Somalia from being intercepted by pirates. The United States has spearheaded the establishment of the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) and Commander Task Force (CTF) 151 to protect shipping in the Gulf of Aden and Somali Basin. Although the number of piracy attempts increased in 2009, the number of successful attacks was reduced by 40% from 2008, according to Lieutenant Commander Corey Barker, a U.S. Navy spokesman in Bahrain.

These task forces are truly multi-national. CTF 151 is currently commanded by a South Korea Navy admiral, who took over for a Singapore Navy admiral in April. And in addition to U.S. forces, it has ships from Bahrain, Canada, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Turkey. The EU task force is currently led by a Swedish admiral, who recently took over from an Italian officer. In addition to ships from Sweden and the Netherlands, the EU team even has personnel from smaller countries such as Malta and Montenegro.  

Despite the international naval presence, more pirates than ever are taking their ladders and guns to sea, where most still operate with impunity. "Two years ago there were 500 to 800 pirates operating from Somalia," said Burnett. "Last year there were 1,500 to 2,000. Young Somali men can't wait to sign up. It's a lot more lucrative than hauling in empty fishing nets."

Unfortunately, the waters remain just as dangerous as ever-if not more so. "Naval assets make a difference, but they can't be everywhere," said Burnett. And while there is a significant naval presence today, he wonders how long they will stay. "They're not going to hang around forever," he said.

Given this, ship owners still have to accept some responsibility for self-protection. Navy Admiral Mark P. Fitzgerald, commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe and Africa and of NATO's Allied Joint Task Force Command Naples, said that it is "incumbent upon the vessels [that] are sailing the high seas to either protect themselves or accept the dangers. We could put a World War II fleet of ships out there, and we still wouldn't be able to cover the whole ocean."

As for insurance, rates have risen slightly, but the industry has been circumspect in its approach, careful not to be perceived as trying to take advantage of the situation, according to Captain Gordan Van Hook, USN (Ret.), senior director, innovation and concept development at Maersk Line Limited, the U.S. flag subsidiary of A.P. Moeller Maersk. 

"Large companies participating in the collective power of P&I clubs [groups of stakeholders who establish mutual protection and indemnity funds to insure ships and cargos] still exert considerable influence on controlling rates and can opt out of coverage if costs become prohibitive," said Van Hook. "Most insurance companies encourage risk mitigation strategies that employ the maritime industry's best management practices."

When attacked by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden in April 2009, the Maersk Alabama did not have armed security aboard. Four pirates boarded the ship. The crew was able to lock themselves below deck and remain in control of the vessel, but the pirates, apparently frustrated by their inability to control the situation, left in a lifeboat, taking the ship's captain as a hostage. Navy Seals had to be called in and although it took a firefight in which snipers took out three pirates, they were able to rescue Captain Richard Phillips. Between the rescue and the cargo eventually reaching its destination-with help from a military escort-the incident turned out better than some other pirate attacks. But it was a harrowing couple of days for the captain, the crew and the company.

Coincidentally, the same ship was again attacked by a different group of pirates just eight months later in November 2009. But this time the Maersk Alabama was carrying armed guards. And this time, when the Somalis fired upon the boat from their skiff with automatic weapons, the guards fired back-both with small arms and a long-range acoustic deterrent. The pirates soon fled.

This goes to show that while there are no guaranteed pirate attack prevention methods, there are protocols that can help. Navy Vice Admiral William E. Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and U.S. 5th Fleet, expressed similar sentiments to the press following the failed attack. "Due to Maersk Alabama following maritime industry's best practices, such as embarking security teams, the ship was able to prevent being successfully attacked by pirates," he said. "This is a great example of how merchant mariners can take proactive action to prevent being attacked."

In an ideal world, there would be no pirates and thus no need for such high seas security. But unfortunately, reality is not ideal. "We would prefer to not have armed security aboard our ships," said Van Hook, "but we recognize that conditions have deteriorated to the point that they are necessary to mitigate risk."


Edward Lundquist is a retired U.S. Navy captain who writes frequently on piracy and maritime affairs. He is a senior science writer for Washington Consulting Government Services.

Risk Management Magazine and Risk Management Monitor. Copyright 2020 Risk and Insurance Management Society, Inc. All rights reserved.National Law Review, Volume I, Number 38


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