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Op-Ed: Standards Needed for U.S. Maritime Security Firms

Recent incidents highlight the need for reform.

By MarEx 2014-03-13 14:16:00

By Klaus Luhta, Esq.

Why do U.S.-owned private maritime security teams continually get in trouble on ships overseas? Does the U.S. adhere to a lower standard than the rest of the world when it comes to private maritime security? The answers may surprise you.

The U.S. government reimburses vessel owners and operators for the cost of carrying armed security personnel aboard vessels hauling government cargo in high-risk waters. One would assume that U.S. shipowners and operators get only the best people for the task. Unfortunately, quite the opposite is true, as evidenced by the recent drug overdose of two Trident Group operatives aboard the Maersk Alabama. In fact, there are really no standards in the U.S. when it comes to armed maritime security so long as someone shows up with a gun and tells the ship’s captain they were a former Navy SEAL.

This is not the first incident for Trident Group. A mistake with an at-sea weapons transfer last year caused another U.S.-flag ship operated by a company other than Maersk to be detained in Qatar for five days. The captain and chief mate came close to losing their jobs, and the shipping company incurred great expense while the ship sat idle for almost a week. That company found a different security firm almost immediately.

AdvanFort, a self-proclaimed private security company with American ties, had at least two recent publicly known incidents involving improperly registered weapons in foreign waters. The AdvanFort weapons-storage vessel is U.S.-flag, and the crew of that ship is now imprisoned in India and facing trial. AdvanFort has fired its American president and ostensibly abandoned its foreign crew in prison.

It is not uncommon for these so-called American security companies to use cheap foreigners on their teams. When the U.S. government ships U.S. government cargo aboard U.S.-flag vessels with U.S. citizen crews only and then reimburses U.S. shipping companies for the use of non-vetted security teams often comprised of foreigners, something is clearly out of whack. I think we can do better.

Cost Is Not an Issue

The subject of private maritime security is sensitive because mariners and their unions fought hard to persuade American shipping companies to provide protection in high-risk waters. Left to their druthers, many shipping companies would forgo the added expense of shipboard security and take their chances with pirates. Understanding the corporate aversion to expenditures, visionary members of Congress, including Congressman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), took the decision out of corporate calculus. Section 504(e)(2) of Public Law 112-213 made cost a non-issue:

“The Secretary of Transportation shall direct each department or agency responsible to provide armed personnel… to reimburse, subject to the availability of appropriations, the owners or operators of applicable vessels for the cost of providing armed personnel.”

Even prior to the now-famous Maersk Alabama hijacking in 2009, maritime security firms had been proliferating commensurate with the rise of piracy. Any guy with business sense and a network of former military special operatives could tout himself as a maritime security firm. And many did. Now the sector has matured, and it is clear the piracy threat will remain, requiring an honest assessment of standards for these varied maritime security companies.

There are still fly-by-night providers that low-bid contracts and scrape together guys looking for adventure (and money), who know how to fire an M16. Some of these are guys who search out drugs in strange foreign ports and then overdose. The operatives are not vetted, trained, or, as we have regretfully learned, blood-tested for controlled substances because the contracted security companies do not want to spend the extra money. But if ship operators are reimbursed for the cost of using security teams, why wouldn’t they employ the best operatives and quality control measures possible regardless of cost?

I understand the nature of personal relationships in business. You want to work with people you trust. But when the people you trust put your crews and assets at risk through affirmative dereliction of duty, something must be done.

Blueprint for Reform

If I operated a ship knowing the government paid me back for hiring security teams, you can be certain I would contract with a company that maintains only the highest standards – standards such as these:

Thorough vetting of each operative, including background checks.

Require all operatives to be U.S. citizens.

Require all operatives to be former U.S. Special Operations personnel.

Require drug testing of operatives before and after deployments.

Employ a zero-tolerance policy with regard to controlled substances.

Perform blood testing on operatives and hormonal analysis to detect psychological issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, which often leads to substance abuse.

Train and test physical and tactical performance standards.

Leverage innovative technology for deterrence (i.e., unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles, state-of-the-art weaponry and protective gear).

STCW- and Vessel Security Officer (VSO)-certified.

SAMI-endorsed.

ISO-certified.

Comprehensive insurance protection by the security company.

Financial and moral commitment by the security company to operatives detained overseas.

Transparent financial and management procedures.

Signatory to the 100 Series Rules on the Use of Force (RUF).

After all, don’t we hold many other types of vendors to a similar degree of accountability? My lawn care provider satisfies most of the above, so why turn a blind eye to maritime security? Perhaps these requirements increase cost, but the alternative is no longer tolerable. Employing drug addicts and foreign operatives who may have questionable loyalties to the U.S. can no longer be accepted by any segment of the industry. The risk to all is much too great.

And since Congress effectively made cost a non-factor, shipping companies should hire only the best. The U.S. maritime industry faces enough scrutiny. We can ill-afford to continue placing assets, cargo, crews, and security teams at unnecessary risk. When I work aboard a vessel in high-risk waters I want to rest easy, knowing the ship is protected by only the best personnel and technology available. At present our mariners do not have that peace of mind. – MarEx  

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Klaus Luhta is a graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy.  He is a U.S. Coast Guard licensed Master and an attorney. Klaus has sailed all types of ocean-going vessels around the world for more than a decade before coming ashore to practice law in the areas of maritime law and consumer litigation.

Klaus currently focuses his efforts in the areas of maritime policy, legislation, and regulation, both domestically and abroad for the International Organization of Masters, Mates, & Pilots.  He regularly serves as a delegate at the International Maritime Organization in London, U.K. and advocates there on behalf of seafarers across the globe.