Piracy: Living Down the Food Chain

By MarEx 2014-09-03 18:19:00

Op-Ed by John Guy

Most people in shipping have long suspected it but it was interesting to hear it confirmed in public. Navies regard counter-piracy operations as a bit beneath them, while they want to take all the credit for any success in containing piracy.

Yesterday the sun was shining on Cardiff, but it was hard to see because of the number of helicopters in the sky. They were busy ferrying heads of state around and being an obvious part of the huge security shutdown which the NATO Summit has brought to South Wales.

It has also brought a lot of academics and policy makers on security to Wales, and most of them were at the “NATO after Wales Summit”, organized by Cardiff University, confusingly before NATO got to Wales.

There was good and bad news there for shipping. On the good news front NATO spokesmen talked about a reinvigoration of maritime security and more focus and investment on the marine dimension. So far so good for an organization with Atlantic in its name.

On the less than good news side, when the debate swung to piracy, the presentations and answers to questions made it obvious that the navies think they solved the Somali piracy problem. When a spokesperson for the armed guards’ industry asked about increased co-operation between NATO and private maritime security firms his reply was that they were happy to talk to private companies as there are too many people with weapons out there. He also talked about Switzerland looking for norms for armed guards on ships. So he perhaps does not know that arming ships is what has stopped the Somali piracy and that Switzerland has no ships.

Looking forward, another NATO staffer said that there is now a pendulum shift in naval operation towards what he described as “the higher end.” He meant fighting wars, such as the intervention in Libya, or being a deterrent, for which read “we need some warships in the Arctic to push Russia back”, and he clarified that further by saying that “counter-piracy is at the lower end of the food chain.”

I can tell him that it feels like that when you are on your own with a nervous Somali youth threatening you with a Kalashnikov which is as big as he is. It is very little comfort at that point to know that the navies who should be stopping the situation arising by policing piracy regard that task as second rate to real work.

That attitude will also explain why the same NATO staffer, when asked about NATO’s navies tackling growing piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, said that he did not expect much action there. “No-one is leaning forward,” he said.

So that’s how the NATO maritime people see things. Start a war and we’ll be happy to join in. Protect the world trade which feeds you all and makes navies possible? Not really our job. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

John Guy served on merchant ships and warships for sixteen years before becoming a ship inspector and then a journalist. He advises companies and organizations working in the global shipping industry on media and crisis management. His latest novel is The Golden Tide.