VPDs: States' Maritime Security Failures

By MarEx 2013-04-09 09:08:00

By Ioannis Chapsos
Special to Piracy Daily

Modern piracy is in sharp decline in the Indian Ocean; however, statistics reveal that officially declared armed escorts onboard vessels transiting the high-risk area increased in 2012 by 5 percent. The interpretation of these numbers demonstrate that 35 percent of the ship-owners worldwide still contract armed escort teams, on the one hand to ensure the security of their vessel, cargo and seafarers and, on the other, to take advantage of the reduced insurance premiums due to the enhanced security measures applied. The major question and debate at this point remain focused on the states' role in terms of maritime security provision.

At the states' level, the response towards modern piracy was the deployment of 'Vessel Protection Detachments' (VPDs); according to this practice, states are privately hiring armed military teams to shipping companies, for protecting commercial vessels registered and flying their flag, or even to companies controlled by the state's nationals. The limited requirements in the state's defence budget, as compared to the deployment of naval assets in the other side of the globe, provided a convincing justification for adopting the tactics. The debate that emerged regarding this practice was that states were desperately trying not to abolish and outsource completely their monopoly in security provision, while more business-oriented analysts were advocating that states were just trying to take their share of the security provision pie, within the contemporary anti-piracy business model.

From the shipping companies' perspective, there were theoretically even more advantages. The guaranteed high level of military training, the reduced price for contracting VPDs compared to Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSCs), their flexibility and legal status as state entities in terms of carrying weapons through transit ports, and their protection from the state in case of wrongdoings attracted many companies to contract them.

Yet, reality was slightly different and it was demonstrated in the cruelest way possible, in the incident involving the two Italian Marines who were deployed onboard 'Enrica Lexie' in order to protect her from potential piracy attacks while transiting the Indian Ocean. With the death of two Indian fishermen, who were shot after been mistaken as pirates, emerged the complexity of maritime security issues and the murky framework of its provision.

One single sentence can reflect the paradox of the overall situation: a state's military detachment, protecting private commercial interests in international waters, is charged for the death of another country's nationals and has to be prosecuted. First, there are no bilateral agreements or treaties between Italy and India to dictate (as usually happen in these cases) that it is a military jurisdiction to investigate the case and prosecute the perpetrators. Hence, it rests with international and local law to resolve the issue. Consequently, the mainstream media headlines for a long time featured the escalating diplomatic tensions between the two countries, stemming from the prosecution process of the Italian Marines in Indian courtrooms.

The culmination point was Italy's refusal to return the Marines in India, after their visit to their home country to vote in national elections. India in return withdrew the immunity of the Italian Ambassador and banned him from leaving the country, unless the Marines return to complete their trial.

In the early days of the Iraq war, analysts adopted the term 'Strategic Corporal', due to the significance of the deeds of armed street patrols in foreign country. The decision making of patrolling military personnel didn't have analogous implications in winning the 'hearts and minds' of local populations, equivalent to their low-rank level. Nowadays, the term is effectively applied also in the maritime domain, where a tactical mistake by two 'Strategic Marines' resulted on the diplomatic tension between two countries.

The globalisation of international security becomes profound through the above incident, along with the justifications for its privatisation. Although there are indications that during the last five years many similar incidents took place in the Indian Ocean, where innocent fishermen were shot by armed guards after been mistaken as pirates, the consequences were not proportionate, since no state entities were engaged. This can partly explain also the states' reluctance to keep the monopoly of security provision, both ashore and offshore, since its expeditionary forces have to operate in complex and hostile environments.

On the other hand, private security providers enable governments to avoid oversight, external (and internal) legitimisation requirements, parliamentary inquiries or political cost when using force and conducting controversial operations abroad, especially if their outcome might result in embarrassing failures. Hereof, and especially for the maritime domain, the responsibility is transferred to the shipping companies and vessel masters, both for the choice and contract of the private security provider, as well as for covering the cost of their own security. The state retains only the right of regulation and control of the private security providers; however, practice reflects that even these are following free market principles and the states' engagement remains rhetoric.

The current situation puts the VPDs' practice and future in question. Even India itself, which announced in 2012 its intention to establish the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), manned initially with 100 Indian commandos trained especially for protecting merchant vessels, hasn't deploy them yet or officially declared their operational availability. And, perhaps more importantly, seafarers' lives and vessels' security have become an increasingly private concern, relying solely upon the shipping company's wealth, and the ship-owners' discretion and their will to allocate funds for contracting the company with the optimum service-to-cost ratio.

Captain (ret) Ioannis Chapsos of the Hellenic Navy is a Research Fellow in Maritime Security at Coventry University (UK) and Vice President of the International Association of Maritime Security Professionals (IAMSP). He is also a former Lecturer for International Security at the Hellenic Supreme Joint War College / Security & Strategy Department.