Guest Feature: Protecting Yourself Before, During and After a Pirate Attack

By MarEx 2012-12-18 13:42:00

Written by Captain Richard Madden

Part 1

Depending on the source, piracy in the Gulf of Aden/Horn of Africa (GOA/HOA) region is estimated to be costing the world economy between $5 and $10 billion every year. As average consumers, none of us wants to see this cost absorbed by price increases on the goods we buy every day.  As merchant mariners, shipping companies, and industry organizations, it is much more personal. While keeping the pirates, thieves or terrorists off the ship is the ultimate goal, we need to ensure that we are protected before, during and after the attack.

Rules of Engagement
Webster’s Dictionary defines Rules of Engagement (ROE) in part as, “Directives issued by competent military authority, which specify the circumstances and limitations under which forces will initiate and/or continue combat engagement with other forces encountered.” Typical ROE will include everything from presence as the minimal force applied to lethal force. Increasing the levels of force to achieve the desired result is the Escalation of Force (EOF).

Rules of engagement exist for BOTH the vessel’s protection and the protection of those operating in the vicinity – including “suspicious” vessels.

International Maritime Organization (IMO) Gets Involved
For years, the implied stance of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the maritime branch of the United Nations, precluded the use of armed guards.  The unsanctioned and increasingly effective use of armed guards from 2009 through 2011 did not escape their attention, however.  In September 2011, the IMO released MSC.1/Circ.1405/Rev.1,“Interim Guidance to Shipowners, Ship Operators and Shipmasters on the use of Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel (PCASP) On Board Ships in the High Risk Area,” which addressed the hiring and management of PCASP/PMSC (Private Maritime Security Company), as well as discussing the Rules for the Use of Force (RUF).

The above circular offered guidance on RUF starting with, “PCASP should be fully aware that their primary function is the prevention of boarding using the minimal force necessary to do so.”  It goes on to say, “PMSC should provide a detailed graduated response plan to a pirate attack as part of its teams’ operational procedures. PMSC should require their personnel to take all reasonable steps to avoid the use of force.” In short, while the arming of security personnel is becoming accepted, caution must be taken to ensure the minimum force necessary is used. In all instances, proper identification of the potential threat and intent is crucial.

Protecting Yourself Before the Attack
It should come as no surprise that vessels having a well-determined and frequently drilled anti-piracy plan do not get taken by pirates.  Vessels that operate frequently or exclusively in high-risk waters may experience a higher number of piracy incidents, but still will not be hijacked. In the end, it all comes down to preparation.

Preparation falls into two distinct categories. The first category is the equipment or the tools you have in your anti-piracy toolbox. Many companies are hiring armed security or PCASP, but they cannot be the only means available in your EOF protocol. While PCASP can fulfill the minimum level of force (presence) and the maximum level of force (lethal), it fails to provide an intermediate or non-lethal category.

It may be argued that the PCASP provides a non-lethal level of force through warning shots, but as will be illustrated below, this sometimes proves lethal anyway. The effectiveness of warning shots in a marine environment is questionable due to the loud (may not be heard over an outboard) and chaotic (splashes of rounds hitting the water may not be seen) environment. Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs) can fill this gap in levels of force by serving both as a long-range communication device and a non-lethal deterrent.

The second category of preparation concerns procedures and personnel.  First, procedures (including a scaled EOF) must be agreed upon between the vessel’s Master and the PCASP. Second, those procedures must be communicated to all personnel as required. Third, these procedures must be drilled until all are thoroughly familiar with them. In a piracy attempt, time is of the essence. When an unidentified skiff begins its approach is not the time for the bridge crew to be considering a course of action – it is time to be putting the preplanned and drilled procedures to use.

The average piracy incident lasts between 6 and 12 minutes…The pirates board the ship or go away.

The Enemy – or Is It?
When you say, “Somali pirate skiff,” almost any merchant mariner conjures up the image of a low white or blue fiberglass boat with an outboard engine. Add in multiple persons carrying AK-47s or RPGs and a hooked ladder and you will send chills down the spine of the toughest seaman. Unfortunately, take away the weapons and boarding ladder and you’re describing typical fishing boats in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman and Persian Gulf. Sounds like a recipe for mistaken identity and possibly, disaster.

When you say, “Somali pirate mother ship,” many imagine the ubiquitous dhow or trawler.  Add in a couple of skiffs (see above) in tow and you definitely have a suspicious vessel. The problem is although pirates have used these mother ships effectively – ranging as far as Indian coastal waters, the Gulf of Oman and Mozambique Channel – there are far more non-pirate dhows and trawlers in these waters.

Positive Identification and Determining Intent Required
Before we get to how to determine the intent of a suspicious vessel, let’s take a look at why positive identification is required. Since 2000, there have been several well-documented cases of mistaken identity with tragic results.

USS Cole - October 12, 2000: While in port at Aden, Yemen for refueling, the U.S. Navy destroyer was approached by a small boat. The USS Cole was equipped with an arsenal of lethal force, but had no way of identifying an approaching small boat as being an explosives-laden suicide bomber. The resulting explosion caused the death of 17 U.S. Navy sailors, injury of 39 sailors and over $250 million in damage to the ship.

MV Global Patriot - March 24, 2008: This containership was approaching the Suez Canal northbound from the Red Sea. As the vessel was under charter to the U.S. Military Sealift Command, a U.S. Navy security detachment was embarked on the vessel.  As is typical in this area, numerous small boats approached the Global Patriot, trying to sell cigarettes and souvenirs. Despite being warned off by flares, one boat continued to approach. The security team claimed they fired “warning shots” at this point, but in the aftermath, one Egyptian was dead and three injured.

FV Ekawat Nava 5 - November 18, 2008: Enroute to Yemen with fishing supplies onboard, this Thai trawler was hijacked by Somali pirates. Shortly thereafter, the Indian Navy frigate INS Tabar approached, demanding that the “mother ship” stop and be boarded. Despite attempts to use the crew as human shields, the trawler was fired on and destroyed by the Indian Navy vessel.  Of the sixteen-man crew, only one survivor was found.

MT Enrica Lexie - February 15, 2012: While enroute to Fujairah, UAE, the Italian-flagged tanker was transiting some 22 nautical miles off the coast of India when it had a close encounter with an Indian fishing boat. Whether the fishing vessel was making way or drifting is unclear, but it somehow came within 100 meters of the tanker. This caused the security team onboard the tanker to fire “warning shots” at the fishing boat. Of the eleven Indian fisherman onboard the boat, two were killed. Initial reports indicate that a scaled EOF was not used, contrary to guidance from the IMO.

...to be continued. Part 2 of this guest editorial will be featured in the Saturday, April 28th MarEx newsletter.


Captain Richard Madden is a maritime consultant and SUNY Maritime graduate with over 20 years of industry experience. He holds a USCG Unlimited Master’s license and has sailed on government vessels, offshore towing vessels, tankers, container ships, coastal towing and general cargo vessels. He has extensive first-hand, anti-piracy experience while operating in the Gulf of Aden/Horn of Africa area.