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Piracy at Sea Reaching the Executive Decision

By MarEx 2011-07-13 12:46:09

By: Lew Knopp

Maritime piracy, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982, consists of any criminal acts of violence, detention, rape, or depredation committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or aircraft that is directed on the high seas against another ship, aircraft, or against persons or property on board a ship or aircraft.

Confusion and clouding of this definition is due to some jurisdictions identifying armed robbery aboard ship as just that. It seems that the current trend of the various counter-piracy policies is to downplay shipboard robbery and similar events to reduce the severity of these crimes in the public’s eyes in order to control insurance premiums.

The romantic thought of Brave men in Spanish galleons with sabers drawn attacking lone ships laden with treasure have given way to the reality of men in small boats chasing, catching, and boarding large cargo ships. These men are neither brave nor romantic. They are desperate, fearful and they are pirates. The most commonly covered, and “world familiar”, are the modern Somali, Malaysian, and Caribbean pirates. While some pirates are simple fishermen unhappy with commercial intrusion into their territories, many pirates are criminals seeking money to fund much larger interests.

With the recent successes in pirate attacks coupled with the international media coverage, the industry is reported to be growing exponentially.  Current piracy trends seem to suggest that modern terrorist organizations are financing and providing material support to further enable pirate capability and reach. The modern terrorist realizes that they can recruit the poor and desperate to deliver their political and religious will through piracy. Drug Cartels worldwide have also started to get into the mix finding piracy as a way to finance their efforts. With terror groups entering into partnerships with drug cartels, the increased connectivity of drug cartels and piracy becomes apparent and can be seen in the waters off the coasts of countries like Burma, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Brazil, and the Caribbean Islands. Alarmingly, there have been reports in the aforementioned countries, of the presence of Mexican cartel, various piracy, and Middle Eastern and Pacific Rim terrorist elements previously only recorded in the regions they were known to exist in. This sheds light on their global networking success and the growth of their respective industries as a whole.

What is the Pirate’s “Risk versus Reward” rational?

Currently, reports have Somali pirates holding 26 vessels and over 518 people for ransom with another 7 vessels and 200 crewmembers held worldwide. Various estimates put the total global amount of ransom demanded at 1-3 Billion (U.S.).

This does not mean their demands are met however.  Pirates demanded, negotiated for and received $238million in 2010.  With average ransom payments of $5.4million in 2010, one researcher claims the overall cost of piracy worldwide could be as high as $12billion per year. Add to the industry’s burden of $3 billion a year in war risk coverage, the cost of naval operations off the Somali coast alone at $2 billion and costs for piracy trials and imprisonment around $31 million, 2011 looks to be a year that could cost sea trade over 17 billion dollars.

Total number of Pirates killed in the last 36 months is unconfirmed at less than 60.  Pirate crews receive promise of money, food, protection, and other enticements to engage in attacks on ships and kidnapping of crewmembers. With propaganda and rumors of riches, there are no shortages of men willing to engage in these crimes. Additionally, governments are pressuring each other for the capturing, trial and imprisonment of pirates rather than fighting them openly and either killing them or capturing and executing them. This too makes the risk they take more attractive to them. As far as the numbers go, weather effects in the form of draught in Somalia may have temporarily reduced the piracy attempts there, but with outside support, their efforts will continue in areas farther from their shores.

The problems with international law and it’s adherence to all countries equally is the host of mitigating factors making outcomes of seaborne conflicts uncertain. Thus those engaging in acts of piracy have the element of confusion, lack of cooperation and procedural understanding between countries enabling criminals to extend their reach capabilities, many times unchallenged.

The IMO and dozens of other national and international organizations broadcast their interests in favor of cooperation. As part of this effort, visiting naval vessels at sea in the warning regions have agreed to allow foreign shipriders aboard their vessels for the purpose of liaison with host territories. This further complicates the handling of engagement, capture and handling of pirates and international criminals. Additionally; vessel boarding by naval or police personnel is only permitted under very strict guidelines. The pirates, of course, do not recognize these guidelines.

Pirates operating near the horn of Africa are extending their range out to as far as the coast of India. The use of captured “Mother-ships” (previously private yachts, fishing trawlers, or work boats) as long range support craft for the deployment of smaller “attack craft” is on the rise. Pirates can easily cruise faster than a larger vessel, and catch and then shadow a vessel. Smaller craft are then fueled, and launched with 10 to 20 men on board to make an attempted boarding. Where previously, smaller boats carrying fewer men could be repelled with fire hoses, and other vessel mounted equipment and techniques, motherships can now supply a coordinated attack with more men to overwhelm the ship’s crew. Because many crewmembers are untrained or unequipped to personally take on these men, and because they must follow their company’s policies, these newer methods of attack are providing greater success for piracy and fueling confidence for further attempts.

While many companies have enforced their policies of not fighting or not resisting, others have decided to place armed security teams aboard their vessels. As much as many companies are sworn against arming their vessels, of the ones who have decided to place armed security teams aboard their vessels, none has been successfully boarded or experienced loss of life to the crew or security team due to piracy. An additional consideration is the cost of placing armed security teams aboard vessels and allowing the fuel savings from slower cruising speeds to offset the cost of the added security.

The goal of modern pirates is to take the ship, the crew or the cargo intact, or simply to defend themselves while they rob the crew or vessel.  There are arguably two reasons for the pirates not to escalate the use of more sophisticated or powerful weapons:

  • Destroying the vessel or cargo would be counterproductive, and killing the crew would bring international retribution
  • Obtaining and operating these weapons, and acquiring training is currently cost prohibitive.

Pirates to date are armed with Russian or Chinese style assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades, pistols and for the most part, Machetes and knives. It is only a matter of time before they gain the financial means and support to acquire more sophisticated weapons, technology, equipment and training. Until they do, consider a few factors:

  • The average range for a pirate’s rifle is 500 meters on smaller craft that lack the stability for precision marksmanship.
  • Armed security details are equipped with precision weapons capable of accuracy out to 800 to 1800 meters on a semi-stable ship’s deck. These marksmen are traditionally military trained professionals with many from the world’s elite special forces.
  • If security teams in the form of well disciplined, trained, equipped and paid private contractors are placed on a vessel with strict rules of engagement, pirate attacks would be reduced or abandoned outside of the range of their weapons, reducing risk to the crew.
  • Available technology and resources which the pirates don’t have; water cannons, sonic cannons (LRAD), nets, razor wire, electrified wire, evasive maneuvers, and the addition of warships and coastal patrols by international coast guards.

With all of the defensive tools and methods available to a vessel, the chances of a security team needing to fire directly at prates are greatly reduced. If a quality contractor is chosen, liability to the ship owner, leaser, and other stakeholders will be greatly diminished.

So how do I choose a qualified contractor? First, here is who you don’t want;
A ship is not a desert or a mountain, or a forest. Conventionally trained land warriors or the guy who was guarding a grocery store a month ago is not who you want on your vessel. Policemen, while experts in law enforcement, are seldom trained or conditioned for sea battle much less the hours of standing on a moving deck looking out at a small speck which might be a threat. Mercenaries are strictly in it for the money and many will flee before fighting if to live to fight another day. Their backgrounds are difficult to verify and they are many times very aggressive and unrefined.

A legitimate company with significant quantities of trained personnel, seaworthy weaponry and sound tactical understanding of the maritime domain is your answer. These companies have strict hiring criteria focusing on training and fitness similar in fact to those of the United States Navy SEALs. Many employed are either former US Navy SEALs or British SBS experienced operators. There are less then a dozen legitimate maritime security companies in the world who possess this expertise. The advantages of having these experts on your vessels require minimal explanation. They possess great discipline, team spirit with keen situation and domain adaptability to changes in the environment. These maritime security specialists greatest advantage over land operators employed in maritime security contractor role is that they have thousands of hour’s at sea onboard vessels. They are self supporting totally focused on the mission. Their goal is to allow safe passage of the vessel. They defend and their presence is intended to deter rather than provoke. However, should it be required, these maritime security specialist can attack, defend, operate and navigate vessels. They understand small craft operations and piracy boarding techniques and tactics.

For additional information on choosing an up to date security program for your fleet or vessel, look to references and experience. Make the decision.

Lew Knopp is the CEO of Templar Titan, Inc. and is a  former US Navy SEAL.

MarEx does not necessarily endorse the opinions herein.