Thursday, November 19, 2009

The escalation of weaponry off the Horn of Africa

In the wake of yesterday's unsuccessful attack on the Maersk Alabama, I think it's safe to say that the gloves are slowly coming off as mariners seek ways to more effectively deter pirates in the seas off the Horn of Africa. It's likely the container ship's crew had gone into standard counter-piracy mode at the time of the incident, deploying water hoses, locking down access to the quarters and getting on the radio and satellite phone to naval forces, but this time they had the added assets of an embarked security team. This team initially deployed a long-range acoustic device (LRAD) - installed after last April's infamous pirate incident involving the same vessel - in an attempt to deter the attackers, but it would appear that this non-lethal device proved less effective than the guns the team also carried.

Faced with well-trained and armed defenders, the pirates broke off their attack, no doubt leading many to think that guns talk better than fire hoses (or LRADs, an expensive piece of equipment we have yet to see fully live up to its hyped potential warding off pirates). As even The Christian Science Monitor put it in an article published today: "Lesson from foiled pirate attack on Maersk Alabama? Fire back." Or, as US Navy Vice Admiral William Gortney said at the Pentagon yesterday, "A well-placed round from an M-16 is far more effective than that LRAD."

But before we go down the slippery slide to the point that small or long arms are routinely being kept aboard vessels, it's worth taking a deeper look at the the ramifications posed by this escalation of weaponry in the fight against piracy, and I'd like to open up a discussion about some of the issues.

The first concern about some sort of "anti-piracy arms race" is that it would create huge inequities among the very mariners that lethal weapons are supposed to protect. The American crew of the Maersk Alabama was able to rely on the financial resources of their employers, who paid for the security team, the LRAD and the training to deter the pirates in this incident. But this is far from the norm in the modern world of commercial shipping. Most professional seafarers live and work under far harsher conditions, and their expectations that security teams would be made available to safeguard journeys through piracy-prone waters are rarely high. Instead, these mariners must rely on what little training they have received, what little measures thy can take, and a lot of hope. Or innovation, in extreme circumstances: Remember the attack by Somali pirates on the Chinese vessel Zhenhua 4 last December, in which the crew were forced to resort to making Molotov cocktails to repel the boarding? Here's a photo reminder below.

Crewman from Zhenhua 4 prepares Molotov cocktails
during attack by Somali pirates, December 8, 2008 (CCTV)

Additional proof that a two-tiered system is evolving between haves and have-nots in the maritime world can be seen in Spain's decision to allow armed security teams aboard their fishing vessels working the seas off the Horn. FIS (the Fish Information and Services information site) reported on Monday that the Spanish tuna fleet is returning to work the fishery off East Africa with 54 security agents embarking aboard the vessels. These security personnel have been trained by the Ministry of Defence in counter-piracy measures, some of which would presumably include rules of engagement for use of weapons under Spanish and international law, including the legal ramifications.

The second issue relating to arming private vessels is distinct probability that it will actually increase the levels of violence overall, endangering mariners more. As Roger Middleton - an expert on the Horn of Africa and piracy - told The Christian Science Monitor's Scott Baldauf, there is a danger that arms will escalate things, pointing out that, "If pirates approach an unarmed ship, they might shoot to scare. But if they approach a ship and that ship fires back on them, they will shoot to kill."

We certainly saw that with the Maersk Alabama incident yesterday, in which gunfire was exchanged between attackers and defenders. And we're likely to see it again as more private security teams are embarked on vessels in the region. This is not to say that these individuals are mercenaries or trigger-happy maritime vigilantes, far from it. I know many in the private security sector who bring nothing but a high degree of professionalism to their work, most often gained through years in the armed forces. But as a former member of the Spanish Navy now working for a private firm told FIS, "Here [off the Horn of Africa] we are not speaking of a scenario for private security like those that typically occur in Spain, but of a warlike atmosphere. The methods, the means that the pirates use approximate more a zone of conflict than any alercation [sic] that can happen on Spanish soil." He means that one must be ready to use force, including lethal force, to deal with the problem of pirate attacks.

The number of incidents in which Somali pirates have killed mariners is minimal. Notwithstanding this week's death of the captain of the Theresa VIII, I cannot remember a single time boarders have deliberately killed anyone in the seas off the Horn of Africa. Somali pirates have always understood that their hostages are much more valuable alive than dead. And while we don't yet know the details of what happened aboard the Theresa VIII, I'd be willing to guess the master was shot accidentally (and I'd also be willing to bet that whomever did it was severely reprimanded by the pirate gang's leaders).

If attackers think they could be facing crews who are armed, it's almost a given that the pirates will shoot first and ask questions later, and that the focus of ransom requests will shift from the incalculable value of human lives to the book value of a vessel and its cargo.

The third aspect of all this is the abrogation of responsibilities on the part of governments and their military forces. Mariners have every right to expect navies and other assets to protect them, just as urban dwellers have every right to expect the police to do so. This means not only coming to their aid when a ship flounders and sinks but coming to their aid when armed gunmen approach in small boat. And while I am very clear about the scope of the seas we're talking about that pirates roam off the Horn of Africa, having sailed there myself, I am also aware that coordinated efforts to patrol those seas have not been entirely successful in stemming the tide of attacks this year.

The whole idea of having a navy (and other assets) is to safeguard the seas from threats far and wide. They are trained professionals who embody hundreds of years of nautical experience, including dealing with pirates. And while they may not always have been entirely successful combating piracy, many mariners still find comfort in the sight of a gray hull on the horizon or a helicopter overhead. As Roger Middleton told The Monitor, "For the past 200 years, states have been providing security on the seas, and security is better when states do it than when private companies do it...If the British Navy is patrolling an area, they are accountable under British law for their actions. If a private security company is on patrol, there is no guarantee that they will be accountable to anybody."

Seafarers must take every precaution available to them, without a doubt. But this is where we enter the realm that can be analogized by how far one goes in defending your home, for a ship is not just a workplace for a mariner, it is also their home at sea. In some parts of the world it is expected that a homeowner will likely have a gun hidden away somewhere to protect against a burglar or whatnot. But in many more places the deterrence is vigilance, locked doors and windows and, if a criminal tries to enter, a call to the local police, the idea being to rely on trained professionals to wield the weapons, not a nervous civilian. Neither idea is perfect, but this is the root of the argument that professional mariners are dealing with.

If all this sounds like I'm against arming vessels against pirate attacks, that's because I am. At this stage, I could certainly be swayed if rational ideas where offered up that could apply to all mariners, not just North Americans or Europeans, and appreciate any discourse. Seafaring is a global community, and even though I'm here talking about an issue that affects the waters off the Horn of Africa, the ramifications are far wider, affecting tens of thousands of men and women working the seas around the world.

Addendum: Back in late September of last year GCaptain had a post about top ten means of deterring pirate attacks that's well worth a review. But as was posted then and remains - to me - still one of the best means of dealing with things is #10 on the list: Denial of Ransom.


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Sebastian Bruns said...

Daniel, your point is well taken. If we are headed for a have&have-nots distinction in terms of use of lethal weapons, this will likely lead to an escalation that eventually might also mean that would-be pirates get a lucky shot at a tanker (using a RPG or similar) and sink or disable the vessel. In the end, the question is whether we as the West can afford to risk this. On the same token, the political/military solution will be costly as well. At the end of the day, it's a choice between dilemmas.