Sep 222008

It’s Maritime Week, so Fox News will be grilling McCain and Obama about how they propose to deal with the threat to American economy presented by piracy off the Somali coast. CNN will be featuring items on the importance of seafarers to the lifestyle of Americans and Europeans, seafaring issues will be splashed across front pages worldwide.

Er… No they won’t. Seafarers and the maritime industry rate somewhat less among editors than Cyril the Surfing Squirrel, Cyril doesn’t keep the US or Europe functioning, seafarers do. In this ‘Bread and Circuses’ business driven by bean counters rather than importance he/it will get more attention that those upon whom world trade depends.

Lets look at the port of Eyl, a place far too many seafarers are getting a look at.

With the maritime industry reluctantly providing millions of dollars of aid to the Puntland port of Eyl on the Somalia east coast it not surprising that it’s a boom town.

Well-dressed people drive around in smart cars fingering laptops. Paint dries on new and extravagant houses. Restaurants serve an international cuisine. Anchored cargo ships dot the waters off the port…

Ah… those ships, around a dozen or so with somewhat more than 200 seafarers aboard them with guns at their heads and knives at their throats. There are few deaths or physical injuries because these seafarers are worth more alive than dead. They will, in due course, be released in return for ransom, so traumatised and broken that many will never return to the sea, many living with daily terrors long after reaching safety as they relive the weeks and months they’ve been held.

For the warlords who rule this monstrous carbuncle on the face of Africa it’s good business that enables them to pay off Islamist militant forces fighting for control of this benighted, ungoverned, ungovernable, historically non-existent country, drive around in luxury, starve and kill their own countrymen for the fun of it, leverage tribalism into bloodstained dry sand and buy bigger and better guns and equipment to steal bigger and better ships and more seafarers.

That much of that money, rising from a few hundred thousand dollars to more than a million for each ship, is reaching high levels in what passes for a ‘recognised’ government in Puntland is not a surprise. It was always thus. Presidents, too, have to live.

Long gone are the days when action against piracy along the African coast by Stephen Decatur and US marines could inspire songs such as “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli” and tales of the Barbary pirates of the early 19th century.

For the Barbary pirates who ruled from Morocco to Tripoli, piracy was just business, too. In return for sums of money curiously similar in amount to those being demanded by today’s pirates, a country could buy guarantees of safety for its ships. Pirates took their ships anyway.

It is worth remembering that the Barbary pirates were only finally put to rest, despite various US actions, when France invaded and colonised Algeria in 1830.

In those days a nation’s trade was carried on its own ships. An act against a ship was an attack upon the nation whose flag it flew. Since the nations whose ships dominated merchant shipping were big and rich enough to have a credible naval force, those nations could thoroughly punish pirates on the high-seas or in their own homesteads.

Today it’s hard to see the likes of Turks and Caicos, the Marshall Islands, Vanuatu, Liberia or Panama sending gunships to scour the coast of Somalia clean of the cockroaches who prey on its ships and seafarers.

Then there is the issue of crew nationality. Most of those in detention are Filipino, Indian and Chinese. Were they American or British we might be seeing vigorous action, we certainly have in the case of the French nationals aboard two yachts. The Philippine navy can’t afford the bunker to get to Somalia to protect its own nationals. China has only a limited capacity for blue-water operations on such a scale.

India’s navy is expressing a lot of gung-ho spirit, certainly. India has scored at least one success against pirates: In 1999 the Japanese owned, Panamanian bulker Alondra Rainbow was hijacked in Indonesian waters. She was rescued by Indian coast guard and Navy in the Arabian Sea. Some 14 pirates were found guilty and convicted. They served full sentences of seven years.

Currently the Indian Navy is appealing for permission to go after pirates in Somali waters. The government is still thinking about it at time of writing.

What we are facing is a war on world trade along a critical trade route upon which the West and Asia depend; a war which the pirates are winning on an almost daily basis. It is a war in which main defense so far has been a loud tut-tutting accompanied by august and insightful statements along the lines of “Piracy Is A Bad Thing And Someone Should Do Something”.

Thank you. The two hundred or so seafarers off the port of Eyl, in plain sight, undoubtedly agree.

True, France has shown a modicum of cojones in defence of both its national prestige and its citizens following seizure of two yachts but these examples of derring-do are small potatoes.

The establishment of a ‘safe’ corridor by MARAD with promises of aerial surveillance and naval patrols has done little more than make it easier for pirates to find victims.

Recently a master transitting the Gulf of Aden wrote an impassioned letter to Fairplay. He was clearly distraught at the hazards being faced by his crew and his ship and the weak international response to the piracy threat. He writes: “…nothing much is happening at ground level where the vessel crew are sacrificial lamb to a band of determined pirates/brigands . We are literally sailing to the Devil’s Den while transiting the Gulf of Aden and are at the mercy of fate. It is now a numbers game and the unlucky ones would sail right into the jaws of these Brigands who appear to have a free run. It appears so easy and simple to board a large ship and take hostage, almost child’s play.”

He appeals for armed guards to be placed on ships and questions to commitment of industry leaders to seafarer safety and, perhaps the political will of those who do have the firepower but lack the guts to respond.

In response the Round Table of shipping associations including BIMCO, Intertanko, the International Chamber of Shipping and Intercargo expressed sympathy, shrugged its collective shoulders and considered armed guards a Bad Idea. It expressed surprise at the lack of military action and suggested the master continue to “…follow the advice given by the relevant authorities and organisations in respect of how to best protect the ship and crew to ensure a safe passage.”

The best way to protect a ship and it’s crew is not to be there in the first place, an issue we’ll deal with anon.

As it happens at least one of the latest spate of hijack victims, Stolt Valor, was using the ‘safe corridor’ northern limit, as far from the Somalia coast as the corridor would allow.

A curiosity raised in the Round Table letter and elsewhere is the failure to locate three known motherships, vessels which transport pirates towards their targets which they attack using small fast boats. These ships have been photographed. At least one may carry an AIS transmitting its location, identifiable because its AIS profile doesn’t match its appearance.

To put this failure into perspective: the US coastguard can locate a tiny drug-running semi-submersible with an above water profile no larger than a kitchen chair in a vast expanse of water but the most technologically advanced navies of the world can’t find three fair sized motherships in Somali waters.

If illicit oil spillers can be tracked, traced and arrested with satellite technology then something’s wrong if these pirate motherships cannot be found.

Is anyone actually looking for them? This is not just a failure of action but a failure of the intelligence community, technical and human.

A list of successes against pirates would occupy at most the back of a bus ticket. A very small bus ticket. It isn’t a record of which anyone can be proud.

Where do we go from here? What are the practical options?

Despite the Fair letter writer’s question: “Does anyone with any maritime sense seriously contend that a couple of seamen with a charged hose at the poop will fend off or deter these armed Somali pirates?” there is evidence that a trained and prepared response can succeed. The Norwegian tanker Front Voyager is reported to have faced four piracy attacks an fought off the pirates long enough for a Danish naval vessel, Abasalon, to present enough of a threat to scare off the pirates.

Front Voyager’s Russian and Filipino crew had been appropriately trained, a lesson in itself. There are many examples of appropriate action deterring pirates successfully, if with a degree of discomfort for those aboard the victimised vessel.

It is worth looking at the situation with armoured cars. Not the heavy ones that carry bank cash but private vehicles intended to protect persons with a high risk profile like politicians and Somali warlords. They are designed to provide the occupants with enough time, typically five seconds, to get the vehicle out of the fire zone.

A ship, like a car, can never be an impenetrable, bullet-proof fortress and the objective of defence is to make enough time for the vessel to exit the pirate’s operational zone, to delay boarding until help can comes or otherwise force the pirates to expend their resources – the small boats they use have limited mileage – until they must call off the attack.

A high level of alertness, including lookouts and intelligent use of radar and AIS equipment, can provide an early indication of a potential attack, it expands the time available to respond appropriately. The use of onboard resources and manouvering of the vessel expands the time window within which help can arrive and depletes the pirates’ resources.

An option proposed, and discarded by a correspondent to the Merchant Navy group on Google is for masters to exert their responsibility for the safety of their vessels: “Safety and security of the ship is the prime responsibility of the Master. The Master has a responsibility not only to the owner and charterer of the vessel, but also to himself and his crew. ..The Master may therefore need to exercise his right under Regulation 8 of Chapter XI -2 of SOLAS regarding safety and security of the vessel by avoiding the region totally until things improve.”

However, the writer notes, too: “Of course, any Master exercising this option could be sacked immediately…It is not an easy decision for the Master. Does he safeguard his life and that of his crew, or, does he safeguard his job by risking his life.”

It’s an option that deserves consideration. Given present shortages, just how many masters would the industry be willing to fire for protecting their vessels? It’s worth a thought.

What can the industry itself do? Arming seafarers or putting armed guards on ships doesn’t, to MAC, seem a viable option. Pirates aren’t interested in shooting to kill, for the most part they’re shooting to scare. Fire at them and their agenda changes to putting a hole in your head.

Establishing a convoy system, which is less likely to be subject to attack, may incur delays but the cost of those delays may be less than the cost of paying ransoms and medical treatment and counselling for victims, increases in insurance rates and reduction of competitiveness.

Back in the Bad Old Days the British East India Company had its own military force to defend its interests. Since Somalia has no government to whine about intrusions upon its sovereignty, and no capability to defend that sovereignty anyway and bearing in mind that, under international law, it’s open season on pirates, maybe its a concept worth reviving.

Ensure that anyone on a vessel going through that area has undergone anti-piracy training.

In the domain of international military co-operation, such as it is, it has to be remembered that we’re not dealing with grand political agendas, we’re dealing with businessmen who just want to get their hands on the crinkly stuff. Not a single pirate will put his life on the line for a cause.

Make it mandatory for all military naval officers to re-read Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. I say ‘re-read’ because they read it in Naval College but forget its principles: the objective of a navy is to defend one’s own trade and deny it to the enemy. The objective of navies off Somalia is to protect their own nation’s trade and deny it to the pirates.

When an American warship abandons the rescue of a ship because it’s in ‘Somali waters’ it is abandoning its rights, duties and obligations under under international law. The sovereignty of the waters is immaterial. That’s even assuming a sovereign Somalia exists, which it doesn’t.

What we are looking at is an international expression of cowardice by nations that pride themselves as the mightiest forces on the planet.

This is a war and no war can be won without taking it to the enemy. You can’t win a war by remote control.

A blockade of Eyl, the focus of piracy resources, will ensure that no further ships can be taken there, which won’t be good for the pirate business.

Find the motherships and sink them.

Put a couple of aircraft carriers in place, train their guns on Eyl, put up a few armed Predators and helicopters to blow away the rich guys in their SUV’s and Mercedes trying to skedaddle, demand the release of all ships and eliminate Eyl from the face of the Earth if they don’t do so. Continue to do it every time a ship is seized.

Remember, the pirates aren’t after making some dumb religious or political statement, they’re onboard the ships to make money. We’re not dealing with people willing do die for a belief. Deny the enemy its objective and it has nothing it’s willing to fight for.

While we’re at it, are these millions of dollars worth of ransom just sitting around under some warlord’s mattress? These people have financial advisers and those advisers will be telling them which overseas banks and which overseas investments to put their ill-gotten gains. Those investments and banks won’t be in Somalia. It’s one point of weakness that needs to be exploited.

There may also be a need to put piracy on the electoral agenda. That can only be done by making an electorate aware of what piracy is costing it in higher prices and the expenditure of its tax dollars. That’s a hard nut to crack and we may have to think outside the box.

No TV station, least of all Fox News or CNN, or anyone else will ask of those who presume to assume a nation’s leadership what they propose to do to defend that nation’s trade, that nation’s ability to maintain its lifestyle, that nation’s prestige, against the bacteria that rule Somalia and prey on the rest of the world. They will raise questions about Harvey Milk Day but nothing about the industry or the seafarers upon which their national survival, the jobs of their people, depends.

Given that, we would suggest:

One possible strategy –

  1. Take on a French crew, or French supercargo, when transitting the Somali coast. At least someone will take notice and do something if only to annoy the US. Taking on a US crew is not probably viable given the Jones Act.
  2. Hire female officers in bikinis. If pirated, they’re guaranteed to get on the front page or at least on page three of most newspapers and the TV news equivalent around the world. That won’t, as now, be confined to page 46 just under the classified ads for escort services.
  3. Make sure they’re either actresses or sportswomen. That way they’ll get onto pages that the public actually reads and takes seriously.

Facetious? Perhaps, but as the World War 1 soldier said “If you know a better hole, go to it”.

Relevant podcasts:

Lessons From The Danica White

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