Analysis: Experts predict increased Somali pirate attacks
Disparate interests within the shipping industry, uncoordinated naval responses, continued payments of ransoms and easing of traditional constraints indicate that vessel hijacking by Somali pirates is likely to get worse in the months ahead, a panel of experts said last week.
The recent spate of pirate attacks in and around the Gulf of Aden has attracted international attention in the past three months. The International Maritime Bureau reports that 94 ships have been attacked this year and 38 of them captured. More than a dozen ships are currently being held hostage by pirates.
'In the short and medium term, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better,' Peter Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., said during a discussion hosted by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
Short of occupying Somalia and rebuilding a national political system, governments and ship operators largely have their hands tied when it comes to thwarting pirate activity off the shore of Somalia, according to the experts.
Meanwhile, naval commanders and shipping companies are pointing to each other to take more responsibility for protecting commercial traffic.
Although industry would like warships in the area to take greater action, counter-piracy is not the primary mission of most naval forces in the Arabian Sea. The naval forces are trying to cover a vast area with limited resources and are hamstrung by lack of clear authority from the United Nations.
The level of naval power has surged in recent months, but deterrent and response actions have proven ineffective because they are not coordinated by a unified command. NATO warships are focused on ensuring the safety of World Food program deliveries into southern Somalia, while fleets from India, Russia, Turkey, France, Malaysia, India and other countries are acting to protect their own citizens and flag ships, Charlie Dragonette, senior civil maritime operations analyst for the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, said.
The United States, which has a continual presence in the Middle East region, is operating as part of a loose coalition force. It also has a ship assigned to the NATO force.
Furthermore, the navies are not coordinating their efforts with industry to create solutions that meet the business needs of ship operators.
The Combined Maritime Force has tried to set up a safe corridor by posting warships at either end of the Gulf and offering commercial vessels to sail through in escorted convoys.
The French Navy is giving escort priority to French-flagged ships, European Union-flagged ships, other ships belonging to EU shipowners and the rest of the world, in that order, according to a copy of tasking instructions to the maritime industry. It said it can only accommodate two commercial vessels per convoy and is only providing a handful of rendezvous slots between late October and late December, meaning protection is not available for the vast majority of vessels.
Dragonette said the move is unrealistic because the cost of delays waiting for escorts often outweighs increased insurance premiums and opportunity costs of lost business.
'That is not a prescription likely to be taken up by many major players in the shipping industry what with just-in-time delivery and all other sorts of costs and delays,' he said.
Carriers 'don't want to be told these are the conditions we'll condescend to be protected by. Industry wants to be heard. It doesn’t want suggestions that don't take into account its own requirements. If it's not in their interest, they won’t do it,' the Navy’s merchant shipping analyst said in a follow-up interview.
The Combined Maritime Force has also urged more self-protection for shipping lines such as evasive maneuvers and equipping vessels with fire hoses to spray pirates as they try to board the ship.
Even if commanders were inclined to be more aggressive, a restrictive U.N. mandate under which they operate does not permit them to board hijacked vessels.
That leaves only about a 15-minute window in which naval forces can actually use lethal force to thwart a pirate attack, according to Dominick Donald, vice president of Aegis Defense Services LLC, a British security and risk management company.
The clock starts ticking from the time the watchkeeper notices an attack and the time pirates take control of the bridge. The only way for the lookout to distinguish between Somali pirates from fishermen is when a vessel starts firing guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
'Even if a naval vessel is two miles away, the pirates can probably get away with it,' he said.
Some navies have been using more force of late, particularly against mother ships that serve as floating base stations for the motorized speedboats actually used to attack vessels. Two weeks ago the Indian Navy said a frigate sank a pirate vessel in the Gulf of Aden. But subsequent reports indicated that the suspected pirate ship was actually a Thai fishing trawler that was in the process of being seized by pirates when it came under fire. Fourteen sailors are still missing from the fishing vessel, according to the vessel owner.
Donald said the use of lethal force may actually increase the threat to commercial shipping because pirates attacked for their involvement in an unsuccessful hijack attempt will feel compelled to make sure their attacks are successful.
'If the only time they are exposed is when they try an attack, it fails and they chug away from it, then logically they should use all means necessary to make sure they get on board that vessel and secure it so that they are then surrounded by hostages and they cannot be touched,' he said.
Further complicating matters is the lack of consensus within the shipping industry on how to combat piracy and reduce the seizure rate of vessels, Donald said. Dry bulk vessels, chemical carriers, oil tankers, container vessels, insurance underwriters, brokers, protection and indemnity clubs, and other maritime interests all have different risk tolerances and operations that dictate different courses of action.
Several companies, including tanker company Frontline, chemical parcel carrier Odjfell, the Svitzer towing firm, Taiwan-based ocean carrier TMT Co., Pacific Carriers, and A.P. Moller – Maersk have recently responded to the lawlessness at sea by routing vessels away from the Gulf and Suez Canal shortcut towards Madagascar, and around the tip of Africa. Maersk said some tankers may also join naval convoys transiting the Gulf depending on the availability of escorts. Industry officials say the extra voyage time could increase transport costs by 30 percent ($20,000 to $50,000 per day depending on the size of ship) and delay deliveries by at least two weeks.
Not every ship going around Africa would necessarily have gone through the Gulf of Aden, Dragonette pointed out, because many normally go around the Cape of Good Hope with full loads and then come back empty through the Suez Canal.
The precautionary moves apply to slow-moving bulk carriers, oilers and tugs and ships with low freeboards ' the distance from the waterline to the upper deck ' that are easier to scale. Fast-moving containerships continue to ply the Gulf of Aden. Maersk specified that only three small container vessels in regional feeder service were affected by the redeployment because they are not capable of meeting criteria for transiting the area.
Maersk policy requires that vessels trading in the pirate zone must have a freeboard greater than 10 meters or a speed in excess of 18 knots, according to Stephen Carmel, senior vice president of maritime services for Maersk Line Ltd., the U.S.-flag subsidiary of the Danish shipping conglomerate. Vessels that don't meet those criteria need to join a convoy.
Maersk Line also has resorted to light-loading some of its bulk vessels to meet the 10-meter requirement, he added.
The Office of Naval Intelligence recently issued a briefing paper noting that pirate attacks occur during daytime and that no successful attack has involved a ship going faster than 15 knots. 'All vessels are advised to proceed through the entire Gulf of Aden at maximum possible speed,' it advised.
Maersk Line captains are instructed to follow designated routes, stay in contact with coalition force checkpoints, transit dangerous areas at night, and keep a good lookout, Carmel said in an interview. The company is in the process of placing night vision goggles onboard its ships for watchkeepers and is investigating the capabilities of long-range acoustical devices, he added.
The key to evading the pirates is maintaining a high speed and turning if a threat is spotted. A large vessel that makes slight course corrections at speed creates a large wake and rough water that make it difficult for small boats to operate without getting upended. Zig-zag movements actually slow a vessel down and are not recommended.
'The object is to make it hard to get alongside and get a grappling hook over the side,' he said.
According to a corporate strategy memo, Maersk Line also recommends that captains establish a safe room with emergency communications gear, water and supplies that crews can retreat to in the event of a hijacking. The safe room ideally should be the steering gear room below deck where the crew can disable the steering on the bridge and prevent the pirates from controlling the vessel. The idea is to isolate the crew and buy time so that military authorities won't fear endangering the crew if they attempt a rescue.
The memo references an instance in which the crew of a North Korean ship retreated to the alternate steering location, and later emerged, caught the hijackers unaware and retook the vessel.
The proliferation of piracy, Carmel said, has forced Maersk for the first time to think through complex questions such as whether paying ransom could technically run afoul of terrorism financing laws enforced by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Controls.
Martin Murphy, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and associate fellow at the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies at King’s College London, questioned whether the vessel operators would be able to afford re-routing if market demand was tight due to strong economic activity.
Ship operators and owners have so far been reluctant to hire armed escorts for self-protection. Private force Blackwater Worldwide, for example, has outfitted a vessel with a helicopter pad and armed crew to escort ships through the Gulf.
Putting arms and security crews on board commercial vessels themselves is another expensive option that few carriers have exercised to date. Tanker operators, in particular, worry about firearms potentially triggering an explosion of their hazardous cargo.
Donald said armed escorts are only being considered in rare instances when a charterer wants to make sure that a special cargo is going to get through the Gulf route on a single trip.
Blackwater contends that accompanying a ship and deploying helicopters provides a safer option for the shipping industry than having armed guards on a vessel.
The protective services industry received a black eye last weekend when United Kingdom-based Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions announced that three guards aboard a chemical carrier failed to thwart a pirate attack and jumped overboard to escape. They were subsequently rescued by German and French naval forces.
The security team used non-lethal defense techniques, but could not repel the pirates. Nick Davis, a former British army pilot who formed Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions last July, said in a statement that onboard teams of ex-Royal Marines or Special Forces have successfully fought off three similar attacks on other vessels using non-lethal force. In a Nov. 20 interview with National Public Radio, Davis said the company uses long-range acoustic or magnetic audio devices, water cannons, increased speed, barbed wire on back of the vessel and other techniques to stave off attackers.
The acoustic devices are designed to emit an unbearable sound of 140 to 160 decibels at 2,000 hertz concentrated on a narrow target. The devices, coupled to an MP3 player for their sound source, are effective beyond 1,000 meters and become deafening at 300 meters, according to Davis.
But, Dragonette said, the cost of private security may exceed any insurance premium rebates since guards can only be in one place at a time and that frequent ship schedules may not make it worthwhile to wait for a private escort.
London-based corporate security consultants BGN Risk recently estimated that the piracy situation is driving up specialized risk insurance premiums for transiting the Gulf from $500 last year to $20,000 per voyage. Carmel said Maersk is only seeing insignificant increases in insurance for Gulf transits.
Dragonette said in the interview that he's seen security company quotes of up to 25,000 pounds ($38,438) per transit, which is greater than the insurance cost. Davis said his firm charges $30,000 to station a security team on board and that his teams were on seven vessels at the time.
The biggest problem with these mercenaries, Dragonette said, is that they are unregulated and uncontrolled.
'Private forces that answer to no particular flag and no single command-and-control could be very dangerous in the future' even if they are successful in the present, Dragonette said, pointing to criticism of excessive force by Blackwater and other contract security forces operating on behalf of the U.S. government in Iraq. Mercenaries have a purely monetary agenda that raises the possibility that they'll create dangers to keep themselves employed or be willing to work for others with ulterior motives, he added.
But the greatest expense that ship operators need to take into account is the liability the ship owner faces for accidents that might occur with armed escorts acting as agents of the ship owner and ship master. Persons seeking damages are likely to go after deep-pocketed cargo interests instead of the security companies themselves.
'Until liability is solved, owners will opt to take the familiar course which is to self-insure, over insure or go around' Africa, Dragonette said. Purchasing expensive kidnap and ransom insurance is optional, unlike hull and machinery or liability insurance required to legally operate vessels.
Admiralty attorney Dennis Bryant, writing in a recent Holland+Knight newsletter, wondered what legal regime would be applied if private security guards killed a suspected pirate and were arrested ashore since they don't enjoy law of the sea and sovereign immunity protections afforded military personnel.
The menace is likely to grow in the near future as pirates take advantage of new capabilities and overcome challenges that previously constrained their activity, the experts said.
Much of the spike in attacks occurred between March and October when seas are normally too choppy for small boats. Shipping companies can expect more attacks as the weather gets better.
One of the distinguishing features of Somali piracy (compared to criminal activity in places such as the Straits of Malacca, Nigeria or the Bay of Bengal) is sanctuary pirates enjoy inside territorial waters because there is no central governing authority. Pirates can take and hold ships for ransom with little or no fear of recapture or reprisal as long as the hostages are well-cared for. Reports that Islamic groups vying for power have challenged the pirates are overplayed, and some groups may actually tolerate the hijackings, Donald said. In fact, there is evidence that after the Islamic group was driven from power in 2006 some elements entered into a tactical alliance with the pirates to ferry in armaments and foreign fighters, which was repaid with some weapons training. More recently, many pirates have found sanctuary in Islamist-controlled ports, according to Pham.
'It is very difficult to see an outcome that creates the kind of stability that ensures pirates don’t enjoy sanctuary,' Donald said.
Somali piracy, which dates back to 1994, is also characterized by kidnapping, the use of mother ships, and pretexts that pirates are defending fishing grounds from illegal poachers, Murphy said.
As the pirates have become more opportunistic, they have also increased their technical ability to board ships and locate targets further out using Global Positioning Systems. Donald said other pirate groups will learn from and be emboldened by the recent capture of the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star some 450 miles off the coast of Kenya.
Traditionally, pirates operated off the east coast of Somalia against slow, low-freeboard vessels following predictable routes and serving coastal ports. But the pirates changed tactics and switched efforts this year after realizing that the eastern shipping lanes were not that target rich compared to the Gulf of Aden, pathway for up to 80 to 100 vessels per day or more than 20,000 vessels per year, Donald said.
'All you need to do is park your mother ship out (near) a shipping lane and wait for suitable target to come along,' he said. 'Once they found what the gaps are in naval capability (in the NATO protected lane) then they are ready to find targets.'
As the year progressed, hijackers graduated from attacking vessels of 12,000 tons or less to ones that were 50,000 tons, culminating with the capture of the 319,000-ton Sirius Star.
'Do not underestimate the difficulty of trying to hijack a very large crude carrier steaming full-speed in the high seas,' he said.
Meanwhile, the availability of targets will remain relatively constant as vessel traffic continues to ply the Suez route. Nonetheless, pirates only attack about 0.3 of total ship traffic in the Gulf, and only 0.1 percent of ships are hijacked, according to a report by private intelligence group Stratfor. Most of the ships that are attacked are owned by companies based in countries such as the Ukraine or the United Arab Emirates that don’t have strong navies to protect their ships, it said.
'Right now, most countries that can defeat the pirates by force are more interested in fighting terrorism. Piracy does not pose enough of a threat to the world to justify reassigning ships to patrol for pirates instead of assisting forces in Iraq or Afghanistan. Nations will move to protect their own, but as long as pirates attack ships from countries with no formidable navy, they will rouse attention but little action,' Stratfor said.
'Until naval rules of engagement are substantially changed it is going to be very difficult to see that the pirates' ability to mount opportunistic attacks in that shipping lane are going to go down,' Donald said.
'And you probably don't want to loosen those rules of engagement because unless you are absolutely certain the ships are pirates you are liable to kill innocent fishermen or others.'
As the Indian Navy incident indicates, Navy commanders are at pains to distinguish pirates from non-combatant vessels. A U.S. Navy communication obtained by American Shipper noted that coalition forces often receive distress calls about suspected pirate attacks that turn out to be local fishermen who follow large ships because the wake attracts fish. On one occasion the Navy failed to respond to a vessel that was successfully hijacked because warships were responding to a false alarm, according to the message.
Heritage scholar James Carafano, in a recent policy paper, urged the Pentagon to field prototype laser weapons to combat the pirates. Improvements in laser technology, namely the development of commercial solid-state lasers and laser optics, have made these directed energy weapons a viable option for non-conventional military threats, he said. Mobile, low-power laser weapons could be used to disable electrical components or engines on an attacking boat, have the benefit of an almost infinite magazine as long as they can be recharged, can be effectively aimed using radar or night-vision goggles and can be employed with minimum risk toward surrounding civilians or ships.
Getting these weapons, which have been under development for years, in the field for anti-piracy and anti-terrorism purposes would provide the military with operational experience using the new technology, Carafano said.
Meanwhile, shipowners will continue to pay ransoms to recover their vessels and crews. An October report by British think-tank Chatham House estimated that more than $30 million in ransom money had been paid to pirates in 2008, at an average of about $2 million per ship. Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula recently said that ransoms worth an estimated $150 million have been paid, by about 25 shipowners, to pirates around the Horn of Africa in the past 12 months, although the figure doesn't square with that of most analysts.
'The payment of ransom is not going to stop. The reality is no conscientious ship operator can afford to say I’m not going to pay ransoms,' Pham said.
The long-term solution depends on creating a stable political situation in Somalia, something easier said than done considering the fact that no government has any stomach to occupy the state-less African nation, the analysts said.
An Ethiopian invasion, tacitly approved by the Bush administration, has done little to stop the Islamist movement and reinstate a powerless Somali government that only holds a few neighborhoods in the capital Mogadishu and a few other towns.
Murphy said that Russia was 'grandstanding' when it recently suggested that Somali pirate bases be destroyed by shelling or storming. He noted that the Barbary pirates were severely restrained by shelling their North African ports in the early 19th century but weren't stopped until U.S. Marines made on-shore raids and helped foment opposition groups into a successful insurgency against the ruling pasha.
One way to potentially undermine the pirates is to go after their enablers, Pham said.
'Where are these pirates getting their material, where are they fueling the mother ships? There is no infrastructure to support this activity [in Somalia]. All of it is being brought in, so perhaps there’s an opportunity to cut it off.' he said.
Murphy said the world community may need to treat the situation like a police exercise and investigate the kingpins who receive the lion's share of the ransom proceeds. ' Eric Kulisch