By Mark Evans
February 21, 2012

Lately there has been a lot of bleating why armed security officers are not helping the piracy situation by being present aboard vessels and taking an active role during any piracy attack. There is presently a void in which, the military forces in the region cannot fill, and again it is left to the private contract to make up the shortfall.

There are many reasons why armed security officers are utilized aboard vessels and four of the main ones are listed below, which I think most of the maritime fraternity will agree with. There are many anti-piracy conferences held an each year in which representatives of many nations and stakeholders attend but all we see is prevarication. The EU are constantly passing new protocols and policies to deal with this scourge of the sea, but other than that very little change is apparent. The issue regarding detention and prosecution is a separate topic completely.

These are difficult times with much uncertainty in the region with a large scale conflict possible sooner rather than later at which time the military resources in the Gulf of Aden could be redeployed elsewhere leaving the pirates carte blanche to attack with impunity. The pirates are constantly evolving and adapting their tactics, most effective for causing confusing and stretching the resources of many armed security teams is a multiple approach. These tactics are often used in the monsoon season, but mostly are adopted around Bab El Manded near Djibouti. There are whispers in the wind at this time about reducing the numbers of armed security officers on board vessels or even removing them completely, this is the outcry by companies who produce anti-piracy devices that are classed as the “Non-lethal option”. I have seen quite a few wonderful and innovative anti-piracy devices in my short time in the industry none of which worked as intended to the unquantifiable scenarios that could be played out. Many of these devices are short range and manufactured for the sole purpose of stalling an attack by fouling outboard engines--or prevent or radically slow down any boarding attempt.

These devices will not stop small arms fire or rocket propelled grenades, which do cause significant and considerable damage to vessels. Certain classes of vessels--like Liquid Natural Gas carriers have metalwork constructed on the deck for holding and transferring valuable and volatile cargoes, which costs more than the hull of the vessel. If this vessel is damaged, it could cost the operators well over $25,000 USD per day for every day it is out of service. It is irresponsible and negligent to imply that armed security officers no longer have a role to play in the ongoing fight against eradicating piracy. Shipping operators or charterer’s will be reluctant to pay for both anti-piracy devices and armed security as part of the layered defense. Presently a large proportion of security companies authorize their teams via the Masters direction to fire at least five warning shots in the general direction of any perceived threat that has been identified as such. Constant observations are kept on the threat to reinforce suspicions of hostile intent and to date no vessel with armed security onboard has been boarded or hijacked. This is a testament to having armed security onboard and can be evidenced by corroboration of all the piracy reports submitted to the authorities.

With the introduction of ICoC and SAMI, the rabble-rousers who are making waves about the carriage of weapons onboard are losing their argument by the introduction of new measures to reduce the irresponsible actions of the minority of security teams or individuals operating in the region. Why bother to purchase non-lethal anti-piracy devices, which may or may not work? It is all well and good shouting aloud “run to the Citadel” but what happens if the pirates are able to use explosives to gain entry? Many vessels I have worked on have insufficient materials for strengthening wooden doors leading to the engine room or citadel, or enough razor wire to be effective, only the presences of weapons on board was the guarantee to ensuring no boarding took place.

1.     In the early part of 2011, the P&I clubs forced the issue of armed security onboard as many operators had been dragging their heels and playing the numbers game. On the balance of probabilities many vessels hijacked in 2009, 2010 and 2011 would not have been with the presence of armed security. This was a contributing factor why the UK Government capitulated, as the owners/operators of UK vessels would find themselves at a disadvantage both financially and risk factor.

2.     The psychological effect, when the crew learns of an armed security team transiting through the high-risk area has a profound impact on the crew, which reassures them immensely. Many of deck crews know someone who has been held captive or they know someone who knows someone who has been held captive and they are very fearful of being hijacked. Even if weapons are not discharged the mere fact security personnel are onboard with the potential to repel any pirate attack is a positive one.

3.     No piracy boarding has been successful against security teams returning fire against a determined pirate attack, shipping operators and charterers understand this and are both comfortable and confident with the use of weapons onboard vessels. If for some unexplained reason pirates are able to successfully board the vessel at least with armed security the engine room and citadel can be defended to maintain propulsion and steering failing that the citadel only. Non-lethal devices will not do that! Therefore, weapons speak for themselves when used responsibly.

4.     I will remind those who would consider using a non-lethal option, MV Biscaglia that was carrying unarmed security and an anti-piracy device, which failed miserably! Then in 2011, another vessel, which had no armed security to keep the pirates at an ineffective distance, caused the destruction of MT Brillante Virtuoso, which caught fire after multiple strikes by rocket propelled grenades.

The companies selling all the Gucci anti-piracy devices will argue that there are too many cowboys operating on vessels,  which may be the case, but that is due to be resolved sooner rather than later. Most security operators are either Military or Police and will be more effective by using weapons to deter an attack in the first instance before using lethal force. Unfortunately, the manufactures of such devices will not be on board during an attack but ashore safe and well, whilst a desperate crew tries their best to prevent a boarding against multiple skiffs because the anti-piracy devices have failed or malfunctioned. What guarantee and reassurance will these manufactures provide to the crews should a vessel be hijacked through mechanical or electronic failure. Will these companies shift the responsibility and state “operator error”?

There is not much difference between a company that manufactures anti-piracy devices that have no guarantee of working as intended with that of a maritime security company that deploys a security team with ineffective weapons, training and insufficient ammunition to repel any determined and resilient pirate attack. Both are placing the cargo, crew, and vessel at risk. It is about time that shipping operators and charterers seen through some of these companies who offer a service they have no hope of delivering and take a chance with people’s lives and property.

Mark Evans, Beowulf’s Maritime Operations Director, comes to Beowulf with a number of years in the maritime security industry, coupled with seven years in law enforcement, and twelve years’ experience in the UK Military. Before turning his skills and experience to the private sector primarily Maritime security, Mark served in hostile environments conducting counter insurgency operations in addition to anti-piracy operations. 

 As Beowulf’s Operations Director, Evans is responsible for coordinating deployments, tasked with ensuring that operations are efficient and effective, and that at all times Beowulf anti-piracy teams maintain the proper management of resources, distribution of assets, and ensures the quality control of Beowulf’s services to customers.

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