Think he cares you have a shotgun?
To many, the date February 28, 1997 may seem somewhat inconsequential—just another day with no true bearing on events in the Indian Ocean region that we all find ourselves so focused on now. However, the lessons learned on 28/2/1997 apply just as much to Anti-Piracy as they did to the Los Angeles Police Department. Unlike the LAPD, however, it would seem the Mar Sec industry has not learned from the mistakes of others.

On February 28, 1997, Larry Phillips, Jr. and Emil Mătăsăreanu opened fire on the LAPD after robbing the North Hollywood branch of Bank of America. Until this point, most American police departments issued patrol officers 9mm handguns and 12-gauge shotguns to be stored in their vehicles — there were no complaints from the police or public, as it was understood that SWAT had access to heavier arms such as the M16.

During what has been dubbed “the North Hollywood Shootout”, police found themselves outgunned and outmatched by Phillips and Mătăsăreanu, both wearing body armor and armed with fully automatic AK-47s. Their 9mm Berettas had no effect on the two juggernauts, and for nearly an hour, police found themselves in a woefully precarious tactical position (a nice way of saying they were on the receiving end of 1,300 rounds of 7.62x39mm rounds) while awaiting SWAT to arrive, finally resorting to “appropriating” Armalite rifles from a local gun store.

While SWAT ultimately killed both shooters, the realization had fallen on police forces around the country that there might not be time to await a SWAT response. This was again reinforced during the Columbine High School Massacre in Colorado just two years later. Now, taking into account the lessons learnt, patrol officers in the US are issued M4 rifles, and are trained in “Active Shooter” techniques. No longer do they need to await SWAT to respond, as they are fully capable of responding independently in an urgent situation.

By now, you are probably asking yourself “How does this pertain to the Maritime Security world?” In short, we have already had our 28/2 event. Except ours was August 29, 2011. Imagine you were a member of Security Team aboard the MV that was followed by eight skiffs with 8-10 pirates in each, engaging in a desperate 30-minute gunfight with 80 Guys with AK-47s such as the ones Phillips and Mătăsăreanu used that day in Hollywood. Countering that level of fire with a hunting rifle is just not a fair fight. It’s lopsided—and not in our favor.

To be frank, Mar Sec in its current state is a house of cards. There are over 175 Million AK-47s in existence. With an effective range of roughly 400 yards, these rifles will punch holes in steel plate with ease. Put bluntly, hunting rifles, shotguns, and the other off-the-gun-store-shelf weapons that have been seen or heard of being used in the area are simply no more of a deterrent to the AK-47 than the 9mm Berettas used by LAPD on that February day in 1997. Not to name names, but one firm touted 9mm Beretta CX4 carbines in photographs on their website!

We in the industry like to tout that no vessel has been successfully hijacked with armed security on board. This is no different from proclaiming, “I haven’t fallen” while standing atop a tight rope during gale force winds. True — you have not, but you will. A realistic look at the situation will reveal that the correct statement is “No ship has been hijacked — yet” (also a view of EUNAVFORs Chief of Staff). Alas, it will happen if we continue to deploy undertrained and underequipped security teams. On the same note, the knee-jerk retreat to the citadel to await military forces (AKA, wait for the “SWAT team”) is just as flawed. During the Columbine Massacre, the police fell back on their version of the wait-it-out tactic. They secured a perimeter—and waited. All the while, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were free to roam the halls of the school killing and wounding 37 students and teachers. This is why Police Forces in the developed the active shooter technique referred to above. Mar Sec firms would do well to do the same, as retreating to the Citadel should be an absolute last resort—with the new tactic pirates have displayed of setting ships ablaze out of frustration, the citadel can become a coffin as opposed to safe haven.

Many clients may not be fully aware of the disservices that many “cowboy” companies give them. However, that is our job as providers to inform them. Success need not be measured on how many transits we undertake, but instead on how many mariners under our protection make it home at the end of the day. If just one is killed under our collective watch, we have failed. With ever-changing PAG tactics and increasing levels of aggression, we need to adapt as well and we shouldn’t wait for the day the warning shots aren’t enough to disperse a PAG to realize that.

We need not be “Security Companies”, but instead “Companies Providing Security”. We are contracted to give our clients the freedom from doubt, anxiety, or fear that comes with sailing the HRA (High Risk Areas), or the coast of West Africa, or anywhere a client may face a threat. We are here to provide confidence. That confidence must come through education of the threat, and the knowledge that a properly equipped and trained team has the means to deal with that threat.
8/4/2013 05:40:41 pm

I completely agree with your views. It is true that Mar Sec industry has yet to learn from the mistakes of others. The robbery of the North Hollywood branch of Bank of America was really unfortunate. It is time to think beyond shotguns!

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