The Armed Security Response to Piracy…..and Some of the Hassles

MV Ocean Atlas, a U.S. flagged cargo ship fell afoul of Venezuelan authorities during a recent port call in Maracaibo.  Although the situation has been resolved, with Ocean Atlas said to have sailed on Friday, September 14th, this incident highlights a growing issue in the maritime industry.  Aside from the alarming trend of criminalizing merchant mariners, whether for pollution incidents or other serious marine incidents, there are many countries threatening criminal and civil penalties for carrying weapons on board merchant vessels for self-defense.

Somali piracy off the Horn of Africa has been at least temporarily suppressed, largely through the use of armed security teams.  Piracy off the West coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea off Nigeria, Togo and Benin is skyrocketing.  It is highly likely that Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSC – an IMO designation) will find increasing employment off the West coast of Africa as well.

Armed security teams means that arms (weapons) will have to be on-board the ships.  But, how to get them there?  

Due to the difficulty of transporting weapons and gear through foreign countries en-route to a vessel, many shipping companies have found it easier to load weapons and ammunition in their home countries.  This eliminates the issues arising from transporting weapons through airports or shipping them to a ship’s agent in a foreign port.  When the vessel approaches the High Risk area, the Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel (PCASP – another IMO designation) fly out, join the vessel and break out the weapons stored onboard.  Unfortunately, this tactic of having weapons on-board the vessel at all times, regardless of where the ship is operating, brings about exactly the situation in which Ocean Atlas‘s crew found themselves.

Another option that has gained some traction is the use of floating armories.  In this case, a vessel such as a converted oilfield supply boat, is stationed in the Red Sea, Straits of Hormuz or South of Mozambique to board provide passing vessels with security teams their weapons.  This eliminates the issues involved with merchant vessels arriving in port with weapons onboard.  It does however, create the necessity for an open ocean transfer of weapons and/or personnel.  Such a transfer is not always the easiest – whether due to sea conditions or time of day.

The following video is courtesy of ABC News and provides some good insight into the world of armed security onboard merchant vessels :

There are many countries that have implemented regulations and/or procedures for dealing with weapons entering their ports.  The following are some of the ones that have come up recently :

Egypt : Currently illegal to have weapons on-board while transiting coastal waters or Suez Canal.  In order to transit Suez Canal, the offload of weapons and land transport to the other end of the canal is required.

India : Weapons and ammunition must be secured in a locked weapon safe when entering Indian territorial (12nm offshore) waters.  Vessels transiting the Indian EEZ (200 nm offshore) and carrying armed security must make reports to Indian Coast Guard and Navy.  In either case, a complete declaration of security personnel and weapons must be made within 96 hours of entering Indian EEZ.

Yemen : Substantial “fee” normally paid by shipping agent to Yemeni Coast Guard.

Kenya : Weapons required to be removed from vessel and stored in armory ashore during port stay.

South Africa : 96 hours (4 days) notice required.  Numerous ship masters have been detained and charged under the Fire Arms Control Act.  Previously, 21 days notice had been required prior to arrival when carrying weapons for self-defense.

Venezuela : As per U.S. Coast Guard, “Vessels planning to enter Venezuelan ports and carrying security weapons, are advised to ensure proper registration and confirmation from the appropriate Venezuelan Customs authorities prior to entry, and to heed any concerns regarding their carriage by country agents.

Further encouragement is given to reconsider the need to carry weapons on your vessel during port calls in this country. This equally applies in other ports. There are still grey areas and ports may have rules that do not match with the country rules.

In all cases, weapons and ammunition must be declared to customs officials.  Not doing so will leave the imprudent master w-i-d-e open to criminal charges and penalties.  Contacting the company’s agent well in advance of arrival in a foreign port for advice is highly recommended.  This will allow time to make entry declarations and notices in a timely manner.

As piracy is growing off the West coast of Africa and the underlying cause of Somali piracy has not been addressed, the need for on-board security personnel and in particular, armed personnel, does not appear to be going away anytime soon.  Proper education in regulations and security procedures is essential for any deck officer sailing in High Risk waters.  If formal training is not available to you, there are ample online sources including  IMO, UKMTO, SAMI, IAMSP, ASIS, ICS/ISF and BIMCO to name just a few.  Regulations, procedures and security risks change on a daily basis – just because something worked or was acceptable on the last voyage doesn’t mean it is now.

Your Relationship with Onboard Security Teams

February 15, 2012 will be a date many in the maritime security industry will remember for a long time. It was the day that the first innocent deaths were laid at the feet of an armed security team in the Indian Ocean. During a routine transit 22 nautical miles off the West coast of India, the embarked security team onboard the Italian oil tanker Enrica Lexie opened fire on a fishing boat that was apparently approaching their vessel. In the aftermath, 2 unarmed Indian fishermen were killed.

Armed security teams have become more prevalent in the Indian Ocean Basin and the Gulf of Aden/Horn of Africa (GOA/HOA) region due to the explosive rise of Somali piracy since 2007. With increased piracy in the Gulf of Guinea off and in Southeast Asia, it seems you might find them onboard a vessel almost anywhere.  One of the greatest concerns with putting armed security onboard a vessel is responsibility; Responsibility for weapons laws – responsibility for taking lethal action and ultimately, responsibility for deaths or injuries.

On February 15th, P&I (protection and indemnity, i.e. insurance) broker Marsh USA announced a new insurance facility to support the rapidly developing maritime security sector. Whether it was fortuitous or poor timing, it certainly shows that there is concern in boardrooms over a company’s liability with onboard security teams – particularly when they are armed.

This incident off the coast of India, tragic as it is, highlights many of the stickier subjects of maritime security. One of these is that the security team in question was Italian military, not a private contractor. When discussing the difference between embarking military personnel versus private contractors, much of the conversation must come down to the chain of command. Having military security teams onboard vessels is not new – Portuguese and French fishing vessels in the Indian Ocean have had military security onboard for years. The U.S. Military Sealift Command (MSC – not to be confused with the Mediterranean Shipping Company) has embarked U.S. Navy security personnel onboard their vessels, dependent on their area of operation. In the case of MSC vessels, the security team detachment’s chain of command did not run through the master of the vessel. Instead, it operated under its own rules of engagement (ROE), while consulting with and advising the master. In at least one instance, this culminated with the scaled escalation of force against a fishing vessel, with the deck watch officer/mate on watch or master not being consulted.

In the case of the Enrica Lexie, what was the chain of command?

After defining the chain of command, the next topics that must be covered are the ROE and steps for a scaled escalation of force. The particulars of the Enrica Lexie incident are unknown, but there will seldom be an instance where a security team jumps directly to lethal force. A scaled escalation of force always starts with the lowest level of force, with additional force added until the threat is eliminated. Eliminated has an ominous overtone, but may include a suspicious vessel turning away or otherwise proving that they are not a threat. The presence of a security team alone may be enough to dissuade robbers or pirates. If not, the next step may be to indicate you are watching them – searchlights, laser “dazzlers” or activating anti-piracy water hoses along the ship’s side may have an effect. Non-lethal measures may be tried next – there are various systems available, but many prefer the Long Range Acoustical Device (LRAD). The LRADs effectiveness is not so much its ability as a non-lethal weapon, but in its versatility in weeding the truly committed perpetrator out from the fishing vessels and for its ability to be recorded by the vessel data recorder (VDR).

In the event your security team has to take lethal action, you will want to be able to prove to authorities and your company that a scaled escalation of force was used. A thorough investigation of the Enrica Lexie incident should include a review of the VDR data to demonstrate the actions taken.

While military security teams are an asset onboard a vessel in a high threat area, it would appear that on the Enrica Lexie, they were also a liability. Part of the difficulty with military security teams is the chain of command, but may also continue to the level of training and experience of its members. Simply put, private contractors are there to protect the company’s asset, with no other bosses or agendas with which to deal. Many companies offering vessel security services have joined organizations such as SAMI or IAMSP that provide vetting and guidance. It would be highly recommended that any company, vessel or master hiring a vessel security company do the proper research on those companies and regulations thereof.

No one wants to find out, as the pirates are coming over the rail, that the security company you hired wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

The author has had a security team from the Trident Group embarked for much of the past three years.  Much of the success of the teams from the Trident Group stems from the fact that they are consummate professionals.  There have been many instances where a less controlled or less trained security team may have escalated to lethal force with disastrous results as on the Enrica Lexie.  While Madden Maritime has no affiliation with the Trident Group, they would be recommended as the go-to maritime security company – anytime and anywhere.

The Trident Group

Maritime Security Council

Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI)

International Association of  Maritime Security Professionals (IAMSP)