Arrest of anti-piracy mercenaries highlights maritime security

Published: October 23, 2013

Piracy and ship hijackings have spawned a worrying boom in largely-unregulated security companies offering armed mercenaries to protect merchant ships plying dangerous waters.

However, the perils of having freelance guns-for-hire roaming the high seas have been again brought to the fore since the Indian Coast Guard last week arrested an American-operated ship off the southern Tamil Nadu coast with a crew of 35, including 25 heavily-armed mercenaries.

The ship, called the MV Seaman Guard Ohio and operated by the Virginia-based maritime security firm AdvanFort, was apparently driven into Indian territorial waters by a typhoon.

The incident has excited more-than-usual public and political attention in India, for two reasons.

India has direct experience of what can happen when the increasingly common practice of deploying armed guards on merchant ships goes wrong.

Two Italian marines are awaiting trial in India for murder. It is alleged that early last year, while serving as guards on an Italian oil tanker off the Kerala coast, they shot and killed two Indian fishermen they mistook for pirates.

The matter became a major diplomatic row between the Indian and Italian governments, and even sparked several anti-Italian demonstrations across India, including the abduction of two Italian tourists.

The ease with which the heavily-armed ship entered Indian waters has also raised alarm, coming so close to the anniversary of the 2008 attack on India’s commercial capital, Mumbai, by Pakistan-based radical Islamic terrorists.

Over 160 people were killed in the attack by the 10 terrorists, who came ashore from speedboats at the city’s waterfront.

The protection of merchant shipping came to the forefront in 2005 when Somali pirates started preying on vessels using the busy sea lanes from the Suez Canal into the Indian Ocean. Piracy is now thought to cost the global economy about $7 billion a year.

The Somalis have captured dozens of ships a year and held hundreds of crew members hostage. Ship owners faced ransom demands of up to $5 million for the release of their ships and crews, and they were also confronted with huge added premiums from insurance companies.

Several countries sent warships to the waters off Somalia on anti-piracy patrols, and the problem has now significantly diminished, though there is a new and growing piracy hotspot in the Gulf of Guinea off the coasts of Nigeria and Togo. However, many shipping companies have taken to hiring guards from maritime security companies as a cheaper alternative to insurance premiums or ransoms.

Deploying half a dozen armed guards on a ship for a week while it travels through pirate-infested waters can cost up to $50,000. Engaging an escort vessel, such as the MV Seaman Guard Ohio, can cost double that.

There are about 140 maritime security companies reported to be operating in the Indian Ocean, with about 40 armed patrol boats and employing close to 3,000 mercenary guards.

There are, though, no coherent or consistent internationally-agreed regulations governing the operation of these companies. While some countries permit and even aid in the use of armed guards, others are far more wary, especially as the guards change a ship’s legal status from a merchant vessel engaged in innocent passage to that of a naval vessel.

Late last year, the International Standards Organization published “Guidelines for Private Maritime Security Companies,” but many shipping companies do not use these criteria when hiring armed guards.

Former British Marine Commandos and United States Special Forces personnel are favourite candidates for jobs with the security companies. The 25 armed guards on the MV Seaman Guard Ohio are, however, a mixed bag.

Six are British, 14 are Estonians, four are Indian and one is a Ukrainian.

All, together with the 10 crew members, are being held in prison and face charges of breaching India’s Arms Act and Passport Act.

The debate over whether or not to provide armed guards for merchant shipping has been raging for over 20 years, since an epidemic of piracy started in the early 1990s in the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait between Singapore and Indonesia.

The problem led the London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB) to set up its Piracy Reporting Centre in Malaysia in 1992. This centre continues to keep track of piracy trends and to offer advice to ship owners on security.

The latest report from the IMB published this week says piracy worldwide in the third quarter of this year was at its lowest level since 2006.

There were 188 piracy incidents in the first nine months of this year, against 233 in the same period in 2012. Hostage-taking has fallen significantly from 266 people held for ransom this year, compared with 458 in the first nine months of 2012.

IMB director Capt. Pottengal Mukudan attributes the improvement to “actions of naval forces engaged in anti-piracy operations, security teams on board vessels, ships complying with the industry’s best management practices, and the stabilizing influence of the central government of Somalia.”

From the start, however, the IMB has argued against putting armed security teams on merchant ships. This position is echoed by the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization.

The IMB stance stems largely for its concern for the safety of crew members. It has consistently taken the position that arming merchant ships will spark an “arms race,” compelling pirates to use heavier weapons.

Second, the IMB argues that putting armed guards on ships raises the probabilily of shoot-outs in which the crew are likely to be collateral victims.

Instead, the IMB has always advocated vigilance and passive systems of ship defence, such as a Dutch-designed electric fence.

However, the practice by ship owners of hiring mercenaries has now become unstoppable and, sadly, it will undoubtedly take more incidents like the murder of the Indian fishermen, and the clear dangers of armed privateers like the MV Seaman Guard Ohio, before a workable international regime is enforced.


Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe