Private navies exaggerate the maritime piracy threat

A media frenzy may have obscured the facts when it comes to the level of piracy in the Gulf of Aden

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If we are honest about the effect of Somali piracy on global shipping, then our analysis must be this: the threat has been exaggerated by a media frenzy.

Somali piracy is alive and still represents a threat to old, slow, unprotected merchant and fishing vessels that do not adhere to the reasoned advice and guidance of embarked security teams or the plethora of antipiracy guides.

But the rate of piracy is down, and political initiatives inside the Horn of Africa are now turning a legal tide against the organised criminals who sponsored the activities of pirates during Somali piracy's heyday of 2010-2012.

Indeed, ever tightening banking regulation has targeted money laundering from these gangs and important regional political influence will come to bear as time advances. All of this means there are fewer and fewer safe havens from which pirates can operate.

Given these trends, questions should be asked about plans by international investors to establish a private navy to escort merchant ships through the Gulf of Aden. As The National reported last month, a company called Typhon hopes to base its operations in the UAE.

To be sure, the international maritime presence led by Nato and the EU is set to decline, given member nations' finances and savage defence cuts. Certainly the market is ripe for this type of private initiative. But is it necessary?

Typhon's bold entry into the market is timed to coincide with the seasonal spike in pirate action in the Indian Ocean, and their approach is marketed as a comprehensive operational solution to the activities of pirate groups. Yet many questions about the commercial venture must be asked.

What is the target market for this service, which appears to be the brain child of London based insurance underwriters, private security companies and shipping brokers? Surely only those companies that own modern ships and transport high value or high risk cargoes could afford to subscribe to this initiative.

The likes of LNG carriers, large container ships and super yachts (with owner embarked) would warrant such a service, but at what cost?

Some might argue that this commercial initiative comes more than a year too late, as the threat of piracy on regional shipping has clearly diminished. According to the International Chamber of Commerce International Maritime Bureau, 2012 saw the fewest number of pirate attacks in three years.

Additionally, the maritime industry is going through a particularly severe recession with shipping rates cut to the bone, costs rising and a steady procession of new ships, ordered during the boom years, now becoming operational. The market for older ships - those most at risk from piracy - has collapsed and hulls are being broken up for rock-bottom prices.

Even during the worst periods of piracy, the maritime industry actively disliked the convoy system being proposed by Typhon unless it became an absolute necessity. The Nato/EU patrolled corridor was successful up to a point, but even then many operators ignored it because the sailing times and speeds just did not fit their commercial time frames.

So the tactical and operational answer to piracy is not a return to privatisation; it is the adoption of a more resilient and systemic approach to ship protection. Why then are private security initiatives so attractive to some?

The answer to this question lies in the failures of our international maritime security system, which is largely unenforceable and equally ineffective. The International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS) represents hurried law made in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and is not properly enforced by ship owners, classification societies or by many Flag States.

The international legal system could not and did not deal with piracy as an offence, and instead hastily negotiated bilateral agreements that allowed western nations to palm off the problem to other countries. International counter-terrorism agreements, such as the 1988 Suppression of Unlawful Acts (SUA) treaty, were not enforced against pirates. Instead, a politically expedient catch-and-release policy was shamelessly followed by many Nato nations.

It is now time to review how all merchant ships are protected, ensuring that from now on these measures are resilient, comprehensive, conducive to commercial pressures and cost effective to implement.

Christopher Ledger of Idarat Maritime, a UK-based shipping security company, says that "the key to safe passage and safety at anchor lies in using the process of systemic resilience in all fleets: a combination of training, with proper systems and processes as well as basic protective measures on every ship, which are as apposite in the Horn of Africa, Gulf of Guinea, Malacca Straits or Caribbean".

Guides such as the industry's Best Management Practices Version 4 (BMP4) were and still are an admirable start to bolstering the minimum standards; but how many shipowners followed these provisions and recommendations fully?

A maritime system that adopted the same no-nonsense approach to lax attitudes to security, as it does to environmental issues such as oil pollution, would be a step in the right direction. Why not allow classification societies and port state inspectors to examine ship security plans or their associated risk assessments when ships undergo annual class or flag inspections?

We are moving in the right direction with training for all seafarers to be security aware. A greater emphasis on security inside existing frameworks would be a good start and ensure security was in-line with all aspects of ship-borne safety management.

For those private security companies looking to make a quick profit out of the embers of Somali piracy, it is probably time to consider a long overdue visit to the Gulf of Guinea, today's new hotbed of marine crime, piracy - and international hubris.

David Mugridge is a maritime security consultant and former British Royal Navy officer