EUNAVFOR Briefing 28/09/10

In order to keep the shipping industry up to date with the ongoing EUNAVFOR mission off the coast of Somali, the latest anti-piracy briefing was recently held at the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) headquarters in London.

Led by Major General Buster Howes, Rear Admiral Hank Ort of the Netherlands, head of a NATO naval affiliate and Peter Hinchcliffe Secretary General of ICS, it began with what sounded initially a rather upbeat note, as pirate attacks are being kept at the lowest level believed possible within the International Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC). However, what that actually means is that considering the levels of resources available we cannot expect to make any further progress against the Pirate Action Groups (PAGs) without new ways of tackling the menace.

It was clearly stated that piracy is a not a force generator for western naval powers. As it doesn’t drive the wider naval strategy, this sees us struggling to police such vast areas of ocean.

Outside the IRTC area, it seems we are no closer to defeating the pirates. Given the size of the area to be policed, this is perhaps unsurprising. With 2.6million square miles of sea to cover there is no feasible way that sufficient presence can effectively be brought to bear. Even at speeds of 30knots there is a minuscule operational foot print for naval vessels. A capability which is only boosted marginally with aircraft brought into the mix.

It was quoted that it would take 83 helicopter equipped vessels to provide effective 1 hour responses in the area – given that most attacked vessels are only able to request help with around 10mins warning, then the problems are clear.

In fact the success around the IRTC has brought with it a new set of problems. With the more effective naval presence around the corridor, the pirates are moving ever outwards. A capability boosted not simply with mother ships, but the investment in piratical accoutrements such as new enhanced outboards and armaments.

Peter Hinchcliffe thanked those present for the efforts of EUNAVFOR, but reminded all that complacency is not an option. Every success against the pirates should be tempered with the ICS view that there is no acceptable level of piracy- every single attack is one too many!

While there has been progress, there are still real problems being faced by the naval forces as they tackle modern piracy. The issues of legality and jurisdiction are ever present, allied to the fact that the Somali pirates proliferate and are increasingly professional in their approach. They are, it was stressed, “nimble asymmetric actors”, and the stage at the moment is all too often theirs.

With so many mainstream Press in evidence it was perhaps unsurprising to hear the question of arming seafarers raised once more. The view from the floor was re-iterated that this is not an answer, and is in fact likely to simply create new problems rather than solve the current one. To provide a credible, effective, managed and appropriate armed response takes considerable training. Merchant seafarers simply do not have this expertise. Nor should they require it.

So if additional ‘muscle’ is needed, where should it come from? The issue of private security fleets was discussed, as an increasing number of companies are in the process of fitting out vessels or actively pursuing funding to do so. The view of EUNAVFOR was not wholly against the idea, but that there were serious considerations to be addressed.

Private security companies have a role, but who are they and what are they doing? Rules of engagement, codes of conduct and operating standards need addressing. While the sea area is immense, the battle space can get squeezed and congested if crowded with private security. Legions of legitimate security firms can add value, but there are real dangers too. So it seems that where such practitioners are known, respected, accountable and even more importantly contactable, then there is potential.

The onus rests with the security industry to find the ways and means to legitimise its presence, and to ensure that there is the means to effectively support their client vessels. It is far from easy to provide intimate support, even more so if the pirates are able to attack in strength. The pirates have proven themselves adept at adaptation, and there is a danger they will evolve further to tackle an increase in private security.

There is a sense that while the piracy battles are fought at sea, the war will be won ashore. Which means the real answer to the Somali problem is as simple to appreciate as it is difficult to bring about. The key is seen to be “nation building”. To create community, life, careers, wealth and a sense of alternative pursuits for the young men so readily seduced into a life of piracy and violent crime.

While there is some progress in parts of the country, there are real concerns about the rule of law and a seeming distrust of judicial process. Indeed the whole region is still seen as fragile, a tinderbox of potential conflict. The circle of mistrust needs to be broken, and perhaps investment and incentives can one day fill in the void in which piracy has taken root.

With the real answer being a long term, long shot – we are left with the short term means of protecting shipping. This brings us to the adoption and implementation of Best Management Practice (BMP). This is a weakness, as adherence to BMP is felt to be patchy and all too often nonexistent.

The guidance within the BMPs is a route map to hardening the vessel, it is not about ‘cherry picking’ guidance or addressing individual elements – it is all or nothing. The advice is simple and clear, enact the guidance and you have a chance, ignore it and the likelihood of being hijacked increases. There are far too many vessels, which for a host of reasons are failing in their duty to protect themselves, leaving crews and vessels vulnerable.

Whether through ignorance or negligence, some crews and operators are playing fast and loose with the rules, a ‘Russian roulette’ approach which places seafarers and the responding armed forces at risk. Things have to change, there can be no excuses and all vessel operators in the area have to implement ways of responding and reacting. Unfortunately the advice within the BMPs is seen by many to be an “inbuggerance”, a hassle which takes up valuable time and resources. However these are not up for debate, they aren’t so much best practice, as minimum measures. Perhaps the title makes them seem to be unattainable principles for sub-standard operators?

With so many crews and operators struggling to impose and implement the standards of BMP it is clear that a stronger hand is needed in both guiding and enforcing compliance. There are lessons from some Flag States, with the US leading the charge in applying stringent standards and measures for its own flagged and owned vessels. It seems perhaps that it is time for others to follow suit. Anything less than the ‘best’ simply is not good enough, a harsh truth but one which can no longer be ignored.

Steven Jones

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