Dom Mee interview
“Imagine you are at the wheel of a huge cargo vessel transiting the Gulf of Aden, peering past the running lights over the freighter’s bow. Pitch darkness ahead and all is quiet. You happen to glance at the radar’s sweep just as the first RPG round strikes the ship’s bridge with a blast of shockwave and a hail of shrapnel. Two more RPGs hammer into the bridge in rapid succession. Right about now, amidst shattered glass, smoke and debris, you are fervently wishing that your vessel had an armed security team onboard.”
Opinions vary widely about the wisdom of using armed guards on board ships transiting high risk areas. A further question has also arisen: whether or not to deploy protection vessels alongside slow-moving and easily hijacked merchant ships. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the shipping associations are against armed guards. So is the UK government. The US government, on the other hand, advises US-flagged ships passing through the Gulf of Aden to carry armed personnel. Even within the maritime security community, there is lively debate and disagreement.
One thing is certain, however: the demand from shipping companies for armed maritime security personnel is rapidly growing. It is very difficult to be certain about how many ships have armed teams onboard. However, we think that it is realistic to say that at least 12% of the ships transiting the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean area have security teams embarked and that approximately two thirds of those teams are armed. These security teams are provided by Maritime Security Companies (MSCs).
A practical perspective
To get a practical perspective on the situation from one of the companies actually operating in the area, Maritime Security Review interviewed the Director and owner of Protection Vessels International Ltd (PVI), Dom Mee. PVI have been providing unarmed and armed escort teams and patrol vessel protection in the East Africa and Indian Ocean region.
Business and growth
Dom Mee, a former Royal Marine with a wealth of expedition and competitive yachting experience, is arguably leading the way in the use of MSCs in the region. Dom is Director and owner of Protection Vessels International Ltd (PVI). PVI have been providing unarmed and armed escort teams and patrol vessel protection in the East Africa and Indian Ocean region for some time now. Dom, an accomplished mariner who is extremely determined and began PVI by escorting super yachts through the region’s dangerous waters. His clients suggested that he come up with a concept that included an armed escort vessel option, as many of the Flag States don’t allow armed guards onboard ships. That was 18-months ago; PVI now have three 24/25 Metre patrol vessels in the region and approximately 80 personnel conducting both armed and unarmed escorts aboard ships. PVI provides between 50-60 escorts per month. According to Dom “[We have] seen unbelievable growth since the first concept of the patrol boats”. Business is good; PVI are planning to buy another 24/25 metre patrol vessel within the next 5-months, and a bigger vessel to extend their area further south and into other areas of the world where there is a demand for maritime security.
What difference will President Obama’s recent Executive Order concerning Somalia have on the situation? The ambiguity of the order gives scope for interpretation and manoeuvring that has prompted much discussion within the Lloyd’s market. As with armed guards, opinion is divided, but the facts are undeniable: demand for armed escorts through the East African region is rising. Intense commercial pressure to avoid hijacking and paying ransoms is forcing the shipping associations to re-examine their policies on the use of armed guards.
Armed versus unarmed
There is an ongoing debate; however, that having an armed protection force actually escalates the level of violence. Dom, however, disagrees.
“I have to say that the escalation has happened without…. weapons even coming into the frame. There was a [commercial] vessel where there were three rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) fired at the bridge and the ship underwent a sustained two hour attack, and all that the ship was doing was the basic manoeuvres. So where is the escalation? I would say that it is the pirates that have introduced the escalation without the armed teams getting involved. I would strongly [disagree with] the escalation argument. In our experience, where we have used fire arms, always warning shots, [it] has immediately de-escalated the situation. Because, once the pirates see that it is an armed vessel, they turn around straight away and disengage. From my experience of using teams, I’ve had both options and teams have been attacked unarmed; and we have had potential attacks, [where] RPGs have been fired, and [where] we have returned fire in a purely defensive mode. Warning shots are big things; we will give them [the pirates] every opportunity… We want them to know that people onboard the vessel are armed……..it is a quantum leap to go from using warning shots to directed shots, it really is the last resort. I can say with 100% confidence that is our experience, and we are out there all of the time and from doing the armed and the unarmed, it is much safer for the vessel and our people to be armed. That said, I don’t necessarily condone everyone arming anybody on vessels. The deployment of arms can be a two edged sword, and we have got a number of instances that have happened in the region that do worry us. Because, if people are going to use arms lethally straight away, this is an escalation. But I think, used responsibly, it is a very good tool to deter attacks. But we are concerned with some of the incidents with firearms involved; and certainly from, our point of view, it is going to make our life more difficult. We don’t want this to turn into some sort of cowboy shooting game, that’s for sure.”
Although the escorting business in the East African region is growing, there are logistical limits to what can be achieved.
“There will always be a ceiling [on] how many vessels you have and the main restriction is the number of ports that will have you; there is not a lot of space [in some of the ports] so you have to be careful about where you place the vessels.”
The number of ports PVI has secured for use and their agreements with these ports allow them great freedom of movement and to provide an extensive service to their clients.
Dom was prepared to go into great detail about the process for obtaining these agreements which, as you would expect, is time intensive.
“We always engage at government level, so that everything is up front; and it can take up to five months to get a proper operating licence endorsed by the government, working in partnership with either the police or the navy. Some countries are a lot quicker, they already have a system in place (such as Djibouti and the Oman) and they provide a storage system for weapons and equipment. When you start operating in some of the African countries, the engagement [process] is a long one. I think that in some of the countries, apart from… the President, I have met everybody, to really demonstrate and present what PVI are about. I want to engage with them in a sensible way… up front and honest”.
Over the period of PVI’s growth the countries have been imposing far greater regulatory restrictions making it more difficult to operate without the requisite licences. I asked Dom where he had licensed bases:
“We operate in about six countries now in the region… South Africa, Darussalam [Tanzania], Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Muscat in the Oman [and] Djibouti of course. It has taken a lot of time, but it’s worth it, because once you get the approval … life becomes much easier.”
We discussed the number of competitors that are operating in the region. Dom indicates that in terms of medium and high speed vessels,
“the only [other] people who are offering armed escort vessels are the Yemeni Coastguard, and they do engage in using onboard armed teams and patrol vessels. … There is one other company with a bigger vessel that they are operating, but it is a larger and slower vessel and they do just longer range tasks.”
Dom’s view of why there are so few direct competitors is that:
“a lot of the companies are waiting to get that big contract and buy a boat and so… those are the commercial restrictions….
The current estimate is that there are seven main companies operating in the region; two of which provide unarmed services only, three companies that provide both armed and unarmed services (including PVI) and two firms that only do armed escorts. There are countless other “random” firms operating in the region providing a range of services, a certain number of these companies offer services that can at best be described as borderline.
When asked how many of his competitors are operating within the law, Dom’s view is that:
“the expense [of getting a proper operating licence] makes it very difficult for people to jump onto the bandwagon….. it’s very difficult to operate out of all the other countries, so you know the companies that want to do it illegally. If they get weapons into country they either don’t declare them [as they arrive in a port] or throw them over the side.” “I would say that there’s probably two other companies along with us who [we know] are operating within the law, outside of that we don’t know. We know that there are weapons going onto vessels, whether or not they are declared [is] hard to tell. I think that, generally, the people that are doing it through the system, we know each other because we are part of the same conduit. The place that we get that information is Djibouti because there are a couple of other companies that work armed out of there. Sure you hear things about other companies that have been doing bad things……. we have had instances when we have spoken to our clients; Russian companies wanting to be paid in vodka.”
The unarmed option
PVI also provide unarmed teams…
“which are generally for Norwegian and Danish flagged vessels, and they are quite unpopular with the guys, simply because all of the vessels that have been seriously attacked have been the vessels with the unarmed teams onboard.” “In one case we had one of our guys targeted on the bridge wing; 20 rounds fired at him. From our people’s point of view, letting [the pirates] know that we are armed can defuse the whole situation. So we do provide the unarmed solution, but the unarmed solution is getting worrying.”
There has been much debate about how Maritime Security Companies (MSC) can operate using armed guards. Dom provided an outline of the basic mechanics.
“One of the key issues is that you [put the armed team onboard a ship] legally. First we need Flag State approval in writing that they will allow armed guards onboard their vessel [and] approval from the operators and owners. The key thing for our legitimacy is where you board from; we need to [get] government approval that we can legally board from their sovereign territory onto the vessel. Our remit in international waters will then be down to the Flag State and the owners and operators who have approved having PVI staff onboard. That’s how the real basic mechanics work, within international maritime law, but the key thing is legally boarding from sovereign state and that’s the hard part … so that we can either fly into the country with weapons or enter the country by sea with weapons. All of our weapons are registered, all held in the navy or police armoury and regulated and they normally have all of the serial numbers of the weapons we have. Our weapons are bought in the UK and are imported through the UK having been cleared as UK exports. We are trying to do everything by the book, through the system, we would never buy arms without it being approved by the country we buy from but generally we buy the weapons from the UK.”
Maritime Security Review was interested to hear that the movement of weapons was conducted so openly and, when asked, Dom confirmed that PVI had made contact with TRANSEC (the British Department of Transport Security Department).
“The carriage of weapons on all merchant vessels is discouraged and that is very much in line with the line from IMO and all of the other regulatory bodies. That said, it is not illegal to be armed [onboard] it all depends upon the flag [state]; [the] flag [state] dictates not the IMO and not a lawyer. … all the laws have been going around for hundreds and hundreds of years and, as much as it is discouraged, it’s not illegal for a ship to have arms onboard and that’s certainly the case for British-flagged ships. It’s discouraged but that’s not the definition of [what] legally is allowed and not allowed”
Dr Jillian Spindura (Head of Maritime Security Policy at TRANSEC confirmed that she had spoken to a representative of PVI who had asked whether it was legal to carry weapons onboard British flagged ships. She also confirmed that it is not illegal.
Rules of Engagement
Dom explained the Rules of Engagement (ROE) used by the onboard teams deployed by PVI.
“We have based it loosely on the [Royal Navy] model, [and it] has then gone through our company lawyers. It does get adjusted slightly to certain flag states…[and] it is commercialised [and adjusted] for different flags. So there is no one glove that fits all….. the flag state approve our actions. At the same time we work with our TLs [Team Leaders]. We send a copy [of the ROE] to the Coalition [Forces] as well. I think the key thing is… and we have demonstrated this on the ground, is that using lethal force is [used] when all else is lost… and there is no way that you can stop this happening to endanger your life. It is down to the individual to make that decision.” He added: “if someone is pointing an AK47 at one of our guys and he thinks he is going to be shot dead, the right of self defence still remain. Whatever [the] scenario, it all boils down to the inherent right to defend yourself…”
I asked what legal support they have
“We have to use our company lawyers at every stage…….we are on the radar of a lot of people ….. and it’s important that we do things right. To offer it [armed protection] illegally down there is getting harder.”
What flag do the PVI escort vessels fly?
”We use the Red Ensign and we are all registered with the MCA [British Maritime & Coastguard Agency].”(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2nMfGkTFS8)
Dom then outlined what procedures PVI uses when escorting a client vessel.
“Essentially the drill would be just to push out to let [the pirates] see you. We wouldn’t go headlong into an intercept, because most targets you see with the CPA [Closest Point of Approach] and generally the first part of that procedure, a close CPA on radar, we would advise a course change to the vessel. We would do a course change, … you normally have a whole load of processes before you get to [the point of intercept?] and so … we go through those normal procedures but what we try and do is advertise ourselves. So we push out and put ourselves in between where the vessel is and [the pirates], just so that they can see us. If they can’t see us for any reason, then we will push out a little further. We generally like to push to about 500 meters from the client vessel, just so that if it is a pirate vessel it gives them a chance to make visual contact; [they can see] that they have a military-looking vessel, and then we go into our procedures. Then, generally speaking, the force projection is enough. Obviously we are well-armed on these boats and so we are giving them every opportunity to leave. Our whole [approach] is about deterrence, and the boats work phenomenally well for that because they are quite a presence on the water. Generally we use force projection to deter the attack and obviously the SOPs [Standard Operational Procedures] and the ROE are the same for the patrol boats as they are for an onboard team, so they take effect.”
Interface with Coalition forces
What interface do you have with EUNAVFOR and the other coalition forces in the region?
“None whatsoever. We do report incidents to them; it’s just their policy, it is frustrating, so … it’s very much one-way traffic for us…..”
And how about if you are involved in an incident?
“Where possible, normally the guys would call it in [that]“we have suspicious boat activity coming in.”
How about if things don’t all go according to plan and you actually have to open fire, what are your post-incident procedures and what would happen if you captured some pirates?
“We would never capture a pirate……. that is purely down to the navies of the coalition. We do not have the powers of arrest and it is very unlikely that such an incident would happen.” “At the beginning with the coalition and the UKMTO……we talked about the scenario, and what we decided from the patrol boat side of things [is that]…. we have spare life rafts on our vessel, so if we have an engagement because we have been defending ourselves, we would deploy life rafts to the casualties in the water and call into UKMTO and explain exactly what has happened. It would then be down to the coalition then to respond to the area and we would continue on escort with the vessel…….. There’s not a lot else you can do. But at the same time we are obliged to [abide] by the rules of SOLAS and myself, [having been] a distressed mariner, I certainly would wish that on anybody pirate or not; we want to play by the rules. So that’s … how it has been generally accepted, albeit verbally, when we first set up this whole thing.”
Where do you get your crews from?
“The majority of our guys on the patrol boat crews, myself included, are qualified mariners… [The] three skippers are ex-RNLI [Royal National Lifeboat Institution], because they are really good at working in very heavy weather, they have got really good experience offshore and they have sort of joined the PVI mould. The skippers are not combatants, they are responsible for the safe navigation of the vessel… [The crew are] normally ex-Landing Craft Branch from the Royal Marines.”
If EUNAVFOR and the rest of the naval forces in the area were to say change their approach, would PVI be willing to work with them, within the structure, effectively as part of the naval force?
“I think that there is a lot of scope for that and it has always been our argument…..we do this anyway with a lot of the really slow-moving traffic tug and tows and jack-up rigs, which are high commodity cargoes. We look after those and so, in effect, we are freeing [EUNAVFOR] up from owners lobbying them and obviously the military are trying to get away from that individual escort, because they don’t want to get [the warship] tied up, which is perfectly proper………We would be more than happy to look at [escorting] UN food ships.”
How do you see the maritime security industry evolving? At the moment there is no regulation, do you think that there is a need for it and how do you see that coming in?
“We would welcome it with open arms and I think that most companies that are acting responsibly want regulation, they want to have somewhere that they can check to confirm that people are who and what they say they are. So, in terms of regulation, if you are operating legally you have nothing to fear, and so we would like to see some regulation.”
“Owners are just fed up with it and they realise that the military just can’t provide.”
“I think that we are seeing that the industry itself is now being driven to private solutions.”
“We are on everybody’s radar and everybody knows that we are doing.”
My lasting impression is that maybe we should reconsider our stance; maybe meeting the chaotic desperate pirates with a professional disciplined team of maritime security professionals could be an option.
Interview conducted by Peter Cook