Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Container and Bulk Freight Carrier Captures Down as International Forces Battle Pirates

EU NAVFOR Briefing Illustrates How Hijacking War is Proceeding off Somalia
Shipping News Feature

GULF OF ADEN – INDIAN OCEAN – SOMALI BASIN – UK - A briefing yesterday at European Union Operational HQ showed how combined international forces were dealing with the pirate scourge which we have witnessed expanding in strength and brutality over the past few years. The growing willingness of container ship and bulk freight carriers and tankers to adhere to the latest edition of Best Management Practices is resulting in fewer successful attacks.

One of the great fears of those in the shipping industry has been that the arming of merchantmen would result in an escalation of violence in the trade but Rear Admiral Duncan Potts, Operation Commander of the EU Naval Force (EUNAVFOR), who chaired yesterday’s meeting, expressed the opinion that the fact that vessels were prepared to open fire on pirates from range tended to deter them immediately to search for an easier target. One UK supplier of such protection reported out of around a thousand transits through the danger zone only four ‘incidents’ occurred. An incident is when, in an exchange of fire, four or more shots are aimed toward a suspected pirate vessel.

This may not seem at first to be a particularly harsh response but when one looks at the type of weapon available to the guards, like the snipers rifle shown in our recent story, aimed from the steady platform of a supertanker or a 14,000 TEU box carrier, against the would be pirates RPG being fired from a tiny skiff in a heaving swell with an effective range of around 300 metres, one begins to comprehend that no matter how big the target a merchant vessel makes it begins to seem an unfair contest for once.

The combined forces of law and order have a vast area of ocean to patrol and Admiral Potts compared the twenty five or so vessels policing the area to patrolling Europe with twenty five squad cars. This in a region stretching now to 3.2 million square miles where 50% of the world’s container fleet and 3 million barrels of oil pass through every day. At first the combined forces of EU NAVFOR, NATO, the US Led Combined Maritime Force 151 plus individual national efforts from countries like Russia, China and many others would appear too thinly spread to be truly effective but the battle has now taken a very modern turn.

At the Maritime Security Centre – Horn of Africa (MSCHOA) situated in the EUNAVFOR Command Headquarters at Northwood the Mercury communications system which links the disparate forces from so many nations was referred to as ‘Twitter’. The Mercury program gives all stakeholders the ability to talk to each other via Northwood enabling a rapid and coordinated response by both air and sea forces to any alert utilising the closest effective party. This cooperation, known as a flag blind coalition means that the weather, always a primary factor in the trade, has had less influence than in previous years as the Naval forces have extended their reach with a policy of combined intelligence.

Even now only around 70-80% of merchantmen passing through the region actually advise Northwood of their passage under the Best Management Practices (BMP) code despite the simplicity of registration and the extra security it offers. Some companies seem reluctant to reveal details of routes and cargoes and thereby increase the chances of a successful pirate attack. Use of BMP’s which include installation of a protective citadel, often incorporating engine and steerage controls as well as communications, has thwarted many previous attacks with crews hunkering down in relative safety to await rescue.

The operations room at Northwood has the MARSURV integrated maritime monitoring service operating alongside the information provided by Mercury. The MARSURV system was developed by EUNAVFOR together with the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) and its video screen demonstration which sits alongside the Mercury system is akin to a space age version of a WWII ops room with multi coloured dots in place of model planes. The system has a maximum time lag of six hours and thus gives an accurate picture of the hundreds of ships which are adopting BMP transiting the area at any given time.

The solution to Somalia’s problems in the long term is obviously political and to this end the forces of law and order are starting to come to grips with a situation that has got out of hand. Shipping companies and insurers are reluctant to discuss figures paid in ransom but the best available data indicates how the problem has spiralled. In 2010 it seems 25 paid ransoms netted the pirate gangs around $80 million whilst by last year 30 payments enabled them to collect in excess of $146 million.

In the latest development the EU and others are attempting to assist local Somali authorities to subdue local gangs but this is at a very early stage. What the authorities can do is to assist the smaller states in the region such as the Seychelles who have proved willing to prosecute captured pirates and to this end they have provided training to coastguard forces in anti piracy techniques.

The international authorities are actively working to improve the capture and prosecution of hijackers with the EU Common Security and Defence Policy launching a new initiative to strengthen this local response. The Regional Maritime Capacity Building (RMCP) mission is to initially enhance the capabilities of five states in the Horn of Africa with Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania and the Seychelles receiving strengthened maritime capability and the Somali regions of Puntland and Somaliland getting assistance with the inception of a Coastal Police Force and training and protection for the judiciary.

The overall political situation will obviously remain a problem for some considerable time despite the current signs of international will to finally resolve it. The primary mission of EUNAVFOR is and always was the protection of food convoys being delivered on behalf of the World Food Programme (WFP) but since the start of the year there has been an EU Special Representative to the Horn of Africa, Alexander Rondos, to study and report on the situation and despite an investment of €215.4 million since 2008 for improved governance, security and economic growth the EU will fund the region with an additional €175 million for 2011-2013 in an attempt to redress the situation.

In the meantime the twenty five vessels from every major navy in the world will continue to roam the vast ocean in a continuing battle against the pirates. Even the smaller EU states with no naval forces to speak of assist the fight providing armed escorts to travel aboard the ships in a collective show of international military cooperation unprecedented in modern times and indeed arguably in history.

Readers who wish to find out more about the conflict in the Horn of Africa can type a suitable keyword such as pirate into the News Search Box.

Photo:- Rear Admiral Duncan Potts, Operation Commander of EUNAVFOR addresses the press with (L to R) Captain Phil Haslam, Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Rainer Andres, Deputy Operation Commander EUNAVFOR and Commodore Bruce Belliveau, Canadian Navy representing NATO.