Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Container Shipping and Bulk Freight Carriers May Now Choose Anti Pirate Convoy Option

New Service designed to Eliminate Risk of Attack - but is it Legal?
Shipping News Feature

UK – SOMALIA – GULF OF ADEN – WORLDWIDE- Recently, Typhon, a company, apparently with as prestigious bunch of directors as ever toiled before the mast,* says it amassed around £13 million in its first round of fund raising, designed to finance the group’s high seas adventure to deter would be pirates targeting container vessels, bulk tankers and other freight and passenger liners as they pass through the danger areas off the coast of East Africa and beyond using a sophisticated, modern version of the World War II convoy protection model.

Using a hub in Dubai, unsurprising given the likely source of initial funds, the company plans to monitor the progress of its charges using the information gained from radar surveillance obtained at sea from an accompanying vessel and satellite observation. The principal deterrent will be from speedboats loaded aboard the Typhon lead vessel. Currently the company website simply refers one to an e mail address, excellent for security but less so when it comes to establishing credentials, but Typhon’s PR agency tells us that the first of their vessels is currently being refitted in Dubai.

The nameless ship is a 9000-tonne Danish built container vessel specifically converted for counter-piracy operations with ‘a unique command and control configuration that makes it more suitable for counter-piracy manoeuvres than any warship’. The Close Protection Vessel will also carry three ballistically reinforced armed ‘Fast Patrol Boats’ capable of 40 knots. The Fast Patrol Boats are rapidly deployable and can conduct forward reconnaissance to a range of 150 nautical miles and the intention is to deploy air assets, most likely unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) whilst maintaining radar capability.

According to the company’s publicity it is confident that it can give close protection to a small group of vessels belonging to paying customers, better in fact than the cover currently employed, with virtually every major shipping line now already using its own hired armed guards. Anthony Sharp, CEO of Typhon, comments:

"Typhon was created in order to address the specific threat from pirates in a number of key geographies. The areas we will protect are too vast for current naval resources to monitor effectively and this will be an even bigger issue when Operation Atlanta comes to an end.

"Our mantra is to combat the problem of maritime crime and piracy using methods that are both effective and proportionate to the threat. With millions paid out in ransoms to pirates and much more money lost by businesses in fuel costs avoiding pirates, it is important that businesses are granted a safer passage with their cargo through dangerous waters. The benefits to business will be substantial."

The comment regarding the lowering of naval defences should perhaps be taken seriously, the undoubted effort from the combined navies in the three main deterrent alliances, EU Naval Force Somalia – Operation Atalanta (EU NAVFOR), NATO Operation Ocean Shield (TF-508) and Combined Task Force 151 (operated by the Combined Maritime Forces – CMF) has played a major role in the downturn in successful attacks but, as freely acknowledged by the former head of the EU forces, Rear Admiral Duncan Potts whilst in charge of operations that the naval deterrent at sea, although effective, was surpassed by the adoption of Best Management Practices and the security contingent now carried aboard targeted ships.

The European Unions avowed intent however is very far from the comments made by the Typhon boss. The EU Navfor Spokesperson commented today that the European Union remains committed to countering piracy off Somalia, with the Operation Atalanta mandate signed until the end of 2014, when it will be reviewed once more. The European Union’s comprehensive approach to restore normality to the whole region, not just at sea, was a commitment that drove the mission forward and there is currently no indication that standards of naval coverage will be compromised.

At the last major meeting where senior representatives of the three forces gathered it was made plain that the three pronged security pattern should be maintained to keep attacks, successful or otherwise, at a minimum. As regards Typhon’s commitment to satellite surveillance which Mr Sharp says is an area too vast for the worlds best navies it should be pointed out that the Mercury system employed within the Operations Centre at Northolt monitors movement across the Indian Ocean watching over an area the size of Western Europe and alerts any and all vessels registered to any perceived threats.

In response Typhon claims that the ATLAS (Asset Tracking Locations at Sea) early warning technology it plans to employ ‘marks a new era in which data and technology beyond that used by the Royal Navy’ has become available in the commercial arena. The Typhon system ‘aims to be the world’s most advanced counter-piracy platform using advanced satellite communications and multiple radar streams to provide an ultra-high definition picture of the operations theatre’.

The ATLAS equipment is designed to continuously monitor the safety and position of the convoy using multiple feeds including client vessels’ Automatic Identification Systems (‘AIS’) and Global Maritime Distress and Safety Systems (‘GMDSS’) warning the Convoy Director of any actual or potential threats before they endanger the ships. The equipment is intended to be carried on each convoy vessel by a Typhon Liaison Officer using a portable platform and bespoke satellite link which will not compromise a client ship’s communication system.

The question then is a simple one – are Typhon’s proposed activities a mere extension of the existing private security measures to defend property at sea? Or are they perhaps something many would consider more sinister, a vigilante force with no legal backing roaming the oceans and answerable to no judiciary?

One should remember that in the parts of the world Typhon proposes to operate, politically the climate varies widely, and the perception sometimes may well be that the company (and therefore its customers) are acting aggressively. It will only take a small mistake, a shot fired too soon or in error, and lives could be lost. Typhon says that it intends to ‘use armoured patrol boats to intercept a potential target, engage direct fire weapons or mount a key defence of the client vessel’. All making sense in the boardrooms of shipping and insurance companies across the world no doubt but one should perhaps consider the effect of the potential results.

In an interview given to the Daily Mail Mr Sharp is at pains to point out his company does not have a ‘shoot to kill’ policy but says of the intention to fire one shot with a .50 calibre M82 sniper rifle into any suspect vessels hull, ‘the Royal Marines [presumably ex] we employ are highly trained and quite capable of doing that, even at speed. And your vessel will sink’. Anyone who has to abandon a fishing skiff perhaps hundreds of miles from the nearest land will surely perish as certainly, if a tad more slowly, than if they had been shot.

Of course it may well be that Typhon will instruct its crews to rescue the people now in the water as a result of their actions, one would hope so, but this leads to another conundrum. Over the past few years we have witnessed an ever more efficient response from the combined naval groups ranged across the danger area. Often we have seen multiple arrests only to be told that the prima facie evidence against the suspected pirates was not strong enough to support a Court appearance, or even if that statement seemed a little too glib, it was evident that perhaps in reality no state could be persuaded to come forward willingly to prosecute the cases.

When, rather than if, Typhon finds itself in the same situation, what will be their reaction? If they shoot someone’s boat from under them with no actual evidence of wrongdoing, the moral high ground they say they have may soon crumble beneath their feet; particularly should there be a fatality amongst the local fishing fraternity.

Typhon say they have employed a gaggle of lawyers to ensure their legal standpoint, it may prove interesting if the Somali community, pirate or otherwise, prove to be as tenacious and effective as they have in the past if they should decide to take issue and perhaps even bring such a case before an international Court. Somalia may be viewed as a backward country by some Western observers but there is a difference between stupidity and poverty as anyone who studies local media in the region can warrant.

Some may also doubt the figures which are being bandied about, enquiries to Typhon are usually routed via their PR agents, not usually the method required to elicit hard facts about a new enterprise. According to the Mail’s report Mr Sharp is already considering selling the venture to a major security group should it prove successful but first mention is made of ‘expansion into other maritime trouble spots such as the Gulf of Guinea’, anyone who has read our previous coverage of pirate affairs will know that the problems in the Niger Delta and surrounds should never be equated with Somali waters.

As we have pointed out previously it is very difficult to differentiate between a thug with an AK 47 who is looking to steal and possibly mutilate and murder for profit and one who has had his land stolen, his livelihood taken and his environment ruined by foreign companies who he believes have paid off officials from a government riddled with corruption. Those who choose to venture into such a world of violence must first ensure their morals are as efficient as their weaponry.

*The Typhon Board includes such luminaries as Simon Murray CBE, General Lord Dannatt, General Deverell and Admiral Ulrich and is staffed with ex military officers whilst also claiming the support of two leading shipping groups.

Photo: The remit of the combined naval forces extends far beyond anti piracy duties. Here a helicopter from CTF 150 (counter-narcotics) swoops low over a suspect vessel and skiff. Courtesy of the Combined Maritime Forces.