Armed and ready

The use of armed guards on ships gained considerable momentum in 2011, driven by the increasing threat of piracy in the Gulf of Aden. But extensive due diligence is required to get the right security professionals on board, discovers Helen Yates

In October, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that ships sailing under the UK flag will be able to carry armed guards to protect them from pirates in “exceptional circumstances”. It was followed by the release of interim guidance from the Department of Transport in early December, which includes some of the factors ship owners should consider as part of their risk assessment, as well as advice on selecting a private security firm.

The decision is likely to prompt other nations to follow the UK’s lead, particularly given the increase in piracy attacks in 2011. There is also evidence attacks are becoming more fierce. The growth of piracy is blamed in part on the increasingly difficult situation in Somalia, where pirates are journeying ever further from the coast in search of potential targets. Some have ventured as far as the Red Sea, particularly during the monsoon season.

“The actual area of operations is expanding,” says Paul Howard, partnership manager at Catlin. “Whereas before it was quite a distinct area around the Somali coast it has now been increasing out of that. It has increased from around 165 nautical miles off the coast in 2005 to at least 1,400 nautical miles in 2011. So the area of operation has increased which makes it even more difficult to guard against.”

“There are around 26 different navies patrolling at the moment and even this presence can’t keep the issue under control due to the sheer size of area involved,” he adds. “There is undoubtedly a major international effort by the various navies there to provide more protection, and the vessels are becoming more and more protected, but the potential rewards [for the pirates] are still substantial.”

Piracy on the world’s seas rose to record levels last year, with Somali pirates behind 56 per cent of the 352 attacks reported, according to the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) International Maritime Bureau (IMB). In total the pirates – who are often armed with weapons and grenades – took 625 people hostage, killing eight and injuring 41.

In January, a ferocious attack took place on the German-owned general cargo vessel Beluga Nomination. The 12 crew members were able to protect themselves inside the ship’s citadel (safe room) for two days before the pirates gained entry using welding equipment. Three of the crew died during a failed rescue attempt. Then in February, two US couples were killed after their 58-foot yacht the Quest when it was taken by pirates.

Thwarted attacks

Behind the worrying headlines, there are also some encouraging signs that more hijacks are being thwarted by anti-piracy measures. These include steps taken by ship owners to protect their vessels, through the use of citadels and other measures (as laid out in the newly-released Best Management Practice 4 – BMP4), as well as the increasing presence of navies patrolling piracy hotspots.

Although there have been more attacks from Somali pirates, the number of successful hijackings reduced substantially compared with the same period in 2010. In the first nine months of 2011 hijackings were successful in just 12 per cent of all attempts, down from 28 per cent in 2010.

The IMB credits this reduction to policing and intervention by international naval forces as well as correct application of BMP4. “Somali pirates are finding it harder to hijack ships and get the ransom they ask for,” says Captain Pottengal Mukundan, director of IMB, whose Piracy Reporting Centre has monitored piracy worldwide since 1991. “The navies deserve to be complimented on their excellent work: they are a vital force in deterring and disrupting pirate activity.”

There is also evidence that the presence of armed guards on ships has deterred potential attackers. On 19 December, there were reports of a failed attack on an unidentified merchant vessel in the Gulf of Aden. The vessel fired shots and the pirates fired some shots back but then abandoned their attack. To date, no vessel with an armed guard on board has been taken by pirates.

The key to successfully dissuading pirates is to make it clear, as early as possible, that security guards are on board. That means, amongst other things, having the right long-range weapons, according to Howard. “From most of the attacks we’ve looked into it seems to be that if you can warn people off early enough then the issue diminishes,” he says. “The closer they get the more there is a potential threat. The sooner you can provide those effective warning shots the more it seems to make a difference.”

It should also be very clear who is ultimately in charge on board. There has been some concern that the presence of weapons could impact the balance of authority. “Even with armed guards the ship’s captain is ultimately in control – that’s one of the things that needs to be resolved before you start,” says Howard. “You don’t want two or three people trying to be in control in a situation where there are problems.”

Being prepared for the worst is also advisable. With weapons on both sides, the attempted hijack of a ship with armed guards could be far more violent if it were to occur than if the vessel had no weapons on board. “If there is an armed conflict, shipping companies could find themselves involved in all manner of legal enquiries,” says Richard Colla, a marine expert at JLT Group. “So there should be some preparation for things not going the right way and I’m not sure if there’s enough of that going on.”

With the UK government now backing the use of armed guards, it is inevitable that more ship owners will consider going down this route. While it can be expensive, the protection afforded by armed personnel far outweighs the potential costs of being hijacked and held to ransom. Howard points out that while an armed guard could cost some of the larger ships up to $40,000 per voyage, a lengthy detour around the Cape of Good Hope could cost an additional $250,000 and double the voyage time.

Then there are the potential insurance discounts on offer. “A number of different insurers for different elements of cover are providing discounts if companies employ armed guards,” reveals Colla. “Some of those underwriters are carrying out their own review of the armed guards that ship owners are proposing and the better quality of armed guard companies are likely to allow owners to obtain better discounts.”

Vetting security firms

While a growing number of security firms have been set up to deal with the piracy threat, staffed with ex-servicemen, not all have the same level of experience. “The problem is there are now hundreds of armed guard companies and they are appearing almost every day,” says Colla. “One has to be very careful exactly who you employ if you are going to go down this route. Many of these companies have only been in existence for a short time and it is difficult at times to check thoroughly the background of the people who are operating these companies.”

Ship owners are being advised to proceed with caution and to undertake their own due diligence. The Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI) has an accreditation programme for maritime security firms, which began in November 2011. These accreditations, along with guidelines set out by the government and many of the P&I Clubs, should provide a useful reference for ship owners.

“The P&I clubs have set out a list of minimum requirements if you are putting armed guards on board vessels and one of the P&I clubs, The North of England, has engaged a vetting company who is doing that job,” he says. “One has to be very clear that armed guards are viewed as the last line of defence. It doesn’t in any way obviate the need to adopt BMP4 practices, which is the first line of defence.”

Ship owners should not rely on any third-party accreditation without understanding and satisfying themselves as to what that accreditation process involves, warns Colla. Some accreditation firms are more thorough than others when vetting security firms. He reveals that Gray Page, the specialist maritime intelligence company employed by the North of England P&I club, has only passed two out of the eight security firms it has been asked to assess.

Colla advises doing extensive due diligence and researching security firms well ahead of any voyages where armed guards may be needed. “It’s terribly important to meet with these people and visit their centre of operations and it’s not possible to do this if you’re trying to employ an armed guard ten days before the voyage. So we’re telling our clients not to make this a last-minute decision.”

There are currently around 1,000 private guards being used to protect ships in and around the Gulf of Aden, but resources are likely to become severely stretched as more and more ship owners consider employing them. “There are 22,000 transits of just the Gulf of Aden area each year and it would be a struggle to provide all those vessels with armed guards of the necessary quality, particularly those with specific shipboard experience, eg ex-marines,” says Colla.

He points out that armed guards are also being used for considerably longer journeys than those through the Gulf of Aden, including voyages across the Indian Ocean. This is also using up the available resource. “In my view the use of armed guards is just going to increase exponentially. More and more vessels are going to have them on board and that will put more of a stretch on armed guard providers. One’s got to be very careful then that the quality of the personnel being provided is being vetted even more closely.”

“Probably the resolution to the problem is going to be a political resolution in Somalia, and from what I’m reading that doesn’t look likely anytime soon,” he continues. “All that shipping companies can do is take steps to protect their vessels with BMP4 and, if they’re comfortable with the situation, employ armed guards.”

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