The Danish Shipowners’ ‘call to arms’ against piracy

The Ports and Ships website is reporting that the Danish Shipowners’ Association has officially requested the Danish government to “lower the threshold” for placing armed security guards onboard Danish vessels.  Currently, they are only allowed to do so in what is termed “extreme circumstances.”  The increasing risks associated with piracy has prompted the association’s call to “activate the full toolbox” of security measures.

Danish Shipowners’ Association spokesman, Mr. Jan Fritz Hansen, is quoted on the Ports and Ships Maritime News service in an article entitled “Danish call to arms” as saying: “This is a geopolitical problem. If piracy continues to expand the way it is just now, this will be a black spot on the world map.” The Danish Shipowners’ Association also called on international navies to take stronger action against pirates: “Intercept them, destroy them, sink them.” Hansen said that while such actions should be left to the professionals, it is a crucial measure to limit the success of the pirates.

Mr. Hansen’s position is in clear contradiction with the views expressed by Mr. Sam Bateman released on 26 January as Report No. 6/2011 from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore:

“The international shipping community remains generally opposed to employing armed security guards onboard vessels passing through high-risk piracy areas. Reasons for this include fears about the risks of escalating violence and of injury to the crew and damage to the ship, as well as the uncertain legal implications.”

The concern over the escalatory effects of placing armed security guards is the subject of an article by Dr. Chris Spearin in the Autumn 2010 issue (Vol. 63, No. 4) of Naval War College Review. Spearin’s article entitled “A Private Security Solution to Somali Piracy?” thoroughly examines the problems of perception between most naval authorities, who view piracy as a non-naval ‘law-enforcement’ problem, and ship owners, who, in the words of Mr. Peter Hinchliffe, marine director of the International Chamber of Shipping, find “[I]t is totally unsatisfactory for naval  authorities to try to devolve that responsibility to innocent merchant ships.”

Spearin examines the rise of private security contractors and makes it clear that, in the absence of an alternative, they will expand into the same security and legal void that the pirates are exploiting.  He shows that most pirate attacks end in less than fifteen minutes, some of which have even happened within the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor.  Naval forces are spreading out, trying by all means possible to extend their area of coverage, but with obviously ineffective results.  In this case, are there any other effective options but using private security contractors?

The Danish Shipowners’ Association has every right to make demands upon the Danish government for improved security measures.  That the government has placed severe restrictions on the employment of armed security parties onboard a Danish ship is probably a reasonable measure, at least until the capabilities of these contractors are known with certainty.  However, the Danish request is not the same as demands made by the International Chamber of Shipping upon navies generally to assume all responsibility for anti-piracy measures.

The move by ship owners to flags-of-convenience registries was a means to circumvent national standards for ship certification, operation and insurance.  The business motive did not consider the potential for a game-changing development like the rise of piracy.  The new situation leaves ship owners with the right to make demands for security only to the state whose registration they bear and whose flag they display.

Many states that have large merchant fleets registered are completely incapable of attending to the maritime security needs of their corporate clients.  Moreover, it may not even be in their vital interests to do so.  Under these circumstances, the ship owners will have little recourse but to employ private security contractors, or change their flag of registry.  Their risk-benefit calculus about where to register has a new factor to consider.

While it is recognized that the global shipping industry is important to the maintenance of our modern economic system, only detailed analysis of the components of national trade will produce a clear assessment of what is a vital and what is peripheral to a particular country’s interests.  For states with ships carrying their flag or cargoes of vital interest, the means by which protection is provided must be appropriate to the circumstances, the threat and the nature of the cargoes carried.

History has many examples of naval protection for shipping being provided by routing control, close escort and the use of naval parties for defensive measures.  With attacks developing in as little as fifteen minutes off Somalia, close escort is essential for effective protection.  The problem with this approach is that insufficient assets are available to provide close protection as a general measure.  There are only two other options if private security contractors are not acceptable.  The first is to determine which cargoes are critically important, either because of their nature or their value, and provide extremely close protection for them and leave all others with minimal coverage.  The second is to provide armed naval security parties onboard merchant ships.

A four-person detachment can provide a 24-hour defence watch with proper supervision and a surge response in the event of an attack.  Equipped with portable long-range communications, they would be able to summon assistance and provide last-ditch defence in the event a fallback to an onboard citadel is necessary.  The deterrent effect of a nationally controlled security detachment of naval professionals is worth consideration.  Flag states that do not possess a Special Forces capability for retaking captured ships and hostages can be virtually assured that those circumstance will not develop.  Small security teams can be easily be taken off by existing naval boats and helicopters without resorting to special measures.  Even travel by commercial means will not entail major expense.  These security teams need not be implemented beyond the areas affected and the whole effort can be suspended in less time that it takes for a warship to travel home from the Indian Ocean.

The broad assumption that merchant mariners have a right to safety everywhere upon international waters is not the same as their right to self-defence against a specific pirate attack.  Everyone has recourse to use reasonable levels of force to ensure their safety and the safety of those under their protection, but only to the point that the attack ceases.  Even though the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea provides all states with the legal option of intervening in cases of piracy and to undertake legal prosecution, only the flag state has a responsibility to provide physical protection if mariners are unwilling or unable to go beyond passive measures.  In that case, they are completely justified in providing defensive measures up to and including the use of deadly force to deter attacks, but not to use force for retaliation or punitive purposes.

It is mandatory in the naval profession that the controlled use of force goes through standard steps to warn off aggressors.  In combination with passive defensive measures and non-lethal techniques, warnings and the presence of naval guards will likely achieve deterrence.  In the event that disabling or potentially deadly fire is employed, the nearest naval unit can be summoned to deal with the consequences.  The merchant ship need only delay in the event that life is in jeopardy as a result of the exchange, but need not hazard itself unduly because of the already demonstrated hostile intent of the attackers.

The basic problem is that years of multi-national corporate restructuring and tax-evading business practices have separated the once-clear relationship between the protection of the flag state and ships owned by business interests whose activities are beneficial to that state.  Likewise, states have been very complacent to place trust for their vital maritime transportation interests in the hands of what are effectively non-state corporations.  To make matters worse, navies have restructured to counter threats that are completely unlike the low-tech problems of piracy, and have lost sight of their historic duties in that regard.  They are unwilling to restructure and are not motivated to provide innovative solutions.

With cargo values for large merchant ships reaching the range of $1B-$2B, the provision of small security detachments for vessels travelling under the national flag has the potential to be an efficient and effective anti-pirate defensive measure.  Some states have already made this offer to their shipowners, but few have accepted.  It seems the Danish Shipowners’ Association is ready to do so now.