Victory has a Thousand Fathers –Except Maritime Security CompaniesBy Claude Berube
Special to Piracy Daily
As pirate attacks rose dramatically from 2005 to 2009, governments eschewed the thought of appearing permissive to an industry which was tangentially related to the private security companies operating in Iraq and Afghanistan; shipping companies likewise by and large rejected the need for armed guards or private escort vessels, suggesting that to employ them would only lead to an escalation in violence by pirates and, presumably, an increase in liability with regard to crew safety.
In the past two years, however, more governments have authorized the use of armed guards just as the shipping industry and insurers reluctantly found value in having on-board private security. Other entities such as the International Maritime Organization and the International Chamber of Shipping also acknowledged private security’s role. State navies operating in the region, both as various coalitions (Combined Task Force 151 and forces from both NATO and the EU) as well as non-aligned navies from Russia, China, India and elsewhere, have been a part of deterring, intercepting, and defeating pirates.
But with a limited number of platforms available on any given day, with millions of square miles where pirates hunted, even navies were limited in fully protecting commercial shipping from pirate attacks. To date, no ship with private armed guards or private escort vessel has been successfully taken by Somali pirates.
It’s possible that Somali piracy will increase again - if naval presence subsides, if industry grows complacent, if pirates find a way of overwhelming protected ships, or if a new Somali government fails to restore some semblance of coastal order. But with the recognition that piracy is at least a hazard to legitimate commerce on the global maritime commons and a commitment of some resources to counter the problem, the role of armed guards or private security vessels has three broader, longer-range issues.
First, a growing public/private partnership for maritime security on the high seas should be expected and managed appropriately. The size of Western navies has greatly diminished since the end of the Cold War. The United States, for example has shrunk from a fleet of nearly 600 ships in the late 1980s to 288 as of this writing. European navies have been reduced even further. With the number of threats and operations throughout the world nearly constant, policymakers may need to make harder decisions about deployments. With fewer ships and an emergent need somewhere in the world, policymakers may determine piracy is simply a comparative nuisance and turn their full attention and assets elsewhere. Private industry, therefore, would have to fill the vacuum of maritime security. Some countries have already experienced issues associated with this paradigm shift. Recently the Sri Lankan Navy announced that one private security firm – AvantGarde - would provide offshore weapons storage for other firms transiting the area. These floating armories – or “floatels” - have served as both at-sea armories and berthing for security personnel. Other security firm floatels operate in the broader Indian Ocean region. The companies and their assets also represent a wide spectrum of capabilities and competence. In addition, the proliferation of maritime security companies in the past five years alone does not suggest that the market is able to support every new entrant to the field or most of those that already exist or operate.
Second, the effectiveness of public/private efforts to mitigate piracy in the Horn of Africa may not necessarily be the appropriate model for other regions. Just as Somali piracy has its unique origins, operators, platforms, goals, and enabling condition, so too do other regions, such as the Gulf of Guinea which has seen piracy attacks dramatically increase as Somali piracy has decreased. While Somalia has no functioning national government able to secure local waters, the Gulf of Guinea is surrounded by stable nation states, of which some are prone to major corruption. Somali pirates attack any targets of opportunity from small local dhows to large corporate tankers, criminal elements in the Gulf of Guinea – particularly the Movement for the Emancipation of the Nigerian Delta (MEND) – target the plentiful oil and gas platforms as well as their supportive infrastructure and craft. Unlike the Horn of Africa where private security are allowed to be armed, the government of Nigeria allows for no such permission, although a former senior MEND militant was allegedly awarded a $103 million maritime security contract.
Third, Western nations may be eclipsed by the East in terms of maritime security. The link between Western navies and commercial shipping was weakened long ago. Western-owned commercial fleets, even those operating under widely used flags of convenience such as Panama and the Marshall Islands, are shrinking as the shift of construction, ownerships, and manning continues toward the East. Yet, for the present, most maritime security companies are either based in the United Kingdom or United States. Piracy expert Dr. Martin Murphy suggests that “too many Western navies, by ignoring the defense of trade, are forgetting their roots. The next step will be that maritime security for commercial ships will pass to China and others along with ship ownership if those and other Western countries fail to manage the rise of the private maritime security sector.”
Unless acquisition and availability of state navy assets significantly increases and piracy is reduced to a rare, comparative nuisance, maritime security companies will be required to protect legitimate commerce. While the thought of non-state assets being used for security may be anathema to those concerned about ceding a traditional role of navies and coast guards, the fact is that these firms do provide a necessary service on the high seas. Instead of simply avoiding the topic of maritime security companies, states and industry should continue to identify means of vetting and managing them to ensure credibility and effectiveness.
Claude Berube teaches at the United States Naval Academy and is co-editor of Maritime Private Security: Market Responses to Piracy, Terrorism and Waterborne Security Risks in the 21st Century (Routledge, 2012). His new fiction book is The Aden Effect (Naval Institute Press, October 2012). The views expressed are the author’s and not those of the Naval Academy or Department of the Navy.