Over the last few years, thanks largely to Hollywood’s “pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, maritime buccaneers have acquired a highly romantic image.
The reality of modern piracy is far removed from the images peddled by Tinseltown. In the most recent nautical attack, Somali pirates on 6 July attacked the 900-foot Brillante Virtuoso, which was carrying over 141,000 tons of fuel oil from Ukraine to Qingdao, China, 20 miles off the Yemeni port of Aden. The vessel’s 26 crew members abandoned ship after the attackers fired an RPG round into their sleeping quarters.
According to ship manager Central Mare Inc., the vessel and its cargo were recovered, despite the fact that the rocket-propelled grenade started a fire on board.
While piracy is a worldwide annoyance, its epicenter is now the failed nation state of Somalia, where brazen hijacking of vessels in the Indian Ocean as far away as the Seychelles have in the past decade netted the maritime miscreants billions of dollars.
Though little noticed, tankers have been targets of opportunity for both pirates and terrorists for some time.
While media attention has focused on Somalia, the problem is global. On 16 January 1999 the 131,654 DWT-ton French-flag tanker Chaumont was attacked by pirates while transiting the Malacca Straits’ Phillip Channel in Indonesian waters near Singapore. The attackers tied up the crew and the fully loaded tanker sailed at full speed through one of the world's busiest shipping lanes for 70 minutes without anyone at the helm.
In waters nearby the site of today’s attack, in October 2002 the 299,364 DWT-ton French tanker Limburg was rammed by an explosives-laden boat off the port of Ash Shihr at Mukallah, 353 miles east of Aden. A crewman was killed and the double-hulled tanker was breached. The impact on the Yemeni economy was immediate, as maritime insurers tripled their rates. Al-Qaida later claimed the attack.
On 15 November 2008 the Somali pirates captured their biggest prize yet, the VLCC (very large crude carrier) 162,252- ton Sirius Star, 500 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, the farthest out to sea Somali pirates had struck up to then. With a capacity of two million barrels, the Sirius Star carried the equivalent of more than a quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily production, a cargo worth more than worth $100 million at the time. On 9 January 2009 the vessel was freed in exchange for a discreet $3 million ransom.
The International Maritime Organization, the U.N.'s 162 nation maritime counterpart, is notorious for the plodding nature of its legislative process. Under current IMO regulations, merchantmen are forbidden to carry firearms for self-protection, charmingly archaic legislation that signally fails to address the realities of the post 9-11 world. The IMO estimates that maritime traffic now accounts for 80 percent of the world's commerce.
Cutthroat competition to reduce profits, flags of convenience, miserable wages - all are problems bedeviling the maritime community while creating a nightmare for security specialists.
It is not as if seafaring nations have not been trying to cope. On 22 August 2008 the multinational naval coalition Combined Task Force 150 (CTF 150), set up after the 11 September attacks to patrol the Arabian Sea and the coast of Africa to combat terrorism, established an eight-mile-wide, 550 mile-long nautical corridor - the Maritime Safety Protection Area (MSPA) - in the Gulf of Aden in which patrols would be conducted to provide safe passage to merchantmen. CTF 150 aircraft also monitored the channel.
Needless to say, today the CTF 150 was reactive, not proactive.
The issue of how to cope with East Africa’s pirates has been the topic of heated debate for several years, from bleeding heart liberals advocating attempting to rebuild Somalia’s shattered economy to the more muscular response of CTF 150 members, who advocate more of a “Dirty Harry” approach, i.e., kill them if at all possible and avoid the nasty legal issues of tussling with maritime law niceties, which dates back centuries and is the most convoluted legal corpus on the planet.
Given the realities of modern commercial shipping, a sensible compromise might be for the IMO to revisit its prohibition on small arms onboard merchantmen. While sailors, alcohol and firearms have traditionally proven a volatile mix, one of the reasons for the current IMO restrictions, creative solutions might be found, something on the order of nuclear submarines’ dual launch controls, whereby two responsible officers have to unlock the missilery in tandem.
What is clear at this point is that water hoses don’t work and that the CTF can’t be everywhere. As an old Afghan proverb puts it, a people who do know something about firearms, “Five of them would run from the bang of one empty gun.” It’s worth considering how many would retreat form a half-dozen weapons fully locked and loaded.
By. John C.K. Daly of OilPrice.com