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Security issues have been active in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Sea since the start of the Somali Civil War in the early 1990s. The Somali Pirate and the method and motivation of attacking commercial shipping and one Naval Officer’s initiative paved the way for radical change in the way merchant’s vessels sailed through one of the busiest and most important waterways in the world. To conclude, how this initiative influenced my decision-making as both a Ship Security Officer and a Company Security Officer since 2008.
‘The pirates of our imagination are romantic figures. They engage in acts of great daring. They seek buried treasure and make their enemies walk the plank. If they’re the Johnny Depp kind of pirate, they might even get the girl. And then, they disappear, ready to plunder another day’.
Well organized, well-funded, and motivated the modern-day pirate bears no resemblance to the ‘Jack Sparrow’ image described above. Heavily armed with semi-automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, Somali pirates attack with impunity and install fear into any seafarer who sails through the waters of the Gulf of Aden and the wider Indian Ocean. Figure 1 depicts the stretch of waterway between the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea and is located between the coasts of Yemen to the North, Somalia to the South, and the Arabian Sea to the East. It covers approximately 205,000 square miles (530,000 square km) with a total length measuring 920 miles (1,480 km) from east-northeast to west-southwest. The widest part measures approximately 300 miles (480 km) from north-northeast to south-southwest. At its height in 2008, depending on which figures you look at, Somali piracy was deemed a legitimate threat to international trade and depending on which figures you read, was estimated to be costing shipping between $6 and $10 billion a year.
‘Annually, we estimate that 12 percent of world trade is estimated to pass through the Suez Canal and is, therefore; affected by this threat. Countries in the Indian Ocean region, whose ports are in relatively close proximity to pirate waters, ship as much as 60 percent of their imports travel through pirate-infested waters’. A Somali pirate’s success was and remains to this day accomplished by a simple Modus Operandi. A small attack group sailed out from the coastline of Somalia in small fast skiffs boats into the Gulf of Aden. There they sat and waited, hunting. The prey did not matter; oil-laden tankers, cargo ships, yachts, passenger ships, tug boats, chemical tankers; nothing was safe. Vessel vulnerability and add human life into the mix and once captured this almost always guaranteed the pirates a lucrative payday. Attacks were not uncommon on commercial vessels throughout 2005-2007, yet it was difficult to obtain a true number of actual incidents.
In their report, the documented the justifications that some ships and companies had for their failure to report a hijacking: “The actual extent of piracy is difficult to gauge; there may have been other cases that have gone unreported since many companies do not report incidents of piracy for fear of rising insurance premiums and prompting protracted time-consuming investigations”. The same could be said of ransoms. Shipowners and companies did not want to divulge any information regarding the amount of money that was involved, negotiated, and paid. What was clear was the frequency of attacks was increasing and the sea areas of the Gulf of Aden, Bab el Mandeb, and the wider Indian Ocean became the most pirate-infested waters in the world. Something had to be done not only for the sakes of the seafarers who were held in captivity but for the soaring costs that were attributed to this criminal act… but what?
It was in 2008 while watching a television documentary on how to police a long stretch of the M1 motorway using only two vehicles, that sparked a ‘eureka moment’ for one UK Naval Officer. Concerned about the increase in piracy attacks and the human cost to seafarers, his initiative of a Maritime Security Patrol Area, was established. This initiative was co-ordination between coalition forces military and commercial shipping that could provide a long-awaited short-term solution in response to pressure from the International Maritime Organization and other organizations to assist with discouraging attacks on commercial vessels.
The fundamental idea was to funnel shipping through a narrow corridor. Coalition forces could then focus their efforts on destabilizing criminal activities including piracy. This would be achieved with warships patrolling the area and aircraft flying in the airspace above thus creating a safe corridor for commercial shipping to sail through’. Because defensive measures would be far more effective if concentrated in a smaller area.
In such a vast sea area, it was ill-conceived to believe that the naval forces alone could provide a robust and timely response to protect all commercial vessels at all times. The initiative of the safe corridor at the very least concentrated commercial vessels into an area where a coordinated response could be better achieved and protection provided with limited resources, i.e. fewer assets covering a defined sea area. In such a vast sea area, it was ill-conceived to believe that the naval forces alone could provide a robust and timely response to protect all commercial vessels at all times. The initiative of the safe corridor at the very least concentrated commercial vessels into an area where a coordinated response could be better achieved and protection provided with limited resources, i.e. fewer assets covering a defined sea area.
Ships indeed took advantage of the MSPA, however; hijackings and attacks continued at an alarming rate within the MSPA. This could be attributed in part to the fact that the pirates now knew where to hunt for their prey. Figure 3 shows the MSPA with hijackings and attacks from 15th September 2008 through 12th January 2009. As a result of the increase in attacks, the term ‘safe corridor’ was considered by some as misleading. Garofano and Dew in their book ‘Deep Currents and Rising Tides’ argue that this MSPA did not guarantee security, because, ‘notwithstanding the significantly enhanced naval presence now in the region, there were simply not enough warships to provide comprehensive patrols. Indeed, if four naval vessels were tasked with patrolling the MSPA, only 24% of the corridor and 4%of the overall area would be covered’.
Responding to these attacks, the initiative evolved, and military authorities made a significant amendment to the MSPA. On February 1st, 2009 the original patrol area was moved south of its original position, the characteristic ‘bend’ removed, and was effectively transformed into a two-lane highway. The MSPA became known as the International Recommended Transit Corridor. Figure 4 shows the original MSPA corridor purple zone and the new IRTC corridor. Each lane consisted of two 5 nautical mile wide shipping lanes, one eastbound red zone, and one westbound green zone each lane measuring 490 nautical miles long and 12 nautical miles wide; each lane would be separated by a 2 nautical mile sterile area.
We know, the initial MSPA did not guarantee a safe corridor to prevent an attack and neither does the IRTC, however; when used in conjunction with Best Management Practices and Practical Measures to Avoid, Deter, or Delay Pirate Attacks it provided a defense in depth methodology to mitigate that risk and provide better protection and response to a pirate attack. Collectively, safety in numbers, communication, reporting, and planning were the 4 proven principles that were identified and applied to the framework of both the MSPA and the IRTC.
The initiative of the MSPA provided a defined sea area where coalition forces and commercial shipping could in effect amalgamate and align procedures and protocols to mitigate pirate attacks. Safety in numbers allowed the coalition forces to focus on multiple vessels in one area rather than simply dotted across this vast sea area. Latterly of course as the MSPA evolved the IRTC then provided different group speeds which gave coalition assets a flexible area to cover the designated area better.
Specific contact numbers were cascaded down from military sources, these included emergency a 24/7 emergency number continuously manned by a 24/7 operations center. Regular contact with naval assets in the area was maintained by VHF radio.
UKMTO became the focal point for any reports of piracy. UKMTO would then direct military response. Commercial ships would pre-advise military authorities of their intentions to transit the MPSA or IRTC, then follow up with daily reports. Any deviation to the speed or significant alteration of course would alert the coalition forces through their classified live time tracking system.
Who would have thought that the paradox of a motorway and a safe corridor at sea would mitigate the risk of an attack by pirates?? Well, it did, and it does. The RN Officer’s initiative to take an idea from a television program and firstly to convince the coalition forces and secondly shipping companies that this would or could work was indeed a great feat of ingenuity.
The initiative of the MSPA allowed for a more concerted and rapid response from military assets patrolling the Gulf of Aden while providing security to commercial shipping. I along with many others was amongst the 1st to take a ship through the MSPA back in 2009 as a Ship Security Officer. Although the now IRTC does state ‘recommended’, it is a compulsory instruction for my fleet that they plan their sea passage through it. Safety in numbers in my experience will outweigh the arguments against it, but what is clear is that the pirate’s ability to attack with impunity without recourse has now diminished because of one person’s initiative.
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