Category Archives: Current Operations

On-going Naval Ops or Maritime Current Events

Maersk Texas Attacked

The Maersk Texas repelled a pirate attack on Wednesday in the Gulf of Oman around noon local time, before continuing on its voyage to the U.S.:

Maersk Line, Limited confirms its U.S. flag vessel, Maersk Texas, thwarted an attack by multiple pirate skiffs at noon local while transiting the Gulf of Oman, northeast of Fujairah.  All hands onboard are safe and unharmed, and the vessel is proceeding on its voyage. Numerous skiffs with armed men in each boat quickly closed on Maersk Texas. Maersk Texas activated defensive measures per the U.S. Coast Guard-approved Vessel Security Plan. Despite clear warning signals, the skiffs continued their direct line toward Maersk Texas and the embarked security team fired warning shots. The pirates then fired upon Maersk Texas, and the security team returned fire per established U.S. Coast Guard rules of engagement.

Of particular note:

Many small craft and fishing boats were in the area and were not involved in the incident.

According to gCaptain the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence issued a warning for the area following the attack, and while it doesn’t specifically mention the Maersk Texas, seemed to indicate that pirates may be using “white” merchant traffic to blend in and disguise their presence:

Merchant vessels operating in the Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, Persian Gulf, Red Sea, and Somali Basin are advised to maintain vigilance against and report abnormal or atypical small boat behavior, to include potential surveillance. This includes merchant vessels at anchorage either in or near territorial waters. Merchant vessels are encouraged to differentiate between fishing vessels from potential bad actors intertwining themselves within legitimate fishing activity. If fishing gear or actual fishing activity is not observed, take all appropriate counter-piracy and force protection measures to prevent piracy, illegal boardings, and/or waterborne attacks. In accordance with Best Management Practices (BMP), please maintain communications with UKMTO and report any abnormal incidents.

The incident is also notable due to early rumors surrounding the attack, including on one hand that up to 20 skiffs took part in the engagement, and on the other, according to EU NAVFOR, that there were no pirates.

The response to the incident is also a sign of the strength of the spirit of international maritime cooperation in the region. While HMAS Melbourne launched a helicopter to aid the Maersk Texas, it was beat out by the Iranian navy, which was the first to respond to the ship’s distress call. ThinkProgress states that the Iranians “offered guidance to the crew of the ship by radio,” (but was never physically on scene).

Although the value or necessity of this guidance is debatable given the Maersk Texas’ on-board security team and U.S. Coast Guard transit preparations, the symbolism of the assistance comes at an opportune time for Iran, in the midst of another round of nuclear talks. Like the U.S. Navy’s earlier rescue of Iranian fishermen this year, this episode demonstrates that the shared value of aid to mariners in distress at sea can help humanize some of the most wary of adversaries.

A final interesting tidbit from gCaptain:

Maersk Line, Limited reportedly employs Trident Group security teams onboard their vessels, the same group shown in a viral video shooting “warning shots” at approaching pirate skiffs.  If it was a Trident team on the vessel, we know there is some video of the attack that will likely be reviewed, and up to Maersk on whether or not it will be released.

Scarborough Fair

Keeping tabs on the neighbors.

While no longer making regular headlines, the stand-off over the Scarborough Shoal/Panatag Shoal/Huangyan Island continues. Since April 10th both China and the Philippines have maintained a presence in the area, but one limited to civilian agencies – the Philippines Coast Guard on one side, and the Chinese Maritime Surveillance agency on the other.

Rather than trading literal broadsides, China and the Philippines have fought this dispute mostly through the figurative variety in the diplomatic and economic spheres. Philippines President Benigno Aquino suggested exploring joint ventures in the area and sent envoys to Beijing to attempt to resolve the crisis. China meanwhile issued travel advisories for the Philippines, halted tours, scaled back commercial flights, and quarantined incoming Philippine bananas on pest-control grounds.

Both nations have issued fishing bans on the Shoal area in the past week. The Chinese most likely issued the ban because their own fishermen will stay away until monsoon rains abate in the fall, and the stay-behind surveillance ship snow have a pretext in the ban for enforcement. The Philippines, meanwhile, supposedly issued their own ban in order to protect depleted fishing stocks, but this adversely affects the economies of local fishing communities that depend on fishing the Shoal grounds year-round to make their livelihoods.

Making their case.

With personal financial stability and pride at stake, it’s no surprise that civilians at times seem readier to push the situation towards a conflict than the two nations’ governments. In addition to the wide-spread nationalism (and minor protest rallies) whipped up on both sides and given voice in online forums, some 20 protestors and camera crew planned to make the case for the Philippines by setting up a protest on the shoal itself. They were persuaded by President Aquino to allow the government negotiators in Beijing a chance to achieve a constructive outcome.

Despite what my colleague believes about the benefits of the U.S. sitting on the sidelines of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Scarborough Shoal stand-off is an apt example of how not having ratified the treaty can hamstring the U.S.’ ability to bring pressure to bear on another country (China) for failing to live up to its treaty obligations in pursuance of a peaceful and diplomatic resolution. For while the Philippines is building a case for the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), one of the UNCLOS conflict-resolution mechanisms, China, another signatory, refuses to abide by any rulings of the tribunal.

With the stand-off as a backdrop, both sides are expanding their naval forces. The Philippine navy is set to take possession of another U.S. Coast Guard vessel Tuesday, the ex-USCGC Dallas, of the same type as its current flagship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar. The Chinese Maritime Surveillance administration is also rapidly expanding in numbers (h/t Chuck Hill – CGBlog.org). This is the agency that intervened at the Shoal and prevented the Philippine navy from arresting the Chinese fisherman whose discovery began the current stand-off. While a nation with an expansive coastline and far-flung fishing interests has legitimate needs for a competent coast guard, the continuing Scarborough Shoal stand-off is just one more illustration that ships of this agency are enforcers of state policy, and Chinese maritime state policy has been rather uncompromising of late.

Forward from the Sea…and Land

The EU agreed in March to conduct counter-piracy on land.

On the east coast of Africa and along the southern Arabian Peninsula, the U.S. has been waging a campaign against pirate and terrorist targets from naval forces offshore. Early reports today detail European militaries’ first counter-piracy operation ashore. A helicopter from EU Naval Force Somalia’s Operation Atalanta struck a pirate base camp in Somalia’s Mudug region and destroyed several pirate skiffs and other supplies stowed on a beach.

Britain’s The Telegraph gives a detailed account:

The dawn raid, launched from one of nine European warships patrolling off Somalia, was aimed at “making life as difficult for pirates on land as we’re making it at sea”, an EU military official said.

A helicopter flew low along the beach with a door gunner on mounted machine gun troops firing at the targets below.

The operation was ordered after weeks of surveillance from maritime patrol aircraft and other surveillance aircraft circling above the pirates’ known hideouts.

Best not to leave your things unattended.

Five small attack boats with powerful outboard engines were “rendered inoperable” and pirates said that the strike also hit drums of diesel and a weapons store.

The attack involved troops from several of the European navies including seven frigates currently patrolling off Somalia, from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal.

Officials said it was “a European mission” and would not specify from which warship the strike was launched.

But not all efforts against piracy and terrorism in the region involve strikes from the sea. In addition to the use of U.S. Navy SEALS, Afloat Forward Staging Bases, naval vessels and naval aviation assets, the U.S. is also using land-based air power. A report in The Aviationist (h/t Danger Room) describes the role of the Air Force and an F-15E squadron in augmenting the drone strikes in the region. The ring around the Indian Ocean is proving to be a perfect test bed of low-intensity power projection concepts and technologies.

Happy Mothership Day!

“Mom, I’m about to go through a tunnel….”

While we Americans at CIMSEC were busy calling our mothers, taking them out to lunch, building them their own self-propelled, semi-submersibles – you know the usual Mother’s Day stuff – we didn’t want to leave you without a little reading material….so over to the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea!

 

At Information Dissemination, Chris Rawley highlights al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s use of amphibious tactics in their revenge assault for the killing of Fahd al-Quso, who helped plan the USS Cole bombing.

 

He also mentions a group of Somalis arrested on Yemen’s Socotra Island, a well-known pirate haven, who were learning to scuba dive. While he implies this may have been in preparation for a terrorist operation in Yemen, hijacking ships at anchor for profit is the more likely motivation. News sources describe the suspects as pirates rather than terrorists (but Chris is right, never hurts to be alert to new threats).

 

Nonetheless, most piracy in the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, and Somali Coast areas occur against vessels underway, (and those that don’t usually forgo the trouble of so thoroughly disguising the assault) so it would still be a notable change in tactics.

 

A mothership always loves a call from her skiffs.

Speaking of Socotra Island, gCaptain details three recent pirate attacks from at least one mothership in its vicinity. Two employed armed security teams and repelled the incoming skiffs. The third became the first oil tanker successfully taken in over a year.

 

But there’s also good news. BNO News reports the Dutch navy’s HNLMS Van Amstel’s Lynx helo spotted a dhow mothership off the Somali coast. The 11 pirates were compliant after the Dutch made radio contact, and were seized through a combination of “RHIBs, fast motorboats, [and] a special boarding unit consisting of marines” under the protection of Van Amstel’s Lynx. The operation also freed 17 Iranian fishermen hostages.

 

Meanwhile THA – Daily News describes how the Turkish navy executed a similar operation on Saturday. A helo from the frigate TCG Giresun (ex USS Antrim) spotted a hijacked vessel off the coast of Oman prompting the Giresun to launch a boarding netting 14 captured pirates and seven freed Yemeni sailors.

 

And as food for discussion – The National is reporting that Convoy Escort Programme (CEP), a British company backed by the Lloyds of London insurance family, is planning a private navy of 18 ships based in Djibouti. It will consist of 7 ex-Swedish navy fast patrol boats and 11 former offshore supply vessels. CEP will offer to escort convoys along the Internationally Recognized Transit Corridor between the Red Sea and Arabian Sea – takers will forgo insurance premiums and instead be covered by CEP and its Lloyd backers.