Category Archives: Africa

Analysis relating to USAFRICOM AOR.

A Niger Delta Militant Group Declares War on the Nigerian Navy

By Dirk Steffen

Many suspected it as the intensity of pirate attacks off the Niger Delta increased inexorably in the course of April, with 15 attacks between 1 and 21 April 2016. There is a contest going on between those termed by the authorities as “sea criminals” and the Nigerian Navy, which is tasked to suppress them.

Situation

After a period of détente following the Nigerian general elections in April 2015, the Niger Delta is once again stirring. Former militants had made their support of the new President Muhammadu Buhari (elected in April 2015) conditional on the continued payment of “amnesty stipends” and retention of inflated security contracts. Predictably, in the face of drastically reduced oil revenue, President Buhari’s only choice was to reduce those payments, make the remainder more accountable, and let the security contracts worth hundreds of millions expire. Additionally, he went after those godfathers who had systematically abused the amnesty under the previous presidency.

The issue of a court order against the figurehead ex-militant leader Tompolo (formerly the leader of the Niger Delta insurgency in the western Niger Delta) has further stoked the flames of discontent. While Tompolo remains a fugitive, new groups and former followers vie for preeminence in replacing him within his many criminal schemes and networks, using his persecution by the government as a justifying argument.

Attacks offshore the Niger Delta 1-21 April 2016. Brown icons: kidnappings, red icons: armed robberies; orange icons: failed attacks. Source: MaRisk by Risk Intelligence.
Attacks offshore the Niger Delta 1-21 April 2016. Brown icons: kidnappings, red icons: armed robberies; orange icons: failed attacks. Source: MaRisk by Risk Intelligence.

As attacks against shipping and pipelines increased in 2016, with 40 vessels attacked 74 individuals kidnapped off Nigeria alone this year as of 21 April 2016, the Nigerian Navy sprung into action. Sorties in response to attacks as well as the successful tracking and boarding of the hijacked tanker MAXIMUS (11-19 February) suggested that the Nigerian Navy was prepared to take up the challenge. Having demonstrated its effectiveness against the pirate modus operandi of hijacking product tankers in order to steal the cargo, the Nigerian Navy inadvertently redirected criminal energies to a more opportunistic and less predictable sea crime: kidnapping for ransom. This form of crime was traditionally (between 2006 and 2010) much practiced by smaller militant groups with less resources and without sponsors or patrons necessary for the more sophisticated and operationally vulnerable hijackings. Now it appears it has become a free-for-all for seaborne criminals in the Niger Delta. After a wave of inshore kidnappings in January 2016, attacks offshore the Niger Delta out to 120 nm increased throughout February and March. Virtually all of these were carried out by only speed boats without mother ship support and seem to have reached a temporary climax in April.

Challenge and Response

On 15 April 2016 the Nigerian Navy responded by launching Operation Tsare Teku (Haussa for “Protection of the Sea”) with a force consisting of NNS OKPABANA, NNS KYANWA, NNS SAGBAMA and NNS ANDONI as well as 3 other ships held in reserve. The Joint Task Force in the Niger Delta had previously banned 200 hp outboard engines – the propulsion of choice for the heavy speed boats of Niger Delta-based pirates and militants, and on 19 April the Navy impounded 26 boats equipped with such engines in Warri. On 22 April the Navy re-iterated the ban of 200 hp engines.

Nigerian pirates taunting the crew of a tanker in the Agbami oil field in broad daylight in April 2016. Note the 200 hp main outboard engine and white “battle” flag traditionally used by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (2006-9).
Nigerian pirates taunting the crew of a tanker in the Agbami oil field in broad daylight in April 2016. Note the 200 hp main outboard engine and white “battle” flag traditionally used by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (2006-9). Photo: Source withheld. 

Within hours a group called the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) responded to these actions. The NDA had already claimed responsibility for the hijacking of the tanker LEON DIAS on 29-31 January and the subsequent kidnapping of 5 crew members. They also claimed responsibility for a number of attacks on pipelines including the Forcados export pipeline in February 2016. In a statement issued on 22 April they finally threw down the gauntlet:

“We are hereby calling on the Nigerian Navy to desist from such unlawful acts and recede the call for the ban on 200HP outboard engines as refusal to heed this warning of ours will spun us to declare a war on the Nigerian Naval Force. This war will aide us achieve nothing but expose the Nigerian Navy to the biggest embarrassment in the history of the force. It is also a promise from us that we shall make the waterways unsafe for any vessel or petroleum tanker if you fails to listen to our warning and still go about harassing and killing our people in the guise of escorting vessels along the Niger Delta creeks.”

The NDA are most likely a “mouthpiece” for a yet unorganised number of armed groups in the Niger Delta, but that makes them no less of a concern. Like the Movement of the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) they may quickly turn into a rally point in case of an exaggerated military backlash. This presents the Nigerian Navy with a conundrum: while the suppression of acts of piracy falls squarely into the Navy’s remit, they have in fact inherited a legacy problem for which they are not well prepared.

Capabilities and limitations of the Nigerian Navy

The focus of Nigerian Navy operations since 2006 has been the fight against insurgents (between 2006 and 2009) and against illegal bunkering on the creeks and rivers of the Niger Delta. The Navy forms part of the inter-agency Joint Task Force who currently prosecute a riverine campaign called Pulo Shield in the Niger Delta. For reasons of prestige, both the Navy and the Nigerian Maritime Safety Agency (NIMASA) have long downplayed or denied the threat of piracy in Nigerian waters, engaging in semantic games that re-defined piracy (legally correct, but misleading) as “armed robbery” inside territorial waters or as “community issues.” At international and regional conferences, the previous Director General of NIMASA, Patrick Ziakede Akpolobokemi (now indicted for fraud along with his associate Tompolo), routinely grandstanded about Gulf of Guinea piracy without even uttering the word “Nigeria.”

The result is a Nigerian Navy that is geared towards riverine law enforcement operations, but that lacks a credible coastal enforcement capability in spite of recent acquisitions of four Offshore Patrol Vessels in 2015 (NNS OKPABANA, NNS CENTENARY, NNS SAGBAMA, NNS PROSPERITY) and measurable increases in tactical proficiency. The Achilles heel is the lack of true Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), insufficiently networked assets and ineffective command centers. The territorial organization into Western, Central and Easten Naval Command is suitable for riverine operations, but less so for the centralized approach required for MDA and counterpiracy.

The Nigerian Navy is also heavy on shore-side organisztion, draining resources away from the fleet. Many small and medium-sized Nigerian Navy patrol boats are idle due to lack of spares, crews, and fuel. An investigation has been launched into the Navy’s past lopsided procurement practices, but in the current situation, this only adds insult to injury. From a material point of view, the Nigerian Navy’s situation has been dire for a long time. In August 2015 the new Chief of Naval Staff Vice-Admiral Ibok-Ete Ekwe Ibas conceded that “the Nigerian Navy [… ] is unable to fulfill its constitutional obligation of defending and protecting the country’s territorial waters because more than half its fleet is broken down.”

A more or less permanent presence at sea by the Nigerian Navy is provided only by those patrol boats providing oil field security – contracted to private companies, but manned mostly by Nigerian Navy personnel. Under a Memorandum of Understanding between these security companies and the Navy, the patrol boats should remain available for “national security” purposes and share MDA information with the Navy. Contracted escort vessels have been detached from their commercial duties in the past to intervene in ongoing pirate attacks, but the reality is this arrangement deprives the Nigerian Navy of operational reserves and flexibility – such as would be necessary for an operation like Tsare Teku.

The privately contracted patrol boat NNS WARRIOR provides riverine escort to a merchant vessel in 2016. Photo: source withheld.
The privately contracted patrol boat NNS WARRIOR provides riverine escort to a merchant vessel in 2016. Photo: source withheld.

Operation Tsare Teku

Of the four vessels now assigned to Tsare Teku only OKPABANA and SAGBAMA can provide meaningful surveillance and pursuit capabilities. KYANWA is an elderly buoy tender (ex-USCGC SEDGE, WLB-402 – laid down in 1943) with a top speed of 12 knots and ANDONI is a locally built patrol boat with only standard sensors and a top speed of 21 knots. Only OKPABANA has a helicopter flight deck, but no organic helicopter. As in the MAXIMUS case, the Nigerian Navy would rely on the two Air Force ATR-42 Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft for aerial reconnaissance. However, both aircraft are stationed in the north of Nigeria where they take part in the campaign against Boko Haram.

Three more vessels are slated to join the operation: NNS CENTENARY, NNS BURUTU and NNS ZARIA. Of those three only the recently acquired CENTENARY has a helicopter flight deck and an above average command and communications suite. BURUTU and ZARIA are both Singapore-built fast patrol craft that are suitable for EEZ patrolling and would be a valuable addition as fast responders – provided they join the effort.

Effectively, thus, the current offshore surveillance and deterrence element of Tsare Teku relies almost entirely on NNS OKPABANA, a former US Coast Guard HAMILTON-class cutter (ex-USCGC GALLATIN, WHEC-721) that has been in near constant use responding to incidents since January and taking part in the AFRICOM exercise OBANGAME EXPRESS/SAHARAN EXPRESS 2016 as one of the mainstays of the Nigerian Navy. The 48-year old vessel is now increasingly struggling with mechanical problems.

The Nigerian Navy offshore patrol vessel NNS OKPABANA during Exercise OBANGAME EXPRESS 2015. Photo: German Navy/Steve Back.
The Nigerian Navy offshore patrol vessel NNS OKPABANA during Exercise OBANGAME EXPRESS 2015. Photo: German Navy/Steve Back.

Wisely, the Nigerian Navy has therefore geographically limited the objective of Tsare Teku to what Ibas identified as the two major “hot spots” of pirate activity: the sea area off Brass (located on the southwestern tip of the Niger Delta in Bayelsa state) and off Bonny (the entrance to the sea ports of Onne and Port Harcourt in Rivers state on the south coast of the Niger Delta). While the Bonny area will be relatively easy to secure due to the converging traffic and proximity of pirate attacks to the Bonny River Fairway Buoy, pirate attacks off Bayelsa have been more dispersed and out to 120 nautical miles from the coast – often at night. This will present a challenge and attacks on Chevron’s Agbami oil field on 7 and 10 April show that the criminals have little respect for a weak naval presence. On 7 April, two tankers waiting to load at the terminal were attacked. NNS OKPABANA responded and was in the field on 7/8 April. However, just 2 days later, pirates attacked another tanker in the same location. Ultimately, it fell to the field security vessel to provide a timely response.

Outlook

Attacks have abated since 21 April, but the cyclical, or surge-like, nature of attacks is typical for Niger Delta offshore violence. A number of hostages have been released over the past few days and more will be freed in the near future. All other things remaining equal, once the funds generated from the ransoms have been distributed and loyalties assured, a resumption of attacks should be expected.

In the short term all the Nigerian Navy will be able to provide is a sticking plaster. Just like in Somalia, the problem will not be resolved at sea. However, unlike Somalia, Nigeria actually has the sovereign power (and increasing political will, it seems) to address both the symptoms and the causes on shore. The control of inshore waterways and community engagement will form a part of the ongoing operation Tsare Teku. However, its success will also depend on the Nigerian Navy getting its own house in order. Ibas pointed out in 2015 “that most of the operations designed to eradicate the oil bunkering syndicates operating in the country’s waters were still achieving limited success because some navy officers and other security personnel were involved in the illegal activities.”

From an operational point of view, the best course of action for the Nigerian Navy in the short term (apart from a joint effort ashore) would be to fold the contracted field security and patrol vessels into a comprehensive scheme for merchant vessel protection, rather than allowing a large number of these vessels to be absorbed into one-on-one escort/security missions or “waiting for business.” This would not necessarily clash with commercial interests of oil companies operating convoys to and from their offshore installations. The idea here could be to coordinate and promulgate convoy schedules and open them for general shipping (much like the “national” convoys in the Gulf of Aden became open to ships flying all flags), thus maximizing the efficiency of existing operational naval vessels. Corridors could be extended in some cases or linked using other Nigerian Navy vessels or by sharing contracted patrol boats. This would have the added benefit of enabling the contracted patrol boats to pursue and apprehend attackers under the Nigerian Navy’s Rules of Engagement rather than having to remain purely defensive in accordance with the more restrictive Standard Operating Procedures of private security companies, which only allow a defensive posture.

Searching, sweeping, and deterrence patrols are likely to produce minimal results given the fleeting nature of the threat, the size of sea area, and the complexity of the Niger Delta coastline. Instead, the most valuable assets – like OKPABANA, CENTENARY, and the Sea Eagle fast patrol craft should be held in readiness as fast response assets. The low number and limited response radius of the vessels (for as long as the OPVs do not routinely operate helicopters on their missions) would probably not make it efficient to use them “on station” in the transit corridors in the way this was done in the Gulf of Aden. Continuous sea time would also aggravate the already precarious maintenance issues of some vessels.

In summary: the Nigerian Navy will be on the defensive in the short term for whatever comes at it from the creeks of the Niger Delta. This is not as ignominious as it sounds since command of the sea (however limited in geographic scope) is by definition a defensive strategic objective. Initially however, the Nigerian Navy will also contend with serious constraints ranging from a lack of awareness of what plays out in Nigerian waters outside the coverage of coastal radar stations and the Automated Identification System (AIS), as well as insufficient assets (or readiness of those assets) to effectively police the offshore littoral. The Nigerian Navy, even if it wishes to engage the merchant marine – as recently suggested by Vice-Admiral Ibas, will not initially benefit from the support of the merchant marine. Past experiences of naval officers’ connivance with criminals, corruption, extortion, and bullying at the hands of the Nigerian Navy have undermined industry’s trust in the Nigerian Navy. It will take time and fence-mending to reassure the international shipping community so that they will provide the indispensable data the Nigerian Navy would need in order to maintain MDA and effectively co-ordinate shipping in a piracy-threat area. Until then, operations like Tsare Teku will be largely symbolic. It may make life a little more complicated for the pirates, but not unduly so in the foreseeable future.

Dirk Steffen is a Commander (senior grade) in the German Naval Reserve with 12 years of active service between 1988 and 2000. He took part in the African Partnership Station exercises OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014, 2015 and 2016 at sea and ashore for the boarding-team training and as a Liaison Naval Officer on the exercise staff. He is normally Director Maritime Security at Risk Intelligence (Denmark) when not on loan to the German Navy. He has been covering the Gulf of Guinea as a consultant and analyst since 2004. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone, and do not represent those of any German military or governmental institutions.

Featured Image: NNS KYANWA alongside NNS THUNDER at Apapa Naval base (Lagos) in 2014. Photo: Dirk Steffen

West African Navies Coming of Age?

By Dirk Steffen

On 11 February 2016, fourteen Nigerian and Ghanaian pirates in two speedboats attacked the product tanker MAXIMUS (ex-SP BRUSSELS) 70 nm south of Abidjan, Ivory Coast. They hijacked the ship with the intention to steal part or all of its 4,700 metric tonne diesel fuel cargo, sailing it to a position ca. 300 nm south of Lagos, Nigeria over the next few days. The case ended with an opposed boarding of the tanker by the Nigerian Navy, which left one pirate dead and six apprehended; the remainder fled on their support vessel, taking two crewmembers of the MAXIMUS as hostages.

What began as just another product tanker hijacking developed into a model case for regional maritime security cooperation under the Yaoundé Code of Conduct. The first asset to track the hijacked tanker was the Military Sealift Command’s expeditionary fast transport vessel USNS SPEARHEAD, stationed in the region for training and exercise support as a part of the African Partnership Station. SPEARHEAD identified the hijacked ship and shadowed it for two days as it sailed from Ivorian into Ghanaian waters. Then the CTF 63, Capt. Heidi Agle, handed over to the Ghana Navy, which continued to shadow the ship until it crossed the extension of the maritime boundary to Togo, about 200 nm offshore at that point. While Benin and Togo were not able to mobilise vessels to that distance from the shore, Nigeria was.

USNS SPEARHED leaving Douala in March 2015 (Photo: Dirk Steffen).
USNS SPEARHED leaving Douala in March 2015 (Photo: Dirk Steffen).

On 17 February the MAXIMUS, now re-named MT ELVIS-5 by the hijackers, had reached a position about 300 nm south of Lagos, roughly north-west of the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe. While an unknown mother ship had probably supported the actual attack on the tanker, another vessel, the small Cambodian-flagged tanker DEJIKUN, was likely used by the pirates in an attempt to steal part of the MAXIMUS’s cargo. The DEJIKUN was tracked heading south from Lagos on 16 February, arriving in the general area of the MAXIMUS on midday of 18 February.

The hijacking of the product tanker MAXIMUS and the tracks of the pirate support vessels between 8 and 19 February 2016 (source: MaRisk by Risk Intelligence).
The hijacking of the product tanker MAXIMUS and the tracks of the pirate support vessels between 8 and 19 February 2016 (source: MaRisk by Risk Intelligence).

Close on her tail was the Nigerian offshore patrol vessel NNS OKPABANA followed by NNS SAGBAMA. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Navy’s Chief of Training and Operations (CTOP), Rear Admiral Henry Babalola, obtained permission to operate in Sao Tomé and Principe waters although the MAXIMUS was technically in international waters (albeit inside the Sao Tome and Principe exclusive economic zone). What followed on 19 February were eight hours of negotiations via VHF before a Nigerian Navy boarding team from NNS OKPABANA boarded the MAXIMUS in the evening of 19 February. The pirates briefly offered resistance, before one of their number was killed and the remaining six on board the MAXIMUS fled into the engine room where they eventually surrendered.

Both from an operational point of view, especially with regards to regional co-operation as well as from a tactical perspective, the mission was a success. None of the MAXIMUS’s crewmembers were injured, although several pirates escaped with two hostages onto the DEJIKUN. The ship was later found drifting off Benin, abandoned by the pirates who had also taken the hostages with them.

Nigerian Navy SBS team (Photo: German Navy/Steve Back).
Nigerian Navy SBS team (Photo: German Navy/Steve Back).

The liberation of the MAXIMUS was lauded as a model of regional co-operation under the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, even though Sao Tome and Principe, a nation with virtually no maritime security capacity, never reported to Nigeria or to the relevant Zone D reporting centre in the region (contrary to the official statements) when the MAXIMUS or DEJIKUN entered her waters. Nigeria eventually asked for permission to pursue the MAXIMUS into the Sao Tome and Principe exclusive economic zone under a bilateral agreement, which in the end achieved its objective, but also exposed some of the still extant weaknesses in the regional framework and capacities.

While diplomatically relevant, the message that the operation sent to the criminals was equally important: Gulf of Guinea states are increasingly willing and able to suppress maritime crime. It may only have been a beginning, but it may well be that the prospect of a forceful naval intervention has upset the plans of would-be tanker hijackers at a time when the economic situation in Nigeria is becoming increasingly conducive to the theft and smuggling of fuel into the country.

For the navies of the region, especially the Nigerian Navy, success may become self-reinforcing. The Nigerian Navy has long labored under its dismal performance and reputation relative to its assets and manpower potential. It remains beset by corruption and inefficiency, but it appears that the change that the Buhari presidency has brought over Nigeria may have begun to affect the navy as well. The Nigerian Navy had already responded with some alacrity to the brief hijacking (turned kidnapping) of the LEON DIAS on 29-31 January, the attempted kidnapping of crewmembers from the SAFMARINE KURAMO on 5 February near Bonny River Fairway Buoy and more recently, assisting the BOURBON LIBERTY 251, which had two crewmembers kidnapped on 23 February 2016. In all cases, the Nigerian naval vessels arrived well after the attacks, although in the case of the SAFMARINE KURAMO the attackers had to abandon their attempt to extract the crew from their citadel and were forced to leave the ship. While not entirely satisfactory to those involved, it is progress over previous years. Before, the navy hardly ever responded to distress calls at all, and when they did, it more often than not created bad blood between them and the merchant marine community through heavy-handed practices.

It is likely that the response to similar incidents will remain hit-and-miss for some years to come, especially if the circumstances are less favorable than in the MAXIMUS case. The MAXIMUS episode benefited from the presence of the USNS SPEARHEAD, which was conveniently deployed in the area for the upcoming African Partnership Station’s OBANGAME EXPRESS 2016 exercise (17-25 March 2016) as well as from some serious tactical mistakes made by the pirates. However, amongst other contingencies, the OBANGAME EXPRESS exercise series rehearses responses to precisely this type of scenario. In a way, the incident therefore reflects the journey the navies of the regions have made since the inception of OBANGAME EXPRESS and it will surely provide interesting input for the upcoming iteration of the exercise. The Nigerian Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), Vice Admiral Ibok- Ete Ekwe Ibas, has credited OBANGAME EXPRESS with meeting its objectives. His challenge will now be to follow up and maintain, as he said, the “resolve of the navy to deploy more ships to maintain the current record of sea patrol in order to tackle maritime security challenges.”

Dirk Steffen is a Commander (senior grade) in the German Naval Reserve with 12 years of active service between 1988 and 2000. He took part in exercises OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014 and 2015 both at sea and ashore for the boarding-team training and as a Liaison Naval Officer on the exercise staff. He is normally Director Maritime Security at Risk Intelligence (Denmark) when not on loan to the German Navy. He has been covering the Gulf of Guinea as a consultant and analyst since 2004. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone, and do not represent those of any German military or governmental institutions.

Book Review: Piracy and Armed Robbery at Sea

Robin Geiss and Anna Petrig. Piracy and Armed Robbery at Sea: The Legal Framework for Counter-Piracy Operations in Somalia and the Gulf of Aden. Oxford University Press, 2011. 340 pp. $110 


9780199609529

By Alex Calvo

The Law of Counter-Piracy Operations: From Hollywood films to some Chinese popular perceptions of their Eastern neighbors, piracy and pirates retain a powerful hold in contemporary culture. However, it is their most recent incarnation in areas like the Gulf of Guinea, the Malacca Straits, and the Horn of Africa, that is carefully followed by anybody involved in maritime affairs, from ship owners and operators to naval officers and international lawyers. Among other aspects of piracy, the legal regime of pirates and operations against them is of the foremost importance, and therefore any volume devoted to them proves a welcome addition to the literature on the sea and what Julius Caesar labeled as “hostis humani generis,” or the enemies of humankind. This is exactly what Piracy and Armed Robbery at Sea purports to be, and actually is: a single-volume treaty on the law applicable to counter-piracy operations, with a regional focus on Somalia and the Gulf of Aden. The book achieves the goals of providing a comprehensive approach to the subject, with plenty of primary sources, case law where applicable, and legal commentary on controversial or unclear aspects. While readers may note the absence of topics such as the rights of victims, the ransom industry, and non-Western legislation, this does not detract from the overall quality of the work, which furthermore contains a number of sources in its appendixes which can be very useful to the practitioner.

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As clear from the title, the subtitle, and introduction, this book seeks to provide the reader with a detailed explanation of the different legal regulations and principles under which piracy is fought in one of the corners of the world where it is most pervasive, and which, crisscrossed by myriad SLOCs (sea lanes of communication), no major power can ignore it. In connection to this, the first aspect of the text we should note is that this is indeed a law book, and perhaps more accurately a “black letter law” book, in the sense that it focuses on positive law, with just the minimum amount of social, economic, and other considerations provided in Chapter one and later interspersed in the text. When the authors delve outside the strict borders of the law, it is to better explain the rationale behind legal rules, a good example being their discussion of judicial and prison capacity in- countries like Kenya (p. 174-179) and the Seychelles, which supports and complements their explanation of the agreements signed between them and the European Union for the local trial and imprisonment of pirates. Having said that, they also discuss possible future developments of the law, such as specialized international tribunals to deal with piracy (p. 179-184).

A second important characteristic we may stress is the logical fashion in which the text is divided into parts, and then subdivided into chapters, which very much aids for the reader who wishes to go through the text from beginning to end, and those who prefer to go straight to one of the issues discussed in the volume. A third strong point is that, while focused on positive law, the authors stop to discuss areas where applicable rules may not be clear or even be controversial, providing a summary of arguments and their own views. An example is the practice of embarking law-enforcement personnel from one country on a naval (or state) ship of another, with the associated legal complexities.

This photo taken Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009 provided by French Defense Minister shows suspected pirates arrested by Marine commandos of the French Navy in the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia coasts. French government officials say the Jean de Vienne intercepted and captured 19 pirates Sunday as they tried to take over two cargo ships, one Croatian and the other Panamian. French Navy vessel Jean de Vienne is seen on background. (AP Photo/French Navy/French Defense Minister/HO)
This photo taken Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009 provided by French Defense Minister shows suspected pirates arrested by Marine commandos of the French Navy in the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia coasts. French government officials say the Jean de Vienne intercepted and captured 19 pirates Sunday as they tried to take over two cargo ships, one Croatian and the other Panamian. French Navy vessel Jean de Vienne is seen on background. (AP Photo/French Navy/French Defense Minister/HO)

The Book’s Strong Points: The text provides a comprehensive look at applicable legislation and extensive discussion of unclear aspects. As noted, the authors make an extensive effort to cover the different legal aspects of the fight against piracy, adding their commentary and summaries of other views where positive law is unclear or developing. Examples include three possible interpretations of Article 105 UNCLOS, providing universal or limited criminal jurisdiction, a conflict-of-law rule, or a reaffirmation “that prosecution is based on domestic criminal law and procedure” (p. 149-151), and a discussion of the differences between transfers and extradition, noting how generally speaking “in the piracy context, the change in custody is not brought about by the formal means of extradition” and “transfers in the piracy context do not fulfill the characteristics of deportations or exclusions.” (p. 192-194)

The Expanding Range of Somali Piracy
The Expanding Range of Somali Piracy

Three gaps: Non-Western Views, Piracy Victims, and the Ransom Industry and Middlemen

There are three aspects that, if incorporated in future editions of the book, may make this work even more complete. First of all, we should note a lack of Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Russian, and South Korean views, even though all these countries contribute to the struggle against piracy in the Horn of Africa. It would be interesting to find some legal commentary, domestic legislation, or actual cases, from these jurisdictions. Second, we cannot fail but note a complete and utter disregard for piracy victims, who are basically absent from the text. While the death penalty, torture, and the principle of “non-refoulement” are dealt with extensively (p. 210-220), there is no discussion of reparations for victims, and of their procedural standing other than when serving as a connection point for states to exercise jurisdiction.

The authors’ concern with the human rights of alleged and convicted pirates is commendable, and so is their extensive treatment of those rights in their book, but caring about the rights of the accused should not be seen as incompatible with at least providing some cursory explanation of those of the victims. Finally, another notable absence is that of the “middlemen” and more widely the “industry” managing ransoms, and their possible criminal liabilities. No look at the legal framework of the fight against piracy is complete without an examination of the rules and practice designed to strangle their finance, but despite the subject occasionally emerging in the pages of the book, there is no section specifically dealing with it. Is it perhaps too sensitive?

Conclusions: It is a useful and quite comprehensive study, though suffering from some gaps. We can thus conclude that this is a book that anybody interested in piracy and counter-piracy operations, the law of the sea, and more generally maritime and naval affairs, will find useful, both as a detailed introduction to the legal rules applicable to counter-piracy operations, and as a reference work. It is to be hoped, however, that future editions incorporate non-Western views, victims’ rights, and the law applicable to pirate financing.

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) focusing on security and defence policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean. Region. A member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and Taiwan’s South China Sea Think-Tank, he is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here.

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Egypt’s Acquisition of the Mistral Amphibious Assault Ship: An Operational Analysis

By Ben Ho Wan Beng

Introduction

The protracted “What happens to France’s two unwanted Mistrals” saga has seemingly drawn to a close with the agreement by Egypt late last month to acquire the highly capable amphibious assault ships (LHDs) for a total of €950 million. A number of commentators have argued that the rationale behind this eyebrow-raising decision is for Egypt to attain a maritime power-projection capability so as to hedge against rising Islamist violence in the region and a resurgent Iran. Indeed, one prominent defense journalist wrote of Egypt using the French-made Mistrals to quell trouble in neighboring hot-spots. In the same vein, another commentator spoke of the vessels giving their owners the ability to conduct expeditionary missions with significant ground and aerial assets.

That being said, the aforementioned statements are based on the assumption that Cairo would be able to effectively deploy the two ships in the first place. This is highly contentious, at least in the near term, for a number of reasons. They include Egypt’s dearth of experience in large amphibious-vessel and naval aviation operations, among others.

The Mistral’s Capabilities

Defense analysts often speak of the Mistral in glowing terms. Indeed, much has been made of the platform offering almost the same capabilities as the United States Navy’s potent Wasp-class LHD, but at only one-sixth the cost and crew size. And even though France officially calls the Mistral a bâtiments de projection et de commandement, or “projection and command ship,” it can also perform several other roles such as amphibious/heliborne assault and humanitarian

France's Mistral-class Dixmude warship in Jounieh bay, Lebanon. (Source: Wikicommons)
France’s Mistral-class Dixmude warship in Jounieh bay, Lebanon. (Source: Wikicommons)

assistance and disaster relief. With 69 beds for patients, it can even act as a hospital ship. An important component of the Mistral is its air wing, which consists either of 16 heavy or 35 light helicopters. It can also accommodate 450 troops (900 for surge operations), four small landing craft or two hovercraft, and a 40-strong Leclerc main battle tank (MBT) unit.

In recent years, France has put its Mistrals to good use in support of its foreign policy. For instance, during the 2006 Lebanon War, the lead ship of its class, the Mistral, was involved in the evacuation of French citizens from the Levant nation. Two years later, the same vessel provided humanitarian aid supplies, albeit indirectly, to victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. And in 2011, the Tonnerre was deployed with Tigre helicopter gunships off the Libyan coast to support France’s military intervention in that North African country.

Assessment

Ship Handling:

At first glance, therefore, the introduction of the Mistral into Egypt’s order of battle would seem to boost considerably the latter’s expeditionary capabilities. However, a more critical assessment  reveals that this would not be the case. Firstly, Egypt simply lacks the experience and know-how in handling a vessel like the Mistral. Warships are highly intricate technological entities. As cited in Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-first Century (Routledge, 2013):

To… operate [warships] requires a mass of technical, industrial and professional skills, ashore and afloat, and a sophisticated system of management to mold them into an effective whole… Ships can be constructed relatively quickly, but the skills and capabilities which make up an effective navy can only be built up with long years of investment.

Indeed, Cairo’s experience in handling warships is limited warships significantly smaller than Mistral. The Egyptian military’s current largest amphibians are its three Polnochnys. This Polish-made landing ship is some 70 meters long and displaces 830 tons; in stark contrast, the corresponding figures for the Mistral are 200 meters and 21,000 tons. Furthermore, the mainstays of the Egyptian surface fleet – the formerly Knox- and Perry-class frigates procured from the U.S. Navy ­– are around 4,000 tons in displacement. Even the largest warship currently in Egyptian service is nowhere near the specifications of the Mistral. Egypt’s sole FREMM frigate, which is 140 meters long and displaces 6,000 tons, was commissioned into service only in June this year.

This dearth of experience in operating a large and complex multi-purpose naval platform like the Mistral would arguably be exacerbated by a failing that plagues most Arab militaries: their personnel’s deficiency in terms of technical skills. In Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991 (University of Nebraska Press, 2004) Kenneth M. Pollack maintains that Arab armed forces, including Egypt’s, often show an inability to fully exploit the capabilities of the military hardware they possess. The Middle East defense expert adds that this lack of technical skills and other military weaknesses of the Arabs are likely to persist.

Then again, even First-World countries with highly educated citizens who are familiar with advanced technology can struggle with regard to operating LHDs. The time-frame in which Australia hopes that HMAS Canberra will achieve initial operational capability (IOC) and final operational capability (FOC) is illuminative of the challenges Egypt might face with its Mistrals. The Canberra – the lead ship of a new LHD class – was commissioned last November, and Australia is working towards its IOC and FOC to be attained in late 2015 and late 2017 respectively. In other words, Australia is hoping that HMAS Canberra will only be fully deployable a good three years after its commissioning.

That being said, media reports state the Mistrals will be delivered to Egypt in March next year and that their future crews have already begun training. To be certain, nobody will claim that Cairo could get its LHDs up and running within a meager six months. However, Egypt’s technical deficiency means that it could take a longer than than Australia to achieve operational capability with their LHD platforms. Furthermore, it must be noted that the Royal Australian Navy possesses some institutional knowledge in handling flat-tops, having operated light carriers during the Cold War. In stark contrast, Egyptian expertise in this area is essentially zilch. The crew of the two Mistrals will therefore need significant assistance from France and also Russia, as there are several Russian systems on-board the vessels.

Amphibious Operations:

A key mission the Mistral is expected to carry out is amphibious operations, and specialist skills and training are essential to the success of such endeavors, according to esteemed naval commentator Geoffrey Till.  Though Egypt has a small marine force, a Stratfor analysis suggests it is not proficient enough to deploy optimally from the Mistral. This particular report, however, does

Amphibious Operations aboard a Mistral during Exercise LION MISTRAL in 2014.
Amphibious Operations aboard a Mistral during Exercise LION MISTRAL in 2014.

not differentiate between the scales of amphibious operations to be conducted. Does it apply for large- or small-scale landings? It is certainly true that Cairo lacks experience in major amphibious operations. As a matter of fact, a Jane’s report argues that the Egyptian military cannot conduct “unilateral, opposed beach landings”, adding that it can only perform small-scale amphibious operations such as infiltrating special forces teams. Such an assessment is hardly surprising considering the fact the Polnochny landing craft can carry a maximum of 180 soldiers and six MBTs, while the Egyptian navy’s other amphibious asset, the Vydra landing craft of which it has nine, can deploy only 100 troops or three MBTs.

However, the Mistral is not built solely for major troop landings, but a range of missions scalable for different objectives. Indeed, Middle East security expert Ahmed S. Hashim believes that the platform would be used extensively for special forces ­­missions to combat Islamist extremism in the region. Such small-scale operations usually involve helicopters, but Egypt does not have the requisite experience vis-à-vis missions of this nature that are launched from ships at sea.

Sea-Based Aviation

This shortfall is manifested in the fact that Egypt’s sea-based aviation experience consists merely of operating an anti-submarine warfare helicopter or two from each of its formerly Perry- and Knox-class frigates. To be sure, the flight-deck and hangar-bay choreography on helicopter carriers like the Mistral is not as complex as that on regular flat-tops. That being said, operations involving several ship-borne helicopters – the Mistral has six launch spots on its flight deck for them ­– are nevertheless challenging, even more so for a navy with limited experience in sea-based aviation like

Flight Ops aboard Mistral during LION MISTRAL 2014.
Flight Ops aboard Mistral during LION MISTRAL 2014.

Egypt’s. To compound matters, the Arab nation will have to train the crew for the navalized Ka-52K helicopters – an asset currently not in its order of battle – which could be procured for deployment on the Mistrals.

Integrated Task Force Operations

Finally, the Egyptians do not have any experience organizing their warships into task forces centered on a capital unit like the Mistral. The LHD makes for an inviting target for adversaries and hence has to be screened by consorts such as frigates and other surface craft as part of a task force. Having a fully operational entity of this sort, however, requires the Egyptians to imbibe the intricacies of maritime task force operations, and this would involve learning from scratch the doctrinal and technical expertise critical to such endeavors. For instance, each component of such a task force will have to train and operate together so as to improve their ability to fight as a coherent whole.

Much has been said about the uphill task the People’s Liberation Army-Navy, which had no experience with flat-tops prior to the commissioning of the Liaoning, is facing in creating a viable aircraft carrier battle group, and the consensus is that this could become a possibility only after several years of concerted effort. The same goes for any Egyptian Mistral task force becoming an effective fighting force. The Egyptian fleet’s lack of operational experience as a whole further complicates the issue. Indeed, it was only tangentially involved in the various Middle Eastern conflicts during the Cold War. In the post-Cold War period, Egyptian warships have been largely placed in the back-burner and have not even joined international peacekeeping missions.

Conclusion

Rounding up, Egypt’s acquisition of the Mistral seems to mark a quantum leap in its capacity to project force; the platform offers multiple capabilities previously unavailable to Cairo. Nonetheless, Egypt is unlikely to utilize the Mistral optimally because of its lack of experience in such crucial areas like handling such a sizable and complex vessel, ship-borne helicopter operations, and integrated naval task force maneuvers. With these in mind, it would be an extremely steep learning curve for Egypt vis-à-vis her most ambitious naval acquisition so far. While most nations, including advanced ones, also struggle with regard to adopting new military technology, Egypt’s case is especially pronounced considering its people’s general lack of technical proficiency.

Going forward, there has been talk of the Egyptian Mistrals operating with Saudi units as part of a joint Arab force; after all, Saudi money is believed to be behind the procurement of these platforms. However, “jointness” is difficult to achieve even between the service arms of a particular country, let alone with another country. Such an arrangement, if it ever materializes, is likely to further complicate Egyptian Mistral operations.

In the final analysis, it is worth noting that countries that are able to operate effectively aviation-capable platforms like the Mistral belong at least to the category of nations regarded as “medium powers”. Think Japan with its Izumo-class “helicopter destroyers” and South Korea with its Dokdos. This invariably raises the following question: was the Egyptian Mistral acquisition grounded in operational realities, or was it an vainglorious decision conditioned by the fact that large amphibious warfare ships are so du jour nowadays? During the Second World War, there was a famous saying in Japanese naval circles that went: “The three great follies of the world are the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids and the battleship Yamato.” In the near future, could this statement be modified to include the Mistral? Based on the current state of affairs, it is highly probable.

Ben Ho Wan Beng is a Senior Analyst with the Military Studies Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies; he obtained his master’s degree in strategic studies from the same institution. He would like to express his heartfelt gratitude to colleague Colin Koh Swee Lean for providing his insights on this article. Ben can be reached at iswbho@ntu.edu.sg.