How would you design the next naval vessel for your fleet?
This is the fifth in our series of posts from our Maritime Futures Project. For more information on the contributors, click here. Note: The opinions and views expressed in these posts are those of the authors alone and are presented in their personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of their parent institution U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, any other agency, or any other foreign government.
Sebastian Bruns, Fellow, Institute for Security, University of Kiel, Germany:
It looks like a very basic choice will have to be made between multi-functional platforms and increasingly specialized platforms. In other words, the decision will likely be between multi-purpose programs such as the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program of the U.S. Navy, and more narrowly designed warships. At this time, most navies look to be favoring the flexible approach. The early feedback from the LCS and other programs – most notably the overloading of platforms – should shed a light on the challenges and shortcomings of such an approach. It should be noted that there are some very flexible, very capable platforms that work – i.e. the Danish Absalon-class. In light of the inherent flexibility of seapower and almost all warships that buttress maritime power, a balance must be struck between flexibility without over-burdening (i.e. LCS programs), and specialization without discarding too many operational options. If further burden-sharing, political and military integration, and pooling & sharing of resources are the ways of the future, they will lead to some hard decisions. The results of such deliberations, however, must be fully embraced. This is nothing short of a monumental task.
Felix Seidler, seidlers-sicherheitspolitik.net, Germany:
I would leave things as they are. However, besides the Joint Support Ship/LHD I mentioned in answer to earlier questions, an advanced addition to our submarine force would be an interesting idea. There are plans for air independent propulsion (AIP) Class 216 subs; as quiet as the 214s, but with far more operational range and, therefore, nearly reaching a SSN’s global mission capabilities.
Dr. Robert Farley, Professor, University of Kentucky:
I think that the most pressing need is for a vessel capable of undertaking maritime maintenance missions; something akin to the current Oliver Hazard Perry (OHP) frigates. Focus for design would consequently be on endurance, flexibility, and reliability, while potentially giving up some high-end capabilities. I liked the idea for a new generation frigate that John Lehman floated during the U.S. Presidential campaign.
Bryan McGrath, Director, Delex Consulting, Studies and Analysis:
The very next naval vessel I would build would be a 50-meter Fast Patrol Vessel, heavily armed and lightly armored. It would be built in great numbers (approx. 150) and be available for foreign military sales. It would serve as “maritime boots on the ground” as a forward presence force, there to remind others of our interests and to carry out a great deal of the day-to-day business of presence and international cooperation. Again – I would build these only if Navy budgets were increased. If cuts are made, then this investment would not be made.
LT Drew Hamblen, USN:
I’d ensure submarines were able to launch unmanned aerial systems (UAS).
CDR Chuck Hill, USCG (Ret.):
Better information will not totally eliminate the need to board and search vessels. In fact it might raise more questions that can only be resolved on scene. The U.S. Coast Guard will continue to need vessels to do boardings, as will the Navy in wartime. A significant unmet requirement for the Coast Guard and possibly for some elements of the Navy is an ability to forcibly stop even the largest merchant ships. With merchant ships now up to 100 times as large as their WWII counterparts, gunfire and even ASCMs may not be effective. Torpedoes, even small ones, targeting ships propellers might satisfy this need.
LT Scott Cheney-Peters, USNR:
First, I’d pay great attention to the concept of modularity, as demonastrated – though yet to be perfected – in the U.S. Navy’s LCS. The basic philosophy of modularity opens up a lot of opportunities for cost-effective means for keeping a seaframe technologically relevant. Second, I’d invest in a hybrid-electric drive. A powerful electric bus aboard a ship will become increasingly important if the technological hurdles of directed-energy/electric weapon systems (DEEWS) are overcome. Third, I’d figure out how to ensure the flight decks/well decks/boat decks were designed to easily launch and integrate (along with combat systems suites) with an evolving array of new drones. As with modularity, because it’s not easy to predict with hi-fidelity the exact outlines of the fleet of fifty years from now – creating a craft that’s more adaptable to the changing times is an advantage that is vital to build in. Fourth, I’d leave space to play with 3D printers. If they don’t pan out it’s room for another ship’s gym!
YN2(SW) Michael George, USN:
I would not. I honestly believe we have all the ships we need right now. Maybe more than we need, especially since Naval warfare as we know it from World Wars I & II will not be reappearing. Ships are entirely too slow and simply not as practical. Why use all the money, bodies, and logistics to send a ship to another country to attack when a missile could “simply” be shot from the U.S. to any country in the world with precision? Just my opinion.
LCDR Mark Munson, USN:
This is difficult question and my instinct is to hedge and advocate ships that meet a strategy along the lines of Zumwalt’s “High-Low Mix.” A worst-case scenario for the U.S. Navy would be a fight against China and its growing Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD) capabilities, while the more likely mission is low-end maritime security options. My perfect ship for supporting the Maritime Security mission would be designed around requirements for lots of deck space (for small boats and helicopters), and command spaces for embarked staffs equipped with the necessary Command and Control and Intelligence Collection/Analysis systems.
LT Jake Bebber, USN:
Again, vessel design should match the strategic imperative. However, as a cryptologist, I’d hope for a large cryptologic space with lots of antennas!
I would focus on making sure that the ships that we have now are properly manned/trained/equipped before worrying about the next generation of naval vessel for the fleet.
LT Alan Tweedie, USN:
Modularize every aspect of the ship. Everything from combat systems to navigation to hotel services would be a module. If an upgrade or maintenance opportunity arises on literally any piece of equipment it could be swapped out and worked on off-ship. LCS is a step in the right direction but my model would carry the LCS mission module concept to the entire ship.
What emerging technology is going to most profoundly change the way naval warfare is conducted, and why?
This is the Fourth in our series of posts from our Maritime Futures Project. For more information on the contributors, click here. Note: The opinions and views expressed in these posts are those of the authors alone and are presented in their personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of their parent institution U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, any other agency, or any other foreign government.
CDR Chris Rawley, USNR:
Most of CIMSEC’s readers are familiar with Moore’s Law as it relates to integrated circuits increasing in power while falling in cost. Some may have also heard of Kryder’s Law, which deals with shrinking costs for magnetic memory. Other related concepts include Koomey’s Law, which says that battery requirements for a fixed computer load continue to fall and the Shannon-Hartley Theorem, which impacts data transmission speeds. These laws have resulted in increased capability and falling prices for commercial and consumer tools reliant on computing power. It’s a given that military hardware is also becoming more high tech and miniaturized. So why does the cost of military technology continue to skyrocket? There are a number of reasons for this dichotomy, the primary being the U.S. military’s unresponsive and byzantine joint acquisition systems. Those problems aside, the Navy (and DoD) need to figure out how to leverage laws of technology to reduce inflation in new military hardware. One way to do this is with smaller, more numerous, and cheaper systems – many of them unmanned – which can operate distributed over large geographic areas. At Information Dissemination, I frequently discuss a concept for future naval warfare called distributed maritime operations (DMO). DMO as I see it will use highly distributed, highly connected – but independently commanded – small footprint fighting elements. In the same way that special operations forces have used similar concepts to fight a global terrorist threat, I believe DMO will allow small naval forces to work together in a variety of scenarios to produce out-sized combat effects.
LT Drew Hamblen, USN:
Anti-ship ballistic missiles and the implications of Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) proliferation will shake up carrier battle groups – specifically the ability of UASs to numerically overwhelm manned assets. How will a carrier air wing confront 3 air wings’ worth of unmanned aircraft that have twice the on-station time and no pilot-fatigue limitations?
Marc Handelman, WA, U.S.:
– Naval drones (Surface, Sub-surface, Aerial) – Power-projection exploitation capabilities (battlespace control, sustainment, and attack via drones) – Tiny sensors known as MEM (microelectromechnical) devices such as DARPA’s SmartDust project to facilitate ISR exploitation and communication. – The ONR-funded Sea Jet Advanced Electric Ship (obvious efficiencies in power management, logistics, acoustic signature reduction, et cetera)
Cyber-warfare is going to change things soon. The world’s best warships are worth nothing if the IT systems supporting command, control, communications, intelligence, etc. are offline. Hence, navies will have to pay greater attention to safeguarding their IT. For example, malware intrusions into the targeting and control software for all kinds of sea-launched missiles could not only miss their target, but be redirected to strike their ship of origin instead. For the present and the future, the joint forces approach must also include a nation’s cyber warriors.
YN2(SW) Michael George, USN:
As we are still in the early ages of the internet and wireless technology, I believe that there will be an increasingly important role both play in our country’s defense.
Sebastian Bruns, Fellow, Institute for Security, University of Kiel, Germany:
I think cyber warfare, although more of a concept than a technology is providing the basis for the most profound change in naval warfare. The concept is diffuse, difficult to understand, and impossible to directly feel (cue Donald Rumsfeld’s “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns”). In fact, cyber warfare’s challenges, opportunities, and limitations have not been fully grasped. If cyber is understood as a domain, I would compare our current state of mind (and understanding of the subject matter) to the early 1910’s perspective on air power: There has not been a full-fledged cyber war, much like there had not been an appreciation of airpower until World War I. At the same time, the generation of sailors and flag officers that is currently rising through the ranks has already been sensitized (largely by growing up with cyber technology) towards the subject matter; air power and space power did not provide a comparable perspective. It seems logical to quickly adopt cyber warfare concepts and embrace them as part of institutional and individual, strategic and tactical learning.
Rex Buddenberg, Naval Postgraduate School:
Before projecting forward, it may help to look back an equivalent amount of time to see what technologies changed maritime business (warfare included) in the past half-century – essentially since WWII. Some of these technologies, like radars and fathometers, are gadgets. Others are information systems, such as radionav systems like Loran, GPS, digital GPS, and AIS and its work-alikes including USMER, AMVER, MOVREP, and those built around OTH-Gold, Link 14/11.
Still other technologies constitute the potential components of information systems, chiefly communications. The maritime VHF system has revolutionized the SAR business in the USCG in our lifetimes. And, integration with accurate navigation, has revolutionized it further. For instance, when I was stationed on the Oregon coast, a distressed mariner could give us a pair of Loran TD (time/difference data-points) and a fathometer reading (essentially as a checksum) and we could fly a helo right to him … regularly. This phenomenon has attracted the term ‘maritime domain awareness (MDA)’ albeit without a decent usable definition. Now look ahead a bit…
Gadgets: The march of new gadgets will, of course, proceed. The change here will be that the gadget will increasingly export the data rather than only provide a local display. To do that, the gadget will have an internet interface (like webcams). Example: remember PDAs … like Palm Pilots? They had no comms ability to speak of, other than a serial line to sync with local computer. But once the PDA functionality was integrated with the cellphone infrastructure, PDAs morphed into smartphones. I’ve got a PDA … its sitting up on a high shelf.
Systems: The implementation of new systems will also proceed. But there is a sea change in the offing, one that has already occurred elsewhere and is about to occur here: integration and interoperability. Most of the systems above are ‘stovepipe’. The chief characteristic of stovepipe is the locking of a single application (e.g. position reporting) to a single comms system (channels 87B and 88B) to yield something like AIS. The comms channels cannot be used for anything else, such as distress or weather comms, and the systems are usually hard to maintain throughout their life-cycle because you can’t form-fit swap in new components without changes cascading through the system. To get a whiff of the future, look in your office or your residence – we have ‘internet plumbing’ which is application-agnostic. It supports a myriad of applications (messaging, video, scrabble (my wife’s current fixation), … the list is long and ever-changing. The appearance of a new application does not require changes in the underlying comms plumbing. This has partially emerged in the maritime world, but will become ubiquitous, perhaps in the next decade (the technology exists, the problems have to do with infrastructure and mentalities).
The telltale here will be rise of the internet … in this case in the internet’s extension to platforms at sea. We see the harbingers of that now, such as ADNS in Navy. This is the single biggest enabler of integration of the rest.
The operational effect of the increase and integration of information systems is more intelligent application of industrial capability. In slang, less turning circles in the ocean. And in slogan, we might be able to “take the search out of SAR”.
CDR Chuck Hill, USCG (Ret.):
For the Coast Guard’s operations, in both peace and war, the most important aspect is likely to be processed vessel track information. Given the ability to track every vessel in the EEZ, identify it, and correlate it to its past history including the cargoes it has received, would be the ultimate goal. Over-the-Horizon radar/Satellite/AIS (Automatic Identification System)-derived information may eliminate the search in search and rescue (SAR), allow us to know where all the fishing vessels are, and allow us to recognize anomalous voyages that might be smugglers. To do this effectively we need to be able to track small vessels as well as the large.
In wartime this will also make blockade enforcement more effective, and permit prompt response when vessels are attacked.
Dr. Robert Farley, Professor, University of Kentucky:
The expansion of unmanned vehicles (air, surface, and sub-surface) has the potential to work tremendous changes in how we think about naval warfare. We’re already seeing this in littoral projection, and beginning to see it in ASW (anti-submarine warfare). As navies work through the theoretical implications of unmanned vehicles, they’ll begin to develop platforms capable of taking greatest advantage of the technologies, extending both eyes/ears and reach.
LCDR Mark Munson, USN:
Earlier this year, Admiral Greenert, the US Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations, declared that “Payloads were more important than Platforms.” I’m interested in how this plays out in terms of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR). Traditionally the mission of sensors onboard planes, ships, and subs has been subordinated to the operation of those platforms. Is the Navy’s BAMS (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance) UAV going to be just a P-3 without an aircrew onboard, or will it represent a new approach to collecting the information needed to generate actionable intelligence?
It’s been a long time since the U.S. Navy has fought a sustained war at sea, and no one has actual experience in how our current and future sensors need to be used to generate the intelligence required to engage capable enemy at sea. Unfortunately, the model successfully developed by our counterparts ashore during the last decade was in a permissive air environment. It allowed lots of UAVs to provide Full Motion Video (FMV) to intel analysts, developing a pattern of life for terrorist targets that could be fused with other data in order to generate actionable targeting data, but this most likely would not apply to a fight at sea against a capable enemy.
Bryan McGrath, Director, Delex Consulting, Studies and Analysis:
Although it is hardly an “emerging” technology, electric drives will profoundly change naval warfare. They will make submarines even quieter than they currently are, and they will serve to reverse the precision-guided munitions (PGM) imbalance with China by enabling future generations of electric weapons.
LT Alan Tweedie, USNR:
Directed energy and rail guns, while requiring massive up-front R&D costs will produce fantastic combat capability. The ability to have nearly unlimited ammunition without replenishment will make our fleet more capable of conducting sustained operations against enemies.
LT Chris Peters, USN:
I think one of the bigger upcoming changes will come from the installment of rail guns on DDG-1000 and beyond. These could be game-changers in power projection when you combine TLAM (Tomahawk Land Attack Missile)-like range with the cost per round of 5” (NGFS) Naval Gun Fire Support shells.
LT Scott Cheney-Peters, USNR:
I mentioned the general trend of increasing data integration in MFP 3 – essentially the Navy capitalizing on the spread of what’s possible with the information revolution. On the logistics and design side, we’ve waxed on about the effects 3D printing will have. But as far as actual naval warfare, I’m going to have to agree with those thinking about directed energy weapons and rail guns as the most likely to have a nearer-term impact on the tactical level. Both have technical hurdles to overcome, but when they do, they’ll shake up the modern calculus of naval engagements – giving surface vessels a much greater ability to hold their own in a fight, and greatly increasing the potential of drones once component miniaturization and energy reductions have sufficiently advanced reduced to allow their outfit aboard. Bryan McGrath has a good run down over at Information Dissemination on directed energy and electric weapon systems (DEEWS). Finally, the greatest potential for disruption in naval warfare comes from the use of unmanned systems in myriad combinations that are hard to predict but fascinating to think about – for example the combined cyber warfare assisted by drones.
LTJG Matt Hipple, USN:
Perhaps Scott Cheney-Peters and I are beating a dead horse here, but 3D printing in a big way. I know I’m beating an extra-dead horse when I include automation. 3D printing drastically changes the required logistical chain for both ground and naval forces. It changes the way the entire supply system would work, the kinds of people it would employ, and the navy’s relationship with industry. With an influx of business partners that consider themselves problem “hackers”, the Navy will hopefully get a fresh new perspective on life.
I say automation in the smaller big way because, rather than revolutionizing warfare, it is merely a ramping up of speed and density with a decrease in size. Now, my one caveat is that if laser technology becomes sufficiently powerful, fast, and accurate enough to end missile and aircraft threats at great enough range, we potentially have a game-changer with the return of naval gunnery and a real emphasis on submarine warfare as the counter.
LT Jake Bebber, USN:
While much will undoubtedly be written about advances in computer network operations, A2AD systems and space systems, the most profound impact in naval warfare will be the navy that best adapts to operating and fighting in a communications-denied environment. When satellites are shot down, when internet communications are blocked, and when radar emissions are masked or jammed, which navy will still be able to pull out the paper charts to get to where they need to be, fight, and win? So it won’t be an emerging technology that wins the next war. It will be the navy that best adapts to fighting much as we did during World War II, and before.
If you are a current Sailor or member of the Coast Guard, what are some of the biggest impediments to getting your job done? What promised development or technology would most aid you in the accomplishment of your assignment?
This is the third in our series of posts from our Maritime Futures Project. Note: The opinions and views expressed in these posts are those of the authors alone and are presented in their personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of their parent institution U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, any other agency, or any other foreign government.
CDR Chuck Hill, USCG (Ret.):
Impediments: The U.S. has the largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the world. Its area exceeds that of the total land area of the U.S. and most of it is in the Pacific. However, most U.S. Coast Guard assets are in the Eastern U.S. where most of the population (and political clout) resides.
Expedients: Improved Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) has the potential to assist in search and rescue (SAR), fisheries enforcement, drug interdiction, coast defense, and protections of ports. The Coast Guard cannot afford a comprehensive MDA system solely for its own purposes, but if it can share information with DOD agencies also interested in monitoring the maritime approaches to the U.S., including perhaps cruise missile defense, it could make the employment of assets much more efficient.
LTJG Matt Hipple, USN: Impediments: The answer is simple. The real impediment is people, time, and flexibility. We have fewer people, which leaves us fewer man-hours and perspectives to get work done. Having fewer people means we have less time… less time for schools, fewer people to run the schools, and less time for training. The training regimen itself has been increased, by more required schools for alcohol awareness, marine species safety, and the like, having little-to-no bearing on the actual work of the sailor. This non-essential training, considered more important and tracked more diligently than regular warfighting training, further drains the pool of man-hours for an already diminished grouping of sailors that, having less time to train or go to school, or spots open in school for them to go, are also less ready than they could be.
Added to that death-spiral between people and time, the Navy is increasingly removing the room for flexibility. While an entire article could be written on the cost-effects of our inflexibility, the fact I can’t, for example, install fire-proof hoses that exceed the necessary requirements without special fleet approval, requiring regular renewing, is itself evidence enough.
LCDR Joe Baggett, USN: Impediments: Lack of interoperability (Common data networks). Maritime forces are now and will continue to be employed in confidence-building among nations through collective security efforts in a common global system that links threats and mutual interests in an open, multi-polar world. This requires an unprecedented level of integration among our maritime forces, enhanced cooperation with the other instruments of national power, and the capabilities of our international partners. No single nation has the resources required to provide safety and security throughout the entire maritime domain.
LT Drew Hamblen, USN: Impediments: The amount of required training extraneous to job proficiency (for example, General Military Training (GMT) requirements on Navy Knowledge Online) is cumbersome and only getting lengthier.
The number of passwords required for our systems is unmanageable and results in personnel writing them down, potentially compromising information assurance, or spending inordinate amounts of time on the phone with NMCI.
NMCI storage (and data storage capacity in general) is severely limited and outages are too frequent.
LT Scott Cheney-Peters, USNR: Impediments: Others here already address most of what I view as the major impediments to mission accomplishment in the sea services on a day-to-day basis. At a general level these include a dearth of manning (whether afloat, in aviation squadrons, or ashore) and burdensome administrative requirements.
Expedients: Short of increasing manning (not likely), or reducing requirements (possible, and some real efforts have been undertaken, but truly it’s never-ending struggle), there are two areas of focus that could help alleviate the effects. The first is better collaborative tools and sharing of lessons learned. There’s a lot of ‘reinventing the wheel’ that goes on in the fleet, for instance completely different versions of mandatory instructions that only need to be 5% different. This sort of thing can be reduced through better collaborative tools – especially at the squadron or fleet level.
The second is better integration of data streams. Akin to the low levels of communications interoperability, sailors must deal with a multitude of data streams that often require manual integration in the form of data entry. This wastes time and effort. For example, having to manually search online databases for further information about a ship transmitting AIS data to determine its point of origin or destination.
Luckily disaggregated data steams have not escaped notice, especially those from a ship’s organic sensors, resulting in general trends to develop all-encompassing combat system suites rather than stand-
alone weapon and sensor systems. AIS, for example, is today better integrated into navigation displays, and it seems logical it will be integrated into future combat systems suite upgrades. The trend for aggregated data is also progressing in remote-site monitoring, enabled by better sensors throughout things such as a ship’s engineering plant, helping displace some manually integrated data streams generated by the old Mark I Eyeball. But data streams for administrative tasks – true data entry between different IT and web-based programs, or just plain old excel spreadsheets – still have a long way to go. IT certificates and tokens can reduce some of the most redundant data-entry requirements (e.g. “type in your name, rank, and date of birth”), but there’s still a long way to go. And, with increasing reliance on inter-accessible and integrated data comes the need for better cyber defenses, whether ashore or afloat.
Rex Buddenberg, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School: Impediments: From a programmatic point of view we keep fixating on platforms (i.e. new
cutters, Deepwater, Navy FYDP shipbuilding, and LCS) rather than making
the platforms work together. We need to focus on integration.
YN2(SW) Michael George, USN: Impediments: As a Yeoman dealing with primarily administrative functions, I am usually able to perform my job duties and responsibilities with simply a computer, printer, and some pens, so there’s not much need for improvement on the hardware side. However, the current setup of processing personnel administrative information uses collateral-duty Command Pass Coordinators (CPCs) and an online system (TOPS) that correspond with ashore Personnel Support Detachments (PSDs) for all matters of pay and personnel support. This is a good idea in theory to help reduce shipboard manning, but it’s handled poorly, as it grants junior Sailors at PSDs across the fleet the power to supersede orders simply because the person giving the order is not a CPC. It also causes people like myself in the Yeoman rate (and worse, many ENs, LSs, CMs, and more) to spend an inordinate amount of time on collateral duties, handling personnel paperwork that members used to be able to go directly to their PSD or a true shipboard expert to handle.
LT Jake Bebber, USN: Impediments: The biggest impediment to maritime cryptology is not a piece of equipment … it is the lack of leadership in the cryptologic spaces. We need to refocus our cryptologic space-leaders – the LPOs, the Division Chiefs, and the JOs – and reorient them to emphasize the quality and quantity of cryptologic reporting. This can be done by simply “getting back to the basics” of maritime cryptology and practicing sound fundamentals. Too often, we are complacent because the advanced equipment we use can appear to do the work for us. But the most important piece of equipment in a cryptologic space is what’s between the ears, not the new computers or gear. Our cryptologic leaders – especially Chiefs – need to be present in the spaces, ensuring quality and teaching fundamentals. The JOs need to be there as well, learning from their Chiefs, LPOs and subject matter experts instead of standing watches on the bridge or combat. Too much time is being spent by JOs and Chiefs doing things not related to the cryptologic mission, outside the cryptologic space.
This article is the second installment of a three part series on the evolution of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. The initial background piece can be found here, while an appraisal of counter-piracy strategies and initiatives will appear next month.
It was proclaimed in 2012 that the Somali pirate business model had been broken by a combination of coordinated naval patrols, heightened vessel security, and the ubiquitous presence of armed guards aboard valuable ships. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) attributed only 71 attacks to Somali pirates in the first 11 months of 2012, down from 237 the previous year. However, attacks are on the rise across the continent in the Gulf of Guinea, with 51 incidents recorded for the same period.
While several commentators, particularly within the shipping industry, have raised the alarm that the Gulf of Guinea will overtake the Horn of Africa as the world’s piracy hotspot, very distinct geopolitical conditions prevent the Somali business model from being easily transported to West Africa. To begin with, it is the abject failure of onshore authority in Somalia’s pirate-prone regions that allows the hijackers to keep their prey anchored for months at a time while they conduct ransom negations. By contrast, the states bordering the Gulf of Guinea are weak and corrupt, but not failed.
West African pirates may not yet be able to secure multi-million dollar ransoms, but they have begun to emulate many of the successful tactics of their Somali counterparts. An analysis of recent trends demonstrates that the region’s highly organized pirate gangs have altered their tactics, targets and hunting grounds in order to counteract efforts against them.
A 2009 government amnesty offering to militants in the Niger Delta is credited for temporarily reducing Nigerian piracy, as the number of incidents reported fell from a high of 42 in 2007 to a low of 10 in 2011. These figures masked the full extent of the piracy problem, however, as it is estimated that 50-80% of pirate attacks go unreported in West Africa. While the IMB reported 40 incidents of piracy in Nigerian waters in 2008, an author’s interviews with corporate security managers working in the region found there to be 173 confirmed attacks that year.
While Nigerian waters were relatively calm in 2011, neighboring Benin—which had only reported one act of piracy in the previous five years—was suddenly struck with a spree of at least 20 attacks. The Nigeria-based criminal syndicates, pressured by heighted security in their own waters, had moved westward to find easier targets. Highlighting the vulnerability of vessels operating in the thought-to-be-safe waters of Benin, eight of the 20 vessels attacked were successfully hijacked and had large quantities of equipment, fuel or cargo stolen.
As a response to the shared threat they face, the maritime forces of Nigeria and Benin began engaging in joint naval patrols in late 2011. Predictably, incidences of piracy declined in Beninois waters but were soon to reemerge elsewhere.
Though it has only 34 miles of coastline, West Africa’s 2012 piracy hotspot was Togo. The IMB recorded 15 pirate attacks in Togolese waters last year, more incidents than in the past five years combined. Other regional states that have seen a sharp increase in piracy include Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, the latter marking the furthest point west that the Nigeria-based criminals have expanded.
Despite an increase in naval patrols, attacks have also increased once again in Nigerian waters. The fight against piracy in the region was recently likened to sitting on a balloon—“push down on one side and pops up at the other; push on the other side and it pops up somewhere else.”
According to maritime risk consultant Michael Frodl, the pirates are moving further out to sea not just to avoid coastal patrols, “but also to take advantage of ships letting down their guard in waters assumed to be safer.” The majority of ships attacked off Benin and Togo in recent years have been at anchor or drifting, meaning that evasive maneuvers cannot be taken.
The limited range of the pirates’ small skiffs once acted as a check on their offshore expansion. Following the Somali model however, West African pirates have overcome this limitation by using motherships—converted fishing trawlers that allow supplies and multiple skiffs to be transported further afield for more extended piracy ventures. Attacks have now been launched against vessels that are over 120nm from the coast.
A Change in Tactics and Targets
Though Niger Delta-based insurgents were able to launch a number of concerted attacks against offshore oil infrastructure in the mid to late 2000s, the majority of maritime crime in the region has been a low-tech and opportunistic affair. This appears to have changed in the last two years, however, as a number of notable attacks reveal a high level of sophistication and operational capacity on the part of the criminal gangs.
The pirates that hijacked the Abu Dhabi Star off the coast of Lagos in September demonstrated military-like organization, as they swarmed the vessel with four high-powered speed boats, boarded with a dozen heavily armed men in full combat dress, and immediately disabled the captured ship’s communications equipment. Signifying advanced logistical capabilities, the MT Orfeas was recently hijacked from anchorage off Côte d’Ivoire and then sailed 600nm back to the waters of Nigeria where its captors pilfered 3,000 tons of gasoline. The kidnapping of crew members from the tug Bourbon Liberty appears to exhibit a heightened level of operational intelligence, as the ship was attacked at the precise moment when its escort vessel had returned to shore to resupply.
These attacks are by no means atypical, as a 2011 UN assessment mission concluded that the region’s pirates were “resorting to sophisticated modes of operations and utilizing heavy weapons.”
Diversifying the Business Model
Though cargo theft remains the primary modus operandi of the Gulf of Guinea’s pirates, there has been a sharp rise in incidents of hostage taking during oil bunkerings. Early 2012 witnessed a doubling in the number of attacks on oil tankers, with periods of captivity often lasting days as vessels are directed to another pirate-controlled ship where the fuel is transferred and then taken elsewhere for sale. While these extended duration robberies were once rare events in the region, there have been almost 20 such hijackings recorded in the last two years.
Bunkering has become part of a larger international web as Lebanese and Eastern European criminal interests reportedly arrange the black market sale of stolen crude and refined cargos. Shipping industry guidelines have also recognized that recent attacks appear to be the result of “intelligence-led planning,” where ships transporting valuable products such as gasoline are “targeted in very well coordinated and executed operations.” In this sense, Nigerian gangs are better connected to global criminal networks than their Somali counterparts, as first hand research has largely dismissed earlier reports that Somalia’s pirates were being financed and fed vessel intelligence by international cartels.
The increase in large scale bunkering has coincided with a brazen string of kidnappings for ransom in the Nigerian littoral. Though whole ships cannot be held for Somali-style ransom, West African gangs have proven apt at kidnapping foreign personnel as a source of additional income. When the Bourbon Liberty was hijacked off Nigeria in October seven European sailors were taken hostage while the Nigerian crew members and the ship itself were left to drift. The vessel’s French owners secured their employees release two weeks later through an alleged ransom payment.
Shipping and oil companies attempt to keep ransom negotiations confidential so as to not encourage further kidnappings, but the crime continues to be a lucrative venture. December witnessed three separate maritime kidnappings off the Nigerian coast in which a total of 12 expatriate personnel were specifically targeted and taken hostage. Examined together, rising incidences of both extended duration bunkerings and kidnap for ransom indicate that the myriad criminal syndicates operating in the Gulf of Guinea have developed diversified business models.
Maritime crime is now a transnational emergency in the Gulf of Guinea. Already spreading from Nigeria to Benin, Togo, and Côte d’Ivoire, it is likely that Liberia, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea will come under increased stress from pirates and oil thieves this year. Though the crisis is regional, the inter-governmental response has been limited to joint patrols between Nigeria and Benin and a series of security meetings that include other states.
A central problem is lack of maritime security capacity in the region. Nigeria is the only state that possesses a frigate, corvette or aerial surveillance capabilities, but it has thus far found it difficult to bring these assets to bear in a coordinated manner for a sustained length of time. Private security providers are similarly hampered by the fact that national law prevents them from deploying armed guards aboard ships operating in the territorial waters of regional states.
It is imperative that regional states, the international community and private actors adopt a more proactive and coordinated approach to combating maritime crime in the Gulf of Guinea. So long as maritime security provision remains piecemeal and nationally orientated, the robbers will remain one step ahead of the cops.
James Bridger is a Maritime Security Consultant and piracy specialist at Delex Systems Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org