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Private Anti-Piracy Navies: How Warships for Hire are Changing Maritime Security

This is an article in our first “Non Navies” Series.

By Emil Maine

I recently sat down with John-Clark Levin, coauthor of Private Anti-Piracy Navies: How Warships for Hire are Changing Maritime Security. For those of you interested in the subject of private maritime security, Levin’s book “is intended to provide a contextualized understanding of the historical origins, current state, and future prospects of this fast-changing sector.” Rather than simply rehash Joseph Hammond’s earlier interview of Levin, I decided to take the discussion in a slightly different direction.

EM: Some experts have argued that pirates off West Africa benefit from stable governments that provide easy access to corrupt officials and a steady stream of valuable targets. How does this complicate or undermine the effectiveness of private security contractors?

JCL: This undermines the effectiveness of private security contractors, because West African governments are generally quite hostile to foreign maritime security companies. Armed guards or escort vessels are prohibited from entering territorial waters, which introduces unnecessary hassle and danger. Merchant ships carrying armed security must stop at the twelve-mile limit and either lighter the guards off onto another vessel, or dispose of their arms. This has often forced shipping companies to hire local paramilitary groups for protection in territorial waters. This is a very bad thing, because it takes security out of the hands forces that are internationally accountable, and entrusts it to shadowy and unregulated entities. But because the arrangement is lining the pockets of a corrupt few, there’s political incentive to keep it going.

EM: Do you think that with the increasing number of prisons in Somalia, i.e. Puntland, housing together both convicted al-Shabaab militants and Somali pirates will create an even more complex system integrating terrorism and maritime piracy once they are released?

JCL: To my knowledge, that’s not something that analysts have considered much. Any time groups are housed together in prison, there is potential for links to form, and carry over outside the prison walls. But it doesn’t seem that that risk is acute enough to warrant alternative prison arrangements, given the difficulty in finding places to house pirates in the first place.

EM: Until recently one of the main prisons for pirates was in Somaliland, a relatively stable, semi-autonomous area in northern Somalia, the U.N. is now building facilities in Somalia proper because Seychelles no longer wants to imprison Somalis, how secure do you think these facilities are?  Are the proposed sites secure and stable enough to survive a jailbreak attack?

JCL: I know that there’s a facility in the works in Garowe, Puntland, but I have not seen any plans for it, so can’t comment on security. In order to weather a major jailbreak attack, it would certainly have to be strongly fortified, and have a large and well-armed guard force. But I’d be more worried about pirates escaping by bribery than by a frontal assault.  

EM: A single piracy case will often affect several nations. How does this complicate some of the legal issues private security contractors must face?

 JCL: Whenever pirates attack a vessel, several countries can potentially claim jurisdiction over them—the flag state of the victim ship, the shipowner’s country of origin, and the home states of the crew. If there are private security personnel aboard, that may add more states to the mix, and if there is a private escort vessel, that layers on an additional flag state and shipowner country. If any of those nations cannot protect the human rights of prisoners, that could arguably give the other nations an obligation to prevent the suspected pirates from falling into that country’s hands. In practice, though, the problem has almost always been the reverse: countries trying to avoid responsibility for prosecution. Prosecuting and imprisoning pirates is an inconvenient and expensive undertaking that can last decades. The burden naturally falls on a single country, but all nations share in the benefits. It has taken years to develop agreements within which stakeholder states can share the burdens fairly.

This unruly tangle of jurisdictions can also complicate private anti-piracy operations themselves. Although there are now international licensing and accreditation standards for private maritime security companies, none of those are legally binding. Rather, countries’ domestic law takes precedence. Similarly, although there are now widely accepted rules for the use of force by private security, domestic doctrines of self-defense prevail. Thus, private security companies must take great care to ensure that they are not breaking the laws of anyone who might prosecute them if something goes wrong.

For example, if personnel aboard a private escort vessel believe themselves to be under attack and shoot civilian fishermen in error, both the flag state of the escort and the flag state of the client merchant ship may apply their own laws on self-defense and come to opposite conclusions about whether the shooters acted criminally. Because there have been very few test cases in this area, it remains unclear how such an incident would be resolved.

Emil Maine is a National Security Research Assistant at the Heritage Foundation, where he conducts independent research on U.S. defense posture. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own.

CALL FOR ARTICLES: Maritime Border Control Week – August 19-23

The deadly importance of border control has come into focus with the West African Ebola outbreak. Liberia is sealing land borders to halt the spread of disease. Concerns over air travel are increased from the death of an American who traveled between 4 African countries before dying and a corpse being discovered in the landing gear of a C-130 after a transit from Senegal to Germany. In the midst of a panic about air and land travel, maritime border security is something we take for granted – assuming the huge ports and endless bands of coastline are secure.

Hint - there's alot of them.
Hint – there’s alot of them and very few guards.

Buried under the grabbing headlines of epidemics, border disputes, and weapons procurement – the daily grind of basic maritime border control and enforcement is lost. The world has a total 372,000 miles of coastline and the sea’s traffic is both diverse and voluminous.  Welcome to the machine – the day-to-day of cargo screening, customs enforcement, coastal traffic monitoring, visa & entry procedures, verifying vessel registries, keeping out ne’er-do-wells, preventing North Korea from sneaking weapons through your country, etc… Monitoring these comings and goings on even an elementary level is a massive undertaking.


A massive ballet of paperwork, CONEX boxes, and caution lights.
The Port of Singapore – a leviathan ballet of ships, paperwork, CONEX boxes, computers, and caution lights.

Different entities handle these issues in different ways, from hand-scrawled schedules and security documents  to the precision of computerized megaports or just the varied law enforcement options deployed by coastal states. While we often touch on these issues in part – CIMSEC will be dedicating an entire week to the subject.

CIMSEC is putting out a call for articles on everything maritime border control related: customs enforcement, cargo checks, disease and biological material screenings, interdiction, monitoring coastal traffic, etc…  – DUE 15 August to nextwar(at)cimsec.org

Lebanese Hezbollah and Hybrid Naval Warfare

This is an article in our first “Non Navies” Series.

Historically, weapons disparities with conventional forces has driven terrorists, insurgents, and other non-state actors towards asymmetric fighting tactics. But as with most long term trends, arms gaps tend to be cyclical as each side’s relative combat power waxes and wanes.  For example, pirates in the 19th Century used pretty much the same artillery as their naval counterparts, albeit on smaller ships.  Now, pirates relying on small arms and skiffs are countered by an international armada of heavily armed frigates and destroyers. The suicide improvised explosive boat attack on USS Cole was another example of David versus Goliath tactics.  In the realm of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) though, we are witnessing an upswing in the conventional capabilities of non-state actors.  The mix of regular and irregular tactics is sometimes referred to as hybrid warfare. The proliferation of modern precision-guided weaponry is once again changing the balance of lethality between state navies and para-naval forces.  Regardless of whether these weapons are acquired from state sponsors or captured on the battlefield, the threat posed to regular naval forces is similar.  As demonstrated in recent air and ground engagements, non-state actors can field weapons on par with their conventional counterparts.  Ukrainian separatists with Soviet-era SA-11 missiles shoot down jet fighter (and civilian!) aircraft and Islamic terrorists in Iraq destroy American-made main battle tanks with advanced Russian-supplied Kornet missiles.  Advances in non-state naval weaponry are a natural evolution of these trends.

With a rash of recent fighting in the Levant and the potential for Western Naval intervention in various forms,  it’s worth taking a look at the sea denial capabilities of one of the region’s more potent non-state actors, Lebanese Hezbollah (LH).  However one wants to characterize LH – shadow government, proto-state, or simply non-state actor – their ability to contest the littorals in the Eastern Mediterranean has grown tremendously in the past decade.  Despite a number of interdictions by Israeli Defense Forces – some high profile and others intentionally less so – a nearly constant pipeline of increasingly advanced Syrian and Iranian weapons has resupplied LH by air, ground, and sea.  The most noteworthy display of LH’s A2AD network was the C-802 missile attack on INS Hanit in 2006. Subsequent to that engagement, LH’s anti-ship cruise missile inventory has advanced significantly.  Among these stockpiles is the supersonic 300 km range P-800 Yakhont. LH possibly acquired 12 P-800s from Syria, who received a shipment of 72 missiles and 36 launcher vehicles from Russia in 2011.  Over-the-horizon weapons are important, but without an adequate targeting mechanism, they are more of an indiscriminate terror weapon than a precision A2/AD tool.  A variety of means exists to target enemy ships, to include the surface search radar systems normally accompanying the missile batteries.  More crudely, third-party cueing could be provided by simple fishing vessels or UAVs.  Since at least the early 2000s, LH has flown mostly Iranian-manufactured Mohajer-4 unmanned aerial vehicles over Israel along with over-water transits.

The Yakhont ship killer

Some open-source reporting assesses that LH possesses SA-8 and SA-17 truck-mounted surface-to-air missile. The latter type can engage aircraft or missiles at altitudes of up to 24,000 meters and ranges out to 50 km.  To complicate matters, the counter-battery problem for navies facing missile launchers will be challenging because like the insurgents who fire them, mobile launchers will be well ensconced in urban population centers, and employing “shoot and scoot” tactics.

Closer into shore, LH Soviet-era AT-4 Spiggot or the more modern Kornet anti-tank guided missiles might be effective against Israeli small combatant craft, such as those which would be involved in launching a special operations raid.  Mines would be a cheaper, but more indiscriminate sea denial weapon LH might utilize to thwart amphibious operations.

Ostensibly, LH could gain access to any of the robust A2AD weapons its patron Iran possesses.  In 2011, Brigadier General Yaron Levi, the Navy’s intelligence chief, noted that “in the future, we will have to deal with missiles, torpedoes, mines, above-surface weapons and underwater ones, both in Gaza and Lebanon.”   The Iranians have elevated multi-axis, multi-layer anti-ship attack to a high art; with mines and ground-based missiles complemented by swarming missile, torpedo, and gunboat attacks, rounded out by numbers of Wing In Ground-effect aircraft and mini-submarines.  None of these systems are beyond the reach of a non-state actor.

So this network portends a viable sea denial capability, but to whom?  Clearly, LH fears Israel’s naval force and has demonstrated the willingness to engage the Israeli navy.  During the 2006 war, Israeli patrols blockaded Lebanon for eight weeks to prevent maritime resupply of LH forces.  Any advanced sea denial capability would complicate these operations in a future conflict.  Israel’s growing offshore oil infrastructure would also make a tempting fixed target for LH missiles.

And although it is possible that a missile might inadvertently target a U.S. or other allied naval combatant or aircraft operating in the Eastern Mediterranean, for self-preservation reasons, it’s unlikely that LH would deliberately target U.S. platforms without significant provocation. Even so, modern navies operating in the littorals in the vicinity of these threats will need to be continuously on a higher alert status than they might be with a more predictable state adversary.  As asymmetry cycles towards parity, developing ways to counter non-state actors with powerful conventional weapons should become the focus of naval wargames and experimentation.

Chris Rawley is the Vice President of CIMSEC. Any opinions in this piece are the his alone and in his personal capacity.

Time to Win Some Books!

Between 28 July and 3 August 2014, Offiziere.ch, the Facebook pages “Sicherheitspolitik” and Army HQ will hold another security policy contest with the support of KOG Schaffhausen, “Seidlers Sicherheitspolitik“, “Aussen- und Sicherheitspolitik“, #carbine and CIMSEC.

Ipsa scientia potestas est!” – “knowledge (itself) is power!“. This English saying can be traced back to the philosoph Francis Bacon and alludes to the importance of (scientific) knowledge in the age of enlightenment. In another connection, this statement has grown in importance over time. Anyone with superior knowledge, who knows the intentions of others, has a clear advantage. Yet there are different methods of intelligence gathering. The least harmful form of intelligence gathering is also used on websites like the Next War blog or offiziere.ch: OSINT or Open Source Intelligence – the gathering of intelligence from publicly available sources. At the other end of the scale lies the comprehensive monitoring and retention of the communication streams of every citizen (data retention).

sneakycontestpartThis edition of our security policy contest is less about data collection mania and more about strategic intelligence gathering. This can, of course, also be done through the targeted interception of communications data (COMINT), but a variety of gathering methods may also be used. Thus, for example, even aircraft are loaded with high resolution cameras and other sensors. Such “spy aircraft” are still employed today. In 2005 one of these planes, which was probably operating in Iranian airspace, crashed. It could fly at a height of over 21,000 m (70,000 feet), which was originally supposed to protect it from detection and shooting down by air defence missiles.

• What spy plane is referred to?
• What is the technical term which refers to the gathering of information
from images and/or video recordings?
• In the image on the right, an important part of this aircraft can be seen.
What is it?

The (hopefully correct) answers should be sent to einsatz@offiziere.ch. The preferred prize can also be specified in the e-mail, although we cannot guarantee this.

The prizes will be drawn from among the correct entries. They will first be drawn from among the entries for which all three questions have been answered correctly. If nobody manages this (hey! don’t disappoint me!), the draw will be made from the entries that have two correct answers.

2 x “Demokratie und Islam” von Cavuldak, Hidalgo, Hildmann und Zapf (gesponsert von Springer VS).
2 x The Lieutenant Don’t Know: One Marine’s Story of Warfare and Combat Logistics in Afghanistan by Jeffrey Clement.
2 x Jahrbuch Terrorismus 2013/2014 von Stefan Hansen und Joachim Krause.
1 x Die Wehrmacht im Stadtkampf 1939-1942 von Adrian E. Wettstein (gesponsert von Lukas Hegi).
1 x “Shadow Wars: Chasing Conflict in an Era of Peace” by David Axe.
1 x “Life Begins at Incoporation” by Matt Bors.
1 x “Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It” by Morten Jerven.
1 x “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety ” by Eric Schlosser.
1 x “Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition” by Ben Schott.
1 x Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror by Erik Prince (siehe auch “Sea Control 29 – Interview with Erik Prince“).