After losing Puntland’s presidential election by a single parliamentary vote, incumbent president Abdirahman Mohamed Farole extended his congratulations to his opponent Abdiweli Mohamed Ali Gaas, a former prime minister of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). UN and EU envoys praised the autonomous state’s January 8 election, decided by the votes of 66 parliamentarians appointed by clan elders, as a model for Somalia-wide democratization. The maritime security community should also take note, as Ali Gaas, a U.S-trained economist, will preside over the original heartland of Somali piracy. One of the many issues facing the president-elect is what to do with the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF)—a marine militia described by its supporters as Somalia’s most effective counter-piracy force and by its opponents as the Farole administration’s Praetorian Guard.
A Controversial Legacy
Farole came to power in 2009, a year in which Somali pirates attacked over 215 ships and operated with impunity from Puntland’s shores. The president’s answer was the PMPF, an elite coastal force that would deny the pirates their onshore sanctuary. The marines, trained by a South African private military company and financed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), quickly grew to a force of 500 troops supported by a fleet of small ships, aircraft and armored vehicles. Security operations commenced in March 2012 and succeeded in disrupting pirate bases across the remote Bari and Bargaal regions. In late December 2012, the PMPF rescued 22 sailors held hostage aboard the MV Iceberg for almost three years. With Puntland-based piracy largely eliminated, the marines turned their attention towards encroaching al-Shabaab militants, using their expat-piloted helicopters to provide air support during several skirmishes in early 2013.
While operationally successful, the PMPF was politically contentious. A January 2012 report from the UN Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group lambasted the marines “as an elite force outside any legal framework, engaged principally in internal security operations, and answerable only to the Puntland presidency.” Later that year, the president’s son Mohamed Farole became director of the PMPF, a cause of inter-governmental tension given his lack of military experience according to inside sources. On October 29 2012, the marines blockaded the residence of Ali Gaas in order to prevent him from campaigning among local politicians and clan elders.
A Difficult Decision
Ali Gaas pledged to improve Puntland’s security during his victory speech, but has yet to comment on his policy regarding the PMPF. Piracy may be suppressed, but many gangs are now diversifying into other illicit ventures such as arms smuggling and protection services for illegal fishing fleets. An al-Shabaab bombing against a PMPF convoy on December 5, 2013 further underscores the high level of insecurity that persists in the region. In the face of these challenges, what might the new president’s plans be for the contentious marine force?
Though the marines would later be used to impede his campaigning, it is important to note that Ali Gaas was a vocal supporter of the PMPF during his tenure as TFG prime minister from June 2011 to October 2012. When the UN Monitoring Group accused the PMPF’s South African trainers, Sterling Corporate Services, of breaking the 1992 arms embargo on Somalia, Ali Gaas responded with an official letter on November 16, 2011, advocating that the UN “approve the waiver for training and enforcement capabilities for Puntland State of Somalia to actively fight piracy and strengthen regional and maritime security.” A month later, the prime minister’s office re-clarified that “the TFG fully supports the efforts of Puntland authorities.”
Despite the labeling of the Puntland marines as Farole’s “private army,” it is unlikely that Ali Gaas will dismantle the PMPF when he assumes office. It is expected, however, that the outgoing president’s son and other Farole loyalist will not retain their leadership positions (whether they help themselves to the PMPF’s valuable collection of equipment and vehicles on their way out is another question). Securing a steady source of funding to maintain the PMPF’s marines, bases, vehicles, and expat mentors will be a pressing concern for Ali Gaas. The bulk of current financing comes from UAE, but it remains to be seen if this arrangement will continue under a new president.
A Federal Marine Force?
There are indications that the former TFG prime minister envisioned the PMPF as a model of coastal security that could extend across Somalia. In April 2012, Ali Gaas’ office authorized Sterling Corporate Services to select and recruit soldiers from the Somali National Army to join the PMPF training camp in Bosaso, Puntland. The move was blocked by African Union (AMISOM) peacekeepers, however, which prevented the soldiers from embarking at Mogadishu airport. After the departure of Sterling in mid-2012, a US-registered security company, Bancroft, proposed a reversal of this plan, in which men and materials would be dispersed from the Bosaso base to a number of small coastguard cells across the Somali coast. This idea was rejected by the Farole administration, however, which was reportedly loath to cede control of its elite marine police force to the federal government.
Relations between Puntland and Mogadishu continued to sour over the next year. In late July 2013, the new Somali Federal Government announced that it had signed a deal with Dutch private maritime security provider Atlantic Marine and Offshore Group to establish a coastguard to combat piracy and secure Somalia’s exclusive economic zone. The deal received a hostile response from Puntland officials, who saw the contract as an “unacceptable, inapplicable and unsuitable” violation of Puntland’s territorial sovereignty. In early August, the Farole administration suspended relations with the federal government.
With a former TFG prime minister now coming to power in Puntland, observers anticipate a more conciliatory relationship between the state and federal governments. While a Somalia-wide coast guard or navy remains a distant prospect, the opportunity is now ripe for confidence building measures among local security forces. The PMPF maintains the most advanced training facility in the country and could once again offer to train marines from across Somalia if an acceptable deal can be worked out with the federal government and AMISOM. Supporting such an endeavor would be attractive option for the EU’s maritime security capacity-building mission (EUCAP NESTOR), which has thus far been unable to carry out its mandate in Somalia due to the country’s insecurity and fragile political arrangement.
While Ali Gaas may be tempted to keep the PMPF under the direct control of the presidency, a more advisable option would be for the Puntland parliament to pass legislation that defines the force’s power, status, and responsibility. Doing so could serve to legitimize the PMPF in the eyes of the international community, opening new lines of desperately needed funding. “There is internationally consensus that the PMPF should be ‘legalized’ and integrated into the regular security structures of Somalia,” an EUCAP NESTOR officer remarked, further noting that “The international community is studying how that best can be done and how the government of Somalia could be supported in that respect.”
Puntland’s model of democracy is unorthodox by western standards and so too are its maritime police forces. Both, however, have demonstrated resiliency in the face of great challenges and may come to serve as templates for the rest of the country. As foreign warships and armed guards begin to depart the Horn of Africa, local marines will be the only thing standing between the pirates and their prey.
James M. Bridger is Maritime Security Consultant and piracy specialist with Delex Systems Inc. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. James can be reached for comment or question at email@example.com
The old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” is imprecise. More accurately, a picture is similar to an inkblot in a Rorschach test in which viewers interpret each image differently. So it is with the former private security firm Blackwater. The recent publication of “Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror” by the founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, provides another view of that picture. Blackwater came to worldwide attention with the 2004 tragedy at the Fallujah bridge, when four employees were murdered and publicly mutilated demonstrating the immediate power of the internet. Then came the media scrutiny, the congressional investigations, and civil court action. Prince’s book is an important addition to the body of work on PSCs in Iraq but, for the purposes of CIMSEC readers, there is a maritime aspect to the story which unfortunately receives scant mention in the book.
A former Navy SEAL, Prince founded Blackwater in Moyock, North Carolina as a training facility for military and law enforcement officers with numerous shooting ranges where some 1.5 million rounds were expended every month. One of his first contracts with the Navy was worth $7 million and trained one thousand sailors a week for the first six months. By Prince’s calculation, Blackwater eventually trained approximately 70,000 sailors. As Blackwater’s contracts expanded in Iraq and Afghanistan, Prince turned to the experts in the field and hired ex-Navy SEALs for protective details such as for Paul Bremer. Prince makes the point that Blackwater never lost a person whom they were responsible for protecting.
At its height in 2007, Blackwater had over twenty-five hundred employees deployed in nearly a dozen countries. But they weren’t simply providing protection to government officials or convoys. Blackwater also had an aviation component – Presidential Airways – which primarily provided logistics support. Presidential flew “more than 70,000 missions worldwide, transported 270,000 personnel, and delivered 50 million pounds of cargo and mail.”
Blackwater also sought to build a maritime component. Unfortunately, Prince’s book barely mentions this aspect to his company with only one paragraph in the entire book. As the threat of Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden began to increase in 2007, shipping companies slowly recognized that there were insufficient naval assets but were still hesitant to employ private security teams. In this environment, Prince identified a business opportunity. “We created Blackwater Maritime Security Solutions,” he writes, “the centerpiece of which was the MCARTHUR, a 183-foot former National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel that we retrofitted to carry two Little Bird helicopters, three rigid-hull inflatable boats, and a few dozen Blackwater personnel.”
In 2007, a lengthier version of a paper I wrote for a Naval War College course was accepted by Orbis, the quarterly of the Foreign Policy Research Institute which the editor re-titled “Blackwaters for the Blue Waters: The Promise of Private Naval Companies.” Shortly after that article was published, I learned about the MCARTHUR. A few weeks later, I was invited to spend a day on the ship in Norfolk and a second day touring Blackwater’s facility in Norfolk. For the next year, the ship prepared for its intended mission. Tom (in some cases only first names will be used for this article) was hired by Blackwater as its Director of Maritime Operations to identify a ship, refit it, and get it to sea. The MCARTHUR was purchased for a reported $300,000 but it would take several million more to make her compliant with Coast Guard regulations as a US-flagged ship. Tom and Prince had considered flagging her under the Marshall Islands, a flag of convenience, but they elected to make it fully regulated by the United States at that time. “Without the cert[ifications],” Tom told me, “the ship is just a piece of steel. It’s like a pile of wood costing $5,000 but the house costs $1 million.” A major shortcoming of MCARTHUR was its speed. It could only make 12 or 13 knots – not enough to protect most ships transiting the Gulf of Aden. The decision also subjected them to the Jones Act requiring all U.S.-flagged ships to have U.S. citizens as crew in coastal waters, and allowed up to 25 percent of a foreign-born crew.
In the course of the next year, the number of pirate attacks necessitated a change by the shipping industry. At various maritime security conferences, the firms were adamantly opposed to the use of private armed security teams citing liability issues and the likelihood in the increase in violence. As one major shipping firm told me, “we’ll NEVER use armed guards.” Eventually the industry changed its position, including the firm which said “never.” To date, no ship with an armed security team has been taken by pirates. Several countries soon followed suit.
By January 2009, Blackwater was offering more than just security teams, like some other firms it offered an escort vessel.
Inauguration Day, 2009. The Beltway (I-495) around Washington was as devoid of cars as it was on September 11, 2001. Four hours later I arrived in Norfolk to meet with Tom at the pier where MCARTHUR was tied up. Having already written a few articles about private maritime security companies and interviewed several companies, I informed Blackwater that I was working on a book (the eventually co-edited “Maritime Private Security: Market Responses to Piracy, Terrorism and Waterborne Security Risks in the 21st Century” Routledge, 2012.) I requested access to the ship and an interview with Prince. Both were accepted with few conditions. I could ask the crew anything I wanted to, I could photograph anything, but I could not ask Prince about Iraq.
The first day was spent on MCARTHUR. She was different than when I had last seen her. The blue hull was gone and replaced by a flat black paint with large white letters along each side spelling “SECURITY”. I later learned from the captain of the ship, Joe, that that had been his suggestion to Prince. Since the ship would be providing escort duties in the Gulf of Aden it should seem more menacing and clearly state its purpose (although it is unknown how many Somali pirates can read SECURITY in English).
Tom and I had lunch in the mess deck. The crew wandered in and out, most eating quietly alone then returning quickly to their duties. There was one noticeable difference between this crew and a US Navy warship’s crew: age. Blackwater’s crew is significantly older, with the average around 40 years old. This was similar to my tour of Blackwater’s hanger for Presidential Airways in Moyock where everyone had gray or white hair. These were people with experience, most retired or having left the military. At the end of my table were Greg and Stormy, two of the ship’s mates. Greg was a graduate of one of the maritime academies. Stormy, one of the only women I saw on the ship, had been a Navy Boatswain’s Mate. After lunch I wandered into the galley to speak with the two stewards, one a former Marine cook and the other a former Navy culinary specialist (CS).
For the next three hours, I was on the bridge and throughout the ship speaking with the 50-year old captain of MCARTHUR, Joe, who had been at sea since the age of 15 experiencing the knockdown 70 foot waves between the Falklands and Georgia Islands in the South Atlantic. He talked about Sunday inspections, the lack of micromanagement from the firm, and the discipline of the crew (an assertion that would be challenged only weeks later when the ship pulled in to Jordan). His mission to the Gulf of Aden was clear: “we’re a bouncer on the water. If a boat challenges [the ship we’re protecting], we’re turn to let them know. We’re going to keep a force field around our clients.”
Joe selected the ship’s crew but the security contingent was the responsibility of Hugh, a 40-year-old former SEAL. “There isn’t anyone nobody knows or hasn’t worked with,” he tells me. All are former military, Coast Guard, or domestic law enforcement. The youngest is 30. Forty percent are military retirees. Hugh had already prepared for the mission by speaking with the entities in the region including with the naval attache to Nairobi, and the officers with CTF 150, CTF 151, and Operation ATALANTA. “We’re being transparent and we’re getting the word out there is another set of eyes and ears out there.” I asked him if MCARTHUR itself might be a target. “[The pirates] will take a run [at us] just because. We’ll be tested. Why wouldn’t we be.”
But Hugh, like Tom, Joe, and Prince recognized the larger issue. “We know we’re not the solution to the problem,” Hugh says of security at sea. “The problem is on shore.” Tom, a US Coast Guard-licensed boat captain and Vietnam-era veteran of the Air Force, adds, “we’re not out to shoot people; we’re out to scare them off.”
The remainder of day I wandered around the ship with Tom – crew berthing, the engine room, an area for the gym, and an infirmary in case the ship is used for humanitarian assistance missions. The ship, like the Presidential Airways hangar I had visited at the corporate headquarters in Moyock, was immaculate. It was cleaner than any ship I had been on – including cruise ships except for ocean liners like the Queen Mary II. Tom points out the RHIBs that Prince briefly mentions in the book. One person tells me they cost $300,000 a piece while another person says they were $475,000. In either case, Tom tells me they cost more than the ship itself before its refit.
The refitted MCARTHUR had an accordion-style hangar able to house two Little Bird helicopters, the type Blackwater used in Iraq. They’re not on board the ship. I was told that to reduce the cost of the ship for escort duties, the Little Birds would not be aboard for the first missions. Instead, the ship would rely on commercially-available UAVs.
The following day I met Erik Prince in the wardroom of MCARTHUR. The transcript that follows is my interview with Prince that day.
BERUBE: Can you walk me through the process of when you decided to add a maritime security component to Blackwater? When you did it, why, and what you envisioned at that point?
PRINCE: Between the work we were doing with Azerbaijan, hired by DoD to do that, previous problems in the Straits of Malacca, to NSW operations in the Philippines, we wanted a platform that could be a maritime forward operating maritime base. Piracy patrol, training to be a target vessel for NSW-type units to go against, kind of a Swiss Army knife at sea. Hugh, when was that in Azerbaijan?
HUGH: We started out in 2004 was the original assessment. We’ve had the ship for a year and a half, two. We had the open house, I remember, in September 2007 and the boat just came out of the yards. We went through extensive refitting, overhaul.
BERUBE: If this proof of concept works, do you envision expanding this operation. Do you expect buying more, diversifying with regard to the type of boats that you’ll be looking at?
PRINCE: I’ll give you the example we’ve done on the aviation side. 2003, we bought a company that did specialty lifts for the U.S. military an arranged aircraft for a static line jumpmaster courses and free fall schools and those kind of things. It was Presidential Airways and we went from one aircraft to more than seventy now that we own and operate for the U.S. government around the world doing lift, medevac, that kind of stuff. We’d like to replicate that same model at sea. Multi-use, cost-effective platforms that can do training, medical support, homeland security training, capacity building, humanitarian support, counter-piracy operations, ISR support platform, all those kind of things. [Prince discusses Presidential Airways and its operations in his book Civilian Warriors.]
BERUBE: Do you look at projections for U.S. forces to see where there might be potential gaps industry could fill?
PRINCE: Sure. That’s why we’ve got the demand on airlift that we do because for the last twenty to thirty years the U.S. has bought heavily to fight that Fulda Gap kind of fight. C-130s, C-17s, C-5s, and they don’t have the short, ugly, slow cargo airplanes that fly into small airstrips. The same the Navy has facilitized with a lot of nuclear submarines, with carrier battle groups and all those kind of things, they’ve facilitized for a state on state navy fight and whether its piracy or tsunami response having a small ship that can operate independently, doesn’t have to be in a battle group. It can operate with a small footprint that doesn’t necessarily have to have the huge force protection requirements with a big target on its side that a U.S. Navy vessel does. You can go in and train doctors, train port security people to know how to interdict weapons of mass destruction or narcotics or weapons or whatever, it’s a small footprint ability to go do stuff. In North Africa, we operate some aircraft for airlift for medevac and logistics with the U.S. military and we operate that with a pilot, a copilot and a loadmaster who also happens to be a mechanic. It’s an infinitely smaller footprint than what a U.S. military C-130 crew would have. So same analogy. What do you think, Tom, this thing crews up with 14 or 15?
TOM: 12 crew, two stewards
BERUBE: Once the ship gets underway, can you explain to me how the command structure works? Once the ship gets underway, do you as the corporate executive – essentially commander-in-chief if you want to use that analogy – at what point do you let go, at what point do they request direction from the chain of command here?
PRINCE: On the aviation side we work directly for the U.S. government so there’s a clearly defined command structure. It’s always been different for the Navy that when you slip the ways and you get underway there’s a lot more authority and responsibility that resides with that ship’s captain because an airplane stays aloft for five hours, ship’s at sea for extended periods so they’ll be sent with clear guidance and clear right and left of what they can and they can’t do. We’re going over there to be defensive security escort business, escort merchant ship from a point in the water for the next 24 to 36 hours, escort them through the high threat area and then turn it over. The guys here understand a lot more the maritime law and the dos and don’ts. They’ll have a clearly defined use of force continuum for defensive actions to be taken against pirates. There’ll be contracts with the ship owners that we expect them or the ship’s masters that we expect them to do with course and speed and stay in the convoy and stay in the group. I’m not going to try to do that from twelve time zones away. Just like I give guidance, we have helicopters and aircraft flying in and guys doing work if they are Americans in trouble, the Good Samaritan rule applies. Now the Good Samaritan rule also has other meanings when it comes to maritime law, if a ship calls for help and asks for it, there are salvage laws and all kinds of things that can apply if we provide support services to someone who wasn’t contracted to do so. But they’re smart on those laws. They know we send proven professionals out there to do a job adapted to the market realities in truly ungoverned space and the seas – the U.S. Navy at 600 ships or 1,000 ships truly can’t control all the world’s oceans at a time. It doesn’t matter. There are truly ungoverned areas. We’ll at least go provide a security blanket around customers that hire us.
BERUBE: As I understand the law now, the Combatant Commanders in say Irag and Afghanistan have some control, some influence, there’s some relationship now with private security firms. Taking that now to the Gulf of Aden, is there any operational requirement to deal directly with CTF 150, [CTF] 151, Fifth Fleet – is there any obligation as a U.S. flagged boat to conduct information sharing or anything like that? Is there any reporting structure once you’re in theater?
[Here, at his request, Prince and I discuss the issue off the record for several minutes.]
HUGH: We’ve been meeting with a diverse group of shipping folks at all levels. There is tremendous confusion industry-wide about what to do with the pirates when they’re taken, rules of engagement, insurance issues…obviously this has been going on a long time, it’s in the limelight now.
BERUBE: Yesterday there was an inauguration, a new Administration. Do you see any potential political challenges, given the past few years of how some Democrats in Congress have responded to private security firms? Do you see that specifically as a challenge with your maritime operations?
PRINCE: First, I think most of the criticism of private security, they’re not so much focused on private security, they’re focused on opposition to the Iraq War and its conduct, how it was executed. On the maritime side, it’s global ship owners, shipping industry that would be hiring us to assist them over there so the U.S. government, of course they get to vote, but it’s not a government contract. It’s a non-defense service that we’re providing.
BERUBE: So long as you stay business-to-business rather than with potential government contracts, you’re more immune to that criticism?
PRINCE: Yeah, but whether it’s Darfur, whether it’s piracy, whether it’s a response to some disaster, there are needs. There’s a hue and cry for the government to do some. As we have in the past, as we will in the future, we will provide a cost-effective means to respond to get things done. It’s not the total solution. The MCARTHUR being in the Gulf of Aden will not solve piracy but it will at least assure the clients that will hire us that their boats will not be taken.
BERUBE: Do you envision any potential circumstances or political challenges where you would say, “all right, let’s switch the flag, we’ll continue to have U.S. citizens aboard…”
PRINCE: Anytime there’s American citizens involved, all the U.S. laws follow after. As long as I’m an American citizen, that’s not a realistic option. That being said, the U.S. can make it so difficult that no American citizen wants to be in this business so the more cries there are to hammer on this industry, it can drive other folks out of this industry on the American side and the U.S. government will be left with British, South Africa, or any tax-haven registered companies and it’s not the transparency and the accountability or the standards that they want to operate with. Look at the big security contracts on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan. There’ s a lot of presence of non-American companies that don’t have nearly the roots, the U.S. government doesn’t have the reach, so that’s a line the Administration’s going to have to walk.
BERUBE: Did you have any lessons learned from your land-based operations that you’re carrying over to your maritime operations?
PRINCE: Cameras. I actually got asked that question by numerous folks, “what’s your experience in this?” Well, really the tactics, techniques, the procedures, the training. You take the dirt out from underneath of it and you put water and it’s really the same thing. The layered defense, the defense in depth concept, all of that that we’re doing in various places doing security applies to this in theory and then putting against that the experience of the guys we’ve talked about before, that level of maturity, the age of the guys and you plug that into the program and it doesn’t matter if you’re on land or on sea.
BERUBE: What about lessons learned from a public relations standpoint?
PRINCE: We’re going to be out in front of it this time. From the public relations standpoint for the work in Iraq, the State Department bars us from talking to the media. That’s why an unhealthy head of nonsense and total misperceptions existed by us because by contract we’re not allowed. In this case, there’s no U.S. government involvement. We can talk and embed the media as much as we want, as much as we deem appropriate. Sit down with you, talking with major news magazines that want to ride along and see what it’s like out there and we’ll show them what it’s like.
BERUBE: So it’s going to be complete transparency, without violations of OPSEC?
PRINCE: Yeah, but we’re not doing anything Secret Squirrel out there. We’re escorting boats. Now if we get to the negotiation side we’re assisting insurance companies with that kind of work, obviously there’s mandated discretion because that kind of customer would demand that but that’s the next bridge to cross.
BERUBE: Some suggest that this is not the role of private entities and that it should be state navies or international coalitions. How do you respond to that?
PRINCE: Nature hates a vacuum. The U.S. government or state entities can’t be everywhere all the time and can’t provide all the protection so if there’s gaps, the federal government doesn’t protect shopping malls or schools or a lot of other entities. That’s generally filled by the private sector. If someone goes on travel to a safari to Africa and they get hurt, they maybe call the Embassy and the Embassy will give a medevac service to call, but that is done by the private sector. So when a U.S.-flagged vessel is in trouble on the high seas there’s not always going to be a U.S. Navy vessel that’s going to be available. I can’t imagine the size the Navy would have to be to have quick response time all over the surface of the ocean. The country was founded with significant input from private organizations. Even in the Marine’s hymn they talk about “from the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” Even on that there overland expedition there were eight Marines and 250 contracted Greek [the operation led by Major William Eaton]. That was America’s first overseas expedition barring pirates. So privatizing trash collection or phone service is controversial. This can be controversial to some folks, especially if it involves guns or danger. We’ve kind of accepted that and moved on. Because nature hates a vacuum and gets filled.
BERUBE: Can you tell me about the culture you’ve tried to develop at Blackwater but more specifically with this maritime operations organization. Is this organization different than how you’ve built other segments of Blackwater. What do you look for in people that you’re taking on for this mission?
PRINCE: We hire can-do people. Folks that are going to figure out a way to get it done in the most fast, efficient, cost-effective manner. Flying an aircraft in a remote of Africa we don’t have a huge infrastructure to support them so they’ve got to figure out how they’re going to fix their airplane, what parts they’re going to need. They’re going to fix it. They’re going to make stuff happen. That’s the kind of folks that we expect to put to sea. The operators are certainly going to be SEAL or Coast Guard type of background.
BERUBE: If you don’t have enough individuals with U.S. military or law enforcement experience, would you consider as part of the operations side looking to British SAS or…
PRINCE: We’d love to do that. We’d do that right now but it becomes a compliance nightmare with the State Department. Even putting Filipino stewards on the ship or non-American guys to help out with the basic ship’s services that would make it much more cost-effective, but the State Department regulations make it a regulatory nightmare.
BERUBE: Is that different from land-based operations? Is it simply because it’s at sea?
PRINCE: If there’s anything happening with a gun or a small boat operation in a security environment and they can somehow witness that, that would be a transfer of military knowledge. Even a guy chipping paint next to a guy cleaning a gun.
BERUBE: Where do you see the growth of the maritime portion of this industry?
PRINCE: The Straits of Malacca have gotten better. The tsunami wiped out a number of pirate villages. I don’t think anything’s going to change in the Gulf of Aden unless nation states can go over land and put some kind of functioning government back together in Somalia. There’s lots of ungoverned places in Africa, even off the coast of Nigeria you’ve got security issues against the oil platforms. We’ll get out there and see what we can do on piracy issues. One of the areas we’d like to go after is fisheries enforcement. You have hundreds of countries around the world that don’t really have effective coast guards and navies. The economic exclusive zone goes out 200 miles. You have multinational fishing fleets that come out of Russia, China, Japan, Korea and they pillage. They take whatever fish they want and no one stops them. I think we can build a business model around enforcing a country’s fishing laws. We’d provide a boat like this. We’d take a fisheries officer or two from the host nation and we’d go out and enforce their laws and we’d get compensated by enforcing license fees and if there are repeat violators, you seize the boat. There’s impound fees to get the boat out. And we build a sustainable fisheries industry which will put locals to work. It’s their water for 200 miles.
BERUBE: But a lot of those are ungovernable lands like Somalia or they are failing states.
PRINCE: They don’t have to pay us. We get that from licensing fees. But the problem is the illegal fishermen, that’s where you need some level of uncorrupt level of governance to make that work. But we’re going to try.
BERUBE: Assuming you have large fishing vessels registered to countries like China or Russia, you might find some opposition to your proposal within the UN.
PRINCE: It might not be a state-sponsored activity. Russian organized crime, they flag some in some tax havens and they do their fishing, they sell it to the processor on the high seas. A lot of those ships are truly stateless as well. In terms of piracy or illegal fishing, I think by dollar volume there’s a lot more illegal fishing going on the world than there is piracy.
BERUBE: At what point do you foresee pursuing that option? Have you begun entering negotiations?
PRINCE: We floated the idea to Ambassadors and some folks. They’ll eventually think about it and their people.
At the conclusion of the interview, I asked him one more question: “can I go with the MCARTHUR?” Prince is surprised. “As crew or security?” he asks. “Neither,” I responded. “I want to be an embedded reporter for the first six weeks of the MCARTHUR’s escorts.” Prince pauses for a few moments, nods his head, then turns to Tom: “Can we get berthing for him?” Tom responds that they can provide something. “Okay,” Prince says, “Coordinate with Tom and we’ll see you in a few weeks.” The MCARTHUR will have an embedded reporter.
In the course of the next few days, I resigned my position as an adjunct faculty member and gained correspondent credentials from a newspaper, contacted offices in the region, and met with the shipping company Maersk in their Rosslyn, Virginia office. In addition to submitting articles, I planned on compiling a broader book about piracy to include the Navy (since I had served off Somalia a few years before) and the shipping industry itself. Maersk agreed to let me pay for a stateroom on a ship from Norfolk to Djibouti and then another on the return trip from somewhere in the region.
The realities of the ship and its operations were more like the Rohrshach inkblot.
The morning before I was supposed to get underway from Norfolk, I received an email from Tom. The MCARTHUR made it across the Atlantic but it was in Aqaba, Jordan not Djibouti. In addition, it had no clients, despite my being told that shipping companies would commit once the ship was underway. After speaking with my editor, I decided not to make the trip. I cancelled the Maersk component as well. For the return voyage in April, Maersk had offered me one of three ships as options depending on my schedule and location – one of the three options was MAERSK ALABAMA.
The captain and crew also allegedly experienced other realities with three members of the crew filing lawsuits for a series of actions including verbal and physical abuse, racial harassment and unlawful imprisonment for speaking with a reporter without permission from the company.
The MCARTHUR never found a client. It was eventually sold and renamed EATON (likely after the same Barbary War-era Major William Eaton whom Prince referred to during the interview.) and later the Comoros-flagged MANDEEQ.
Prince currently lives in Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Claude Berube teaches naval history at the United States Naval Academy. He is the co-author of three non-fiction books and the author of The Aden Effect, his debut novel. You can follow him on Twitter at @cgberube. The views are his and not those of the Department of the Navy.
Classification of surface warships as cruisers, destroyers, frigates, or corvettes, has become like pornography. There are no generally accepted definitions, but “I know it when I see it”–except that everyone sees it a little differently.
Since this is “Corvette Week” what are we really talking about?
My Combat Fleets of the World, 16th Edition, which I have used here extensively for reference, defines Corvettes as, “Surface Combatants of less than 1,500 tons but more than 1,000 full load displacement–essentially, fourth rate surface combatants.” But goes on to note that “…the designation as used here essentially refers to smaller frigates and does not correspond to the European concept of corvettes as any warship larger than a patrol craft but smaller than a frigate.” I feel to confine the definition within a 500 ton range is too restrictive. In fact it would have excluded the Castle class corvettes of WWII as too large, and other corvettes as too small.
During the age of sail, corvettes were originally warships typically smaller than a frigate, but larger than a sloop, usually with guns on a single deck. Some ships continued to be called corvettes as steam was introduced, but in the Royal Navy, in 1877, corvettes along with sloops and frigates were subsumed under the new designation “cruisers.” Corvettes, as a type, essentially disappeared from the English naval lexicon until 1939. The term was kept alive in some navies (including the French, German, and Italian) as a rank that translated corvette-captain, a rank generally equal to Lieutenant Commander.
World War II
Corvettes as a type reemerged just prior to WWII. As it became clear that U-boats would be a major threat, Britain saw the need for an escort vessel that could be built quickly and in large numbers, in yards that had not been considered capable of building warships. Just before WWII, they ordered the first of 267 “Flower Class” corvettes that were built in the UK and Canada. They modified the design for a whale catcher named Southern Pride, enlarging it to 205 feet overall and a displacement of 1245 to 1390 tons. They were terrible warships, weakly armed, cramped, uncomfortable, and slow. Single screw, reciprocating steam propulsion gave them a maximum speed of only 16.5 knots, a knot slower than a typical (Type VII) surfaced U-boat. They were originally intended only for coastal operations, but because of their long range, they were thrown into the Battle of the Atlantic, where they were by far the most numerous transatlantic convoy escorts for the critical early years, taking slow merchant convoys across the mid-Atlantic air gap, while the Home Fleet’s more capable, but shorter legged, fleet destroyers were generally held back to escort the battle fleet or met convoys only as they approached the British Isles.
Reportedly Winston Churchill had a hand it designating this new class “corvettes,” probably in an attempt to make them appear more glamorous than the term “patrol vessels” which had been applied to similar vessels previously. Two years after the re-introduction of the term “corvette,” the term “frigate” was also resurrected to describe another war emergency escort program, this one more complex and more capable but still using reciprocating steam propulsion. Larger commercial yards converted to making frigates (301 to 307 ft, 1920 to 2420 ton), but smaller yards continued to make corvettes of the improved Castle class (252 ft, 1590 to 1630 tons), while naval yards continued to produce small numbers of sloops like the Black Swan class that were the true premier ASW escorts of the Royal Navy.
Australia also built corvettes, 60 ships of the similar but even smaller, slower Bathurst Class (186 ft). Initially they were classified as minesweepers, but found more employment as escorts, so were more frequently referred to as corvettes.
Japan, Germany, and Italy all made similar escort ships, but only the numerous Italian Gabbiano class (193 foot, 728 tons, with combined diesel or electric propulsion no less), were actually referred to as corvettes.
All of the WWII corvettes were primarily ASW escorts, but their were a number of classes of vessels, many built prior to the war, that share DNA with today’s missile armed corvettes. These were small, fast, torpedo armed vessels that resembled destroyers, but most had a standard displacement of 1000 tons or less. Usually they were referred to as “torpedo boats.” Japan built twelve, The Germans built 48 (the last 15 were large enough to have been considered destroyers in other navies). The French Navy completed twelve. The Italians completed 69 (some of which were closer to frigates or destroyer escorts). The Italian Spica class (269 ft, 885 to 1,030 ton, 34 knots) may serve as an example.
Generally, the war emergency programs had one thing in common. They were not the ships these navies would have chosen to build in peacetime. In wartime priorities change; planning horizons contract. Producibility may trump quality. They were all compromised in some fashion–in their speed, survivability, weapons, or economy of operation. Corvettes filled a need for large numbers of escorts, but after the war, most were quickly discarded.
The MCM Connection
The Flower Class Corvettes were originally also equipped to sweep mines. As noted the Australian Bathurst Class began life as minesweepers. While the US built no “corvettes” during the war, the minesweepers of the Raven (220 foot/1040 tons), Auk (221 foot/1,250 tons), and Admirable ((180 foot) classes frequently functioned in this role. In fact, with minor modification Admirable class ships were redesignated PCEs (Patrol Craft, Escort). All these minesweepers were built with sonar. By the end of the war, most were equipped with hedgehogs, depth charge projectors (K-guns) and dual depth charge racks, having enjoyed priority for ASW equipment second only to destroyer escorts.
Since the end of WWII corvettes have generally fallen into two categories, with some designs attempting to incorporate elements both types. They tend to be either: —Small, fast, missile armed vessels optimized for ASuW, like Sweden’s Visby Class (40 knots, 239 ft, 650 tons) usually expected to operate in groups, either with others of their kind or acting as flagships for even smaller missile boats, or —Smaller versions of frigates with moderate speed optimized for patrol and presence in peacetime and escort during wartime like the Damen designed SIGMAs or India’s Kamorta Class (25 knots, 358 foot oa, 3100 tons).
Largest Operators of Corvettes
The largest operator of corvettes is Russia with approximately 53 (3 Buyan, 1 Buyan M, 7 Parchim II, 23 Grisha V, 4 Grisha III, 2 Dergach Project 1239, 13 Nanuchka) (80 if you count the 27 Tarantuls that fall slightly below the 500 ton threshold I have assumed). India, China, South Korea, Indonesia, and Italy also maintain large numbers of corvettes.
Corvettes in the USN
While the US Navy has never built corvettes for its own use, the type is not without precedence in the US.
In the early days of WWII, when the US navy was desperately short of escorts, 18 Flower class corvettes were transferred to the USN. Eight of those were manned by USCG crews.
In the 50s the Navy was interested in experimenting with types that might be built hurriedly in an emergency. The result was the four ships of the Claude Jones class(DE-1033-1036) built by Avondale between 1956 and 1959. At 312 feet long and 2000 tons, they were essentially the same size as the preceding Dealey Class, but they were simplified, diesel powered, slower, and more lightly armed. These ships were really a update of the corvette concept of a cheap simple escorts that lent itself to rapid construction. (Similarly about the same time the British were building 14 HMS Blackwood Class (Type 14) that were “2nd Rate Frigates” of 1536 tons, powered by a single shaft steam turbine plant with no gun larger then 40mm.)
In the late 1960s the US built four corvettes, given US hull numbers PF-103 to PF-106, that were immediately turned over to the Iranian Navy. They became the Bayandor Class (275 feet long, 1,135 tons).
In the early ’70s, two additional PF-103 class ships (PF-107 and 108), built to a modified design, were delivered to Thailand’s Navy. These were the Tapi Class.
Between 1977 and 1983 Tacoma Boat built a class of four CODOG powered “PCG” for Saudi Arabia, the Badr class, 245 feet, 1,038 tons, 30 knots.
Between 1983 and 1987 Tacoma Boat built two diesel powered “PFMMs” for the Thai Navy Ratanakosin class252 foot, 960 tons, 26 knots.
Between 1989 and 1995 Northrop Grumman Litton built three CODOG Corvettes for the Israeli Navy, the Sa’ar 5 class, (281 foot, 1,275 tons, 33 knots).
Between 2008 and 2013, VT Halter Marine has been building a class of four missile corvettes for the Egyptian Navy, the Ambassador MkIII class (205 feet, 700 tons, 41 knots). The first has already been delivered.
While the Littoral Combat Ships are not normally considered corvettes, on June 10, 2013, Rear Admiral John F. Kirby, the Chief of Information for the Navy called them Corvettes. Without a mission module or aviation detachment, they are really more like OPVs. But when the Mine Warfare module is mounted they become MCM vessels. When an ASW or ASuW module is mounted, they start to look like corvettes.
The Claude Jones class ships were transferred to the Indonesian Navy and continued in service there until 2006. Of the six PF-103 class ships, two Iranian ships were lost in combat with Iraq, but the remaining four are still in service with the Iranian and Thai Navies and have been updated. The Badr class and the Ratanakosin class are still in service with their respective navies, and the Sa’ar Vs are still the most advanced surface ships in the Israeli Navy. All but the two Thai Navy Ratanakosin class (PF-107 and 108) have been equipped to launch anti-ship cruise missiles.
The Coast Guard Connection
During WWII Coast Guard Cutters were frequently used as ASW escorts,some quite successfully, filling corvette and frigate roles. After the war, new construction frequently included provision for ASW systems either as built or as planned upgrades in the case of a major conflict.
The 16 Reliance class Medium Endurance Cutters (210 feet, 1,050 tons, 18 knots) delivered 1964 to 1969, were built with provision for adding sonar, hedge hogs, and torpedo tubes. They were originally to have been designated PCs. a designation shared with the sub chasers of WWII.
The 12 Hamilton Class High Endurance cutters (378 feet, 3,050 tons, 29 knots) completed 1967 to 1972, were built with ASW systems installed and their systems were upgraded and provision for harpoon installed 1989 to 1992. As built, they were not the equal of contemporary Destroyer Escorts with their AN/SQS-26 sonars, but were comparable to those built only a few years before. An argument can be made that these ships, as built and later modified, could be considered, if not frigates, at least corvettes.
The thirteen Bear class cutters (270 feet, 1,780 tons, 19.5 knots) completed 1983 to 1990, were built without ASW systems, but had provision for adding a towed array and supporting a LAMPS I helicopter. If these systems had been provided, then the ships might have also been considered corvettes.
The Coast Guard’s National Security Cutters, of the Bertholf class (eight ships planned, 418 ft/4,500 tons) have no installed ASW systems or ASCMs, but they do have excellent aviation support facilities and the ship has been marketed as the basis for a frigate program. Aside from Exocets carried by the French ships, they are in most respects more capable warships than the Floreal “light surveillance frigates” (307 ft/2950 tons) and similar to the French Lafayette Class frigates (410 ft/3,600 tons) which also currently have no sonar.
The Coast Guard is in the process of procuring a new class to replace its Medium Endurance Cutters. The resulting ship is likely to be similar to the Floreal class (90 to 100 meters in length and 2500 to 3500 tons) but faster and will share sensors and some weapons with the Bertholf class and the Littoral Combat Ships. Addition of ASW or ASCM systems would result in ships many would classify as light frigates or corvettes.
Bottom Line–What is a Corvette?
Corvettes slot under frigates but above patrol boats or missile boats as a classification of surface combatants. To me, this means that they are the smallest or perhaps least capable ocean-going warships. This is a bit of a stretch for Corvettes like the Visby, but in fact the Swedes have deployed even smaller warships to the Indian Ocean for counter piracy operations. That sets the low end of the the displacement range at about 500 tons, but when we look for an upper limit, it seems a moving target, with no similar performance based limit.
The US and Britain already build destroyers the size of WWII cruisers. Germany and in the near future Britain will build frigates over 6,000 tons full load. Japan’s Coast Guard has OPVs displacing 9,350 tons full load. If we tripled the displacement of WWII corvettes as we have done with WWII Frigates and Destroyers, Corvettes could displace almost 5,000 tons, so I don’t think displacement is a reliable determinant.
Strict naval vessel construction standards don’t necessarily distinguish a corvette from an OPV either. They were not applied to the original “Flower” class, and they don’t apply to the Damen designed Sigma class, built or building for Indonesia, Morocco, and Vietnam, or to the French Lafayette class (also operated by Taiwan, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia) andFlorealclass (also operated by the Moroccan Navy) which are rated as frigates but which it might be argued are actually corvettes.
The only metric that doesn’t seem to have changed much over the last 70 years is crew size. Corvettes generally have crews of 120 or less, frigates from 120 to perhaps a bit over 200, while destroyer crews begin slightly under 200 and go up to about 350, and cruiser crews are larger still. The DDG1000s will apparently have a frigate sized crew, but their final crew may be larger than currently planned. OPV crews tend to be corvette sized or smaller.
Just as the difference between Spruance Class Destroyers and Ticonderoga Class cruisers was mission and associated equipment, not displacement, the differentiation between the various types of warships and between Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) and corvettes may simply comes down to their missions and equipment. OPVs include a wide range of ships, but the common thread, generally accepted, is that they have no ASW weapons, no heavy anti-ship cruise missiles, and only a self-defense AAW capability. Adding an ASW capability and/or cruise missiles would convert an OPV into a corvette. Perhaps they would not make very good warships, but then the original Corvettes weren’t very good warships either, but they served a vital role. Conversely an old frigate or corvette, stripped of all its weapons except a medium caliber gun and heavy machine guns would become an OPV, even if it nominally retained its frigate or corvette designation as in the case of Portugal’s Joao Coutinho and Baptista de Andradeclass or some of Italy’s Minerva class.
If we had no history, and we could start ship designations on “a clean sheet of paper” we might define ships types based on their missions and equipment, saying destroyers are vessels designed with robust capacity to perform well in all three major surface combatant warfare areas, AAW, ASuW, and ASW. Frigates are designed to perform well in only two missions areas (with possibly modest self defense capability in the third). Corvettes would be single mission specialists with only modest capability in the other two missions (if at all). OPVs would be vessels equipped for missions that did not require robust capabilities in any of these three mission areas. All four types might be called generically “cruisers” which would bring that designation back to its original meaning, a vessel smaller than a ship of the line that can operate independently.
The Future of Corvettes
WWII corvettes were small ships packed with crew and weapons.They were small because there was an urgent need for many ships that could not be met by the shipyards that normally built warships. They were a way of making the small commercial yards serve the war effort. If we are ever engaged in a prolonged conflict against a near peer adversary we may again resort to a similar expedience. If so, the resulting corvette is more likely to be based on a petroleum industry offshore support vessel rather than a whaling or fishing vessel.
But when ships are built in peace time, for a 20 to 40 year life, other factors beside construction cost start to dominate. In the West, crew costs weigh heavily, while increasing hull size appears less important, provided we do not load up the larger hull with additional systems which will in turn drive up crew costs. Larger hulls are more seaworthy, allow greater endurance, and may be made quieter. They may even be more economical to operate and maintain because of easier access.
Some European Countries that formally operated a number of Corvettes seem to have abandoned the type in favor of ships with more range and better seakeeping including The Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway. Denmark has instead produced frigates and a novel class of ships, the Absalon Class “support ships,” (450 ft/6,600 tons) that include a relatively large hull of modest speed, with a relatively small crew of about 100, and a large reconfigurable spaces–an open one topside midships where missile systems can be placed and a “garage” area under the flight deck that can accommodate vehicles and containerized loads. These ships are perhaps too large to be considered corvettes, but they are not nearly so well armed as the frigates of the similarly sized Iver Huitfeldt-class. They do have characteristics I would expect to see on future corvettes, a relatively commodious hull (because “steel is cheap and air is free”), a relatively small crew (because that is the most expensive component over the life-cycle of the ship), and reconfigurable spaces and weapon systems, that allow the ships to be adapted to different missions (because that is allow us to hedge our bets regarding what capabilities will be needed, while allowing that minimal crew over most of the life of the ship).
Because Corvettes are always compromised, they are likely to be controversial. Many will not agree with the compromises accepted. That is certainly true of the new American Corvette, the Littoral Combat ship.
In some respects the LCSs may be the prototype of the future corvette, in that it is not particularly small, but they were made cheap to operate with a minimal crew, and they are single mission ships, but with the advantage that the mission can be changed over time, although not as quickly as once advertised. Other aspects of the ship were perhaps not as well thought out, but they will serve a purpose, and perhaps the next generation LCS or convertible corvette will better meet our needs.
Chuck retired from the Coast Guard after 22 years service. Assignments included four ships, Rescue Coordination Center New Orleans, CG HQ, Fleet Training Group San Diego, Naval War College, and Maritime Defense Zone Pacific/Pacific Area Ops/Readiness/Plans. Along the way he became the first Coast Guard officer to complete the Tactical Action Officer (TAO) course and also completed the Naval Control of Shipping course. He has had a life-long interest in naval ships and history. Chuck normally writes for his blog, Chuck Hill’s CG blog.
In the din of East African security issues, the navy of Africa’s most populous nation has fallen out of the international eye. With continued pressure on diversified procurement, increasing capability, and new international cooperation, Nigeria’s Navy is slowly growing to fill a void dominated by piracy, petroleum smuggling, and other criminal elements that is re-engaging international attention in Western Africa. Whereas the state of Somalia has been quite unable to manage its offshore affairs, the Nigerian Navy has plotted a course out to sea under the pall of its severe security challenges. If the challenges of oversight, funding, and collusion don’t capsize their efforts, it may become a quite fine sailing.
Procurement-Let’s Go Shopping:
Since 2009, Nigeria has been pursuing an aggressive new procurement program. During the last Nigerian naval modernization period, the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Nigeria purchased a vast number of vessels from Germany (LST’s) , France (Combattantes), the UK (Thornycraft), Italy (Lerici minesweepers), and others. Unlike the procurement processes familiar in larger navies, such those of NATO, Nigeria ran an “open-source” program, pulling already-proven foreign systems off the foreign shelf. This new buildup is similar, with some new attempt to build local ship-building capacity.
The three big ticket “ship of the line” purchases are the 2 “Offshore Patrol Vessels” and the NNS Thunder. The NNS Thunder is the old school “off the shelf” style ship purchase, bringing a Hamilton-class High Endurance Cutter, the ex-USCG Chase, into Nigerian service in 2011. The “Offshore Patrol Vessels” were commissioned with China Industry Shipbuilding Corporation and approved for purchase by President Jonathan in April of 2012. The fleet’s major combatant until the NNS Thunder was the NNS Aradu, an over 30 year old vessel and Nigeria’s only aviation-capable ship. The new contenders will add a total of 5 new 76mm Oto Melara’s added to the fleet, a none too shabby improvement of overall firepower for littoral operations. The 45 (NNS Thunder)/ 20 (OPV’s) day endurance will give the Nigerian Navy an impressive new stay-time for continuous at-sea opeartions. Arguably most important is that all three vessels have maritime aviation capabilities that will greatly expand the reach and ISR component of Nigerian maritime operations. These three ships are right on target to fill critical gaps in Nigeria’s capabilities.
Nigeria’s littoral squadrons are also scheduled for improvement. Nigeria is purchasing several brown-green water patrol craft to bolster her much-beleaguered inshore security where smuggling of all kinds is rife. Singaporean Manta’s and Sea Eagle’s, US Defender’s, Israeli Shaldag Mk III’s, and others will add potent brown and green water assets to Nigeria’s toolbox.
However, not all of Nigeria’s purchases are imports. Thi package also begins the cultivation of indigenous ship-building capability. One of the aforementioned OPV’s is scheduled for 70% of its construction to occur in Nigeria. To more fanfare, the NNS Andoni was commissioned in 2012. Designed by Nigerian engineers and produced locally with 60% locally sourced parts, it is considered a good step forward for building local expertise and capability in the realm of the shipwrights. More local capacity and expertise will further increase the ease with which ships bought locally, or abroad, can be maintained.
The Nigerian Navy is making good progress. With new ships, expanded operations, and continued engagement the bow is pointed in the right direction. However, without maintaining the engineroom and navigational equipment by battling corruption and putting enough fuel in the diesels by increasing their defense budget, the Nigerian Navy will find itself floundering in the storm.
Matthew Hipple is a surface warfare officer and graduate of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. He is Director of the NEXTWAR blog and hosts of the Sea Control podcast. His opinions may not reflect those of the United States Navy, Department of Defense, or US Government. Did he mention he was host of the Sea Control podcast? You should start listening to that.