This new piece from Foreign Policydiscusses the current efforts of Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan to enhance their naval capabilities in the Caspian Sea. Global economic crisis aside, there seems to be a promising market in selling ships/boats and aircraft to states asserting their economic interests in resource-rich maritime regions.
The MV Alaed, a Russian cargo vessel reportedly shipping armament to Syria, including attack helicopters, has lost its insurance coverage due to illicit cargo clauses, CNN reports. This comes after calls from the U.S. government on the British government and subsequent pressure on London-based The Standard Club, insurers of the vessel’s owners, FEMCO.
UPDATE: Tues, 0630 EST
Dutch authorities hailed the Alaed as it passed the Dutch coast, prompting the vessel to turn north. Alead is reportedly near the Hebrides archipelago off Scotland’s west coast, according to The Telegraph. Scottish site STV.TV says the vessel “was last recorded under way less than 55 miles off the coast of the Port of Ness village in the Isle of Lewis,” and headed for Vladivostock according to AIS information(possibly falsely inputted) provided by the ship tracking site marinetraffic.com. The vessel has since moved out of range.
UPDATE 2: Tues 1400
Press reports indicate British Foreign Secretary William Hague has confirmed Alaed is returning to Russia, most likely Kaliningrad. Maritime experts speculate it was ordered to turn back by Russian authorities as it may have had enough fuel to reach Syria without stopping and not been subject to the EU’s ban on weapon shipments as a Russian vessel.
The Alaed is just the latest in a series of cargo vessels bound for a war zone suddenly thrust into the spotlight after reports surface of a purported arms shipment. The Kang Nam, a North Korean cargo vessel turned around in 2009 after the world’s attention focused on its voyage to a mystery destination (likely Myanmar) with a mystery cargo (likely small arms and RPGs). Similar incidents have occurred in the past with North Korean vessels such as 2011’s MV Light incident.
As with the Kang Nam, the objective of the international community in this incident is likely to deny the Alaed an ability to refuel in a friendly port of call enroute to its final destination. With the loss of insurance, the Alaed will find it difficult to legally enter many ports on the way to Syria and may be forced to turn around. If the vessel is able to continue, it runs a good risk of being boarded by some of Syria’s more proactive neighbors enforcing an EU arms embargo, such as Turkey, which boarded the German-owned Atlantic Cruiser in April after similar reports of on-board weapons. Embarrassingly for Turkey, such reports turned out to be false, so they might be more reluctant to repeat the episode with out definitive proof before hand. Nor are all suspect cargoes bound for the al-Assad regime. Also in April, Lebanon stopped the Sierra Leone-flagged Lutfallah II, which definitively was smuggling weapons for the Free Syria Army.
On a side note, it’s hard to take the interview at 1:55 with the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff completely seriously when you realize what’s immediately behind him. That’s right, a cupcake tank that fires cupcakes:
LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.
Reading last week about the joint Russian-Chinese naval exercise “Maritime Cooperation 2012” in the Yellow Sea, I was interested to learn that the Russians insistedbridge-to-bridge and exercise communications be conducted solely in Russian. This is further indication that the exercise, the largest for the two navies since 2005, is a sign of normalizing ties rather than of a burgeoning alliance. The pair had at first agreed to use both Chinese and Russian, but interestingly the Chinese acquiesced to Russian demands. Perhaps it was a simple lack of Mandarin speakers in the Russian fleet, but this seems unlikely given the effort each side takes to monitor the other’s activities. I was also curious, but not surprised, that neither side pushed for a compromise use of English.
English – or rather “Maritime English” – is, after all, the language of both maritime and air operations. British and then American naval and commercial power originally spread its use on the seas, but it was only in 1995 that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) codified English as the official language of mariners. This, however, built on prior agreements and was followed in 2001 by the adoption of the Standard Marine Communication Phrases to standardize safety terms and phrases such as the gem: “I am sinking. Please proceed to my assistance. What is your ETA at our distress position?”
Having a common language at sea is important (just ask the passengers on the Costa Concordia who couldn’t understand the crew’s Italian instructions, or for that matter the crewmembers who didn’t speak Italian). Like any accepted set of standards a common language facilitates safe interaction and commerce. The website of Maritime Tests of Language, a testing company, cites IMO statistics stating “80% of accidents taking place at sea are caused by human error, with half due to poor communication.”
Undoubtedly some of these mishaps are due to language comprehension difficulties – not a surprise if you can imagine trying to understand a heavily accented, non-native speaker trying to communicate something in a panic. The IMO has studied requiring a standardized Maritime English-language competency test as an amendment to its 1978 Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchstanding, but so far has only posted guidelines.
Despite the growth of Chinese naval and commercial shipping prowess, I don’t foresee China pushing for Mandarin to rival or replace English as an official maritime language in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, I do expect the PLAN to become more insistent on Mandarin’s use in joint exercises when its partner speaks a similarly non-English tongue.