Category Archives: Current Operations

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A Looming Calamity: Will Secretary Pompeo Seal the Fate of the Red Sea?  

By Dr. Ian Ralby, Dr. David Soud, and Rohini Ralby

Over the past five years, the people of Yemen have endured famine and warfare. Now, as they and their Red Sea neighbors face the imminent likelihood of overwhelming oil spillage from the abandoned tanker FSO Safer, the means to avert a regional catastrophe may be stripped away.

It has been reported that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is about to designate Yemen’s Ansar Allah movement, better known as the Houthis, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Doing so will not only complicate prospects of peace in Yemen, but potentially catalyze one of the worst humanitarian and environmental disasters in modern history.

For two and a half years, we have led a team of experts in a range of fields, working pro bono, to game out and highlight the threat of the Safer while also proposing achievable approaches to reducing or eliminating that threat. The Safer is a rapidly deteriorating tanker that, before the Yemeni civil war, served as the export terminal of the country’s main crude oil pipeline. Permanently moored less than five miles off the Red Sea coast of Yemen with a cargo of 1.14 million barrels of oil, the vessel is linked with an undersea pipeline that holds nearly as much crude as the Safer itself. As the tanker has deteriorated, the threat of a catastrophic spill – four times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill – has only increased. A burst pipe in the engine room in July was only one of many signs that the 45-year old Safer is not going to hold together much longer. Not only is the vessel owned by SEPOC, a state-owned company of the Hadi Government – effectively trapped in Houthi-controlled territory, but for the past six months, armed Houthi militants have been stationed onboard the vessel, which is being kept intact by a resourceful skeleton crew of SEPOC personnel.

Just this summer, at a special session of the U.N. Security Council regarding the FSO Safer, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft cited our work while urging resolution of the danger posed by the tanker. In recent months, we have been making steady progress toward a two-phase option: first to install devices in the area to contain a spill, and then to replace the dying tanker and transfer its cargo to a new, seaworthy vessel. Designating the Houthis as an FTO would close off avenues for negotiation with those who control access to the tanker, and thus end any hope for either of those measures. Time is our enemy, as the tanker is rapidly deteriorating and will, at some point, break apart.

While the Houthis have recently signed an agreement to allow a United Nations inspection team on the vessel, it will still take months before such an inspection could actually occur, and by that point, it may be too late. Furthermore, this is not the first time permission has been granted. Past reversals by the Houthis raise the question of whether that permission will still be in place when an inspection team is ready to board. And even then, an assessment is just the first step. The FTO designation would only diminish the chance of this long and arduous process of having any meaningful impact.

A spill of the Safer’s cargo could mean the destruction of Red Sea fisheries vital to human security in the region, as well as irreversible damage to the only coral reef systems known to be able to withstand warming seas. The consequences on land are no less extreme, beginning with the devastating impact of a spill from the Safer on water security. Millions of inhabitants of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and other nearby states, including Egypt and Sudan, get their drinking water from desalination plants along the Red Sea coast. If oil contaminates those plants as it spreads along the coast, the remaining supply of drinking water will last only days. Even in the best of times, that is not enough time to mobilize a major humanitarian relief effort to make up the shortfall. Now, in the face of conflict, famine, and the likelihood that a spill would constrict (and in some places, close off) shipping, such an undertaking would require far more time, coordination, and ingenuity. There would be no realistic chance of avoiding a calamity.

Yemen is already at risk of losing an entire generation to famine. Roughly 80 percent of the aid for Yemen’s starving population comes through Hodeidah. Even a temporary closure of the city’s port due to the toxicity from a spill would increase the death toll.

Even on purely economic grounds, the Safer could cause long-term harm to the region and to key U.S. allies. The Red Sea is narrow and semi-enclosed, and seasonal currents and winds will alternately spread the oil southward toward the Horn of Africa and northward toward Israel, Jordan, and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. With oily water up and down the coast, devastating coral reefs and islands, and decimating fish and wildlife populations, the Safer’s spill could ruin coastal tourism for Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Eritrea, and Djibouti for years to come.

In light of this predictable and preventable scenario, there should logically be a highly compelling set of foreign policy benefits deriving from the FTO designation that would offset the huge risks of designating the group that controls much of Yemen and the FSO Safer. The benefits should outweigh the costs, but in this case they do not. We see great risk to the critical operational work we now have underway to head off a humanitarian and environmental disaster of massive scale. For anyone attempting to provide aid to Yemenis in Houthi territory, the designation would add layers of difficulty and risk, and at tremendous human cost. Beyond that, our experience leads us to conclude that designation would do nothing to pressure the Houthis. On the contrary, it would let them further off the hook in terms of their responsibility for governance writ large and for this issue in particular which impacts so many countries in the Red Sea region.

Some may argue that a U.S. move would simply replicate the Saudi government’s own designation of Ansar Allah as a terrorist organization, establishing a united front. In reality the Saudis operate by their own rules and are still negotiating with the Houthis regardless. Such engagement would be barred for the U.S. government, or other U.S.-linked entities, and virtually impossible for a range of international actors, including private sector experts like us.

In the years leading up to the disastrous port explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020, customs officials and international experts warned Lebanese authorities about the possibility and were ignored. In the same way, the demise of the Safer and the fallout of that event are eminently foreseeable and will almost certainly have an impact far wider and more extreme than the Beirut blast.

Designating the Houthis as an FTO may look and feel like an assertive, decisive application of pressure. In concrete reality, its practical consequences would be dire, not only for Yemenis, their neighbors, and the critical natural infrastructure of the Red Sea, but also for U.S. credibility on the global stage. We strongly encourage the Secretary of State to reconsider imposing this designation.

Dr. Ian Ralby is a maritime law and security expert and is CEO of I.R. Consilium, a family firm specializing in maritime and resource security. He spent three years as a Maritime Crime Expert for UNODC and four years at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. 

Dr. David Soud is an expert in resource crimes and is Head of Research & Analysis of I.R. Consilium. 

Rohini Ralby is an expert in strategy and problem solving and is Managing Director of I.R. Consilium.

Featured Image: A satellite image of the FSO Safer taken by Planet Labs on September 14, 2020. (via Forbes)

Mapping Gray Maritime Networks for Hybrid Warfare

By Chris Callaghan, Rob Schroeder, and Dr. Wayne Porter


In light of the current National Security Strategy and the 2018 National Defense Guidance, the impact of hybrid warfare and ‘gray-zone’1 maritime activity in support of great power competition among nations has become an increasing area of concern. This includes the need for an increased focus on the identification and tracking of vessels of interest (VOI) and their associated owners, operators, and activities. Traditionally, maritime domain awareness (MDA) has consisted of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance of activities at sea with limited cross-domain link analysis2 of events, carriers, and sponsors (Wallace & Mesko, 2013). While this methodology enables analysts and operators to sift and structure vast data from increasingly complex systems, it fails to consider how ties between similar entities create gray (non-transparent) shipping networks capable of supporting state-directed hybrid warfare. 

This is not to say that a network perspective has been absent from the maritime domain. Researchers from diverse analytic disciplines have conceptualized various constructs as networks, such as historic trade routes (Rivers, Evans, & Knappett, 2016; Wang, Notteboom, & Yang, 2016), global shipping patterns (Ducruet, Rozenblat, & Zaidi, 2010), cruise ship itineraries (Rodrigue & Notteboom, 2014), and logistics involved in global shipping (Ducruet & Lugo, 2013). Yet, much of the focus behind this work has been on understanding transparent (licit) networks.3 For their part, network researchers leveraged social network analysis to gain an understanding of dark networks – that is, covert and/or illicit organizations (Raab & Milward, 2003). This has included, for example, the study of terrorist groups (Krebs, 2002; Roberts & Everton, 2011), narcotic distribution networks (Morselli & Petit, 2007), street gangs (Papachristos, Hureau, & Braga, 2013), and cyber criminals on the dark web (Dupont, 2014) to name a few. 

We drew on network analysis (NA) to examine gray maritime networks (alternately operating licitly and illicitly) in relationship to two NATO-led exercises in 2018: BALTOPS and Exercise Trident Juncture. As previously demonstrated through research focused on mapping gray maritime networks in the South China Sea (Porter, et al., 2019), NA methods can be leveraged to develop longitudinal network depictions of vessels loitering in sensitive or disputed areas. Here, we leverage commercially available geo-temporal data, open-source databases, and home range detection algorithms to generate depictions of the subgroups of owners and operators associated with gray activities.

Although methodology driven, this research was not intended to provide solely an academic contribution but also to demonstrate how NA can improve real-time awareness and tracking for operational purposes. The methods and analysis presented here should enable a rich discussion of current and future methods for enhanced MDA. As such, we begin with a description of our data collection and methods then proceed to discuss findings and practical implications for MDA. Finally, we conclude with a series of recommendations for further research. 

Generating Networks: Data and Methods 

We use commercially available ship tracking data as the cornerstone of our analysis; specifically, in the process of identifying and tracking VOIs. Our team collected the feeds from commercial automatic identification system (AIS) transceivers from 13 March 2018 through 7 January 2019.4 These data points are particularly salient as AIS transmitters are required as navigation and anti-collision systems for all vessels exceeding 300 gross tonnage operating internationally, any vessels exceeding 500 gross tonnage not conducting international voyages, and all passenger ships regardless of size. To narrow the scope of our data set, we geofenced our data to include the Baltic Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. The resulting daily AIS tracking logs provided both spatial and temporal variables relevant to our analysis; namely, a VOI’s date and time of transmission, maritime mobile service identity (MMSI) number, speed over ground, longitude, and latitude.  

Once the data was decoded and filtered, we proceeded to explore traffic patterns using the Time Local Convex Hull (T-LoCoH) method originally developed for the study of movement patterns in GPS-tracked ranging animals. T-LoCoH integrates time with space into the construction of local hulls (geometric shapes containing a location distribution within a home range) while accounting for an individual animal’s speed, which facilitates the use of metrics for revisitation and loitering duration (Lyons, Turner, & Getz, 2013). In our work, the AIS data that tracks vessel traffic over time and space is analogous to the GPS data used to analyze ranging animals. As such, we leveraged the application of this method to identify spatio-temporal patterns of ships loitering in areas proximal to NATO-led military exercises.  

To reduce traffic noise, we only included AIS transmissions for non-NATO nation commercial vessels transponding with a speed over ground less than or equal to two knots. We then generated spatial loitering polygons which may represent ports, anchorages, or other areas where a VOI loitered during the window of research (see Figure 1). As expected, areas exhibited differing loitering densities with some being dense (depicted as yellow on Figure 1) and others less dense (depicted in red). These loitering polygons served as the basis for developing a list of VOIs using their MMSI identification numbers as unique identifiers.

Figure 1. Loitering isopleths during BALTOPS (click to expand)

Matching loitering isopleths with the original AIS transmissions used to generate them yielded a ship-to-loitering location table (see Table 1) with a ship’s unique identifier, the AIS message date and time, and the loitering polygon identity. 

MMSI  Date-time  Polygon 
123456789  T=1  Polygon A 
987654321  T=1  Polygon A 
123456789  T=2  Polygon B 
123456789  T=3  Polygon C 

Table 1. Sample ship-to-loitering location table

From this table, we extracted a location-to-location network where loitering areas were interconnected if a VOI traveled from one location to the other location. Next, to examine the underlying organizations linked to the VOIs, the team gathered open-source information on the companies who own and/or operate these ships using the Lexis Nexis Advance Research Database. This corporate information was then joined to the ship data. The corporate information was used to create connections between companies if they were tied to the same ship, one was a subsidiary of the other, one had a major financial stake in the other, shared the same physical address, or had members of their boards of directors in common. The findings and analysis of these data follow in the subsequent section.

Analysis: Shedding Light on Gray Maritime Networks

From the AIS data on ship movements we extracted two networks for further analysis: the location-to-location network composed of loitering areas observed during BALTOPS (31 May 2018 through 16 June 2018) and loitering areas observed during Operation Trident Juncture (22 October 2018 through 25 November 2018).  Most of the VOI activity was concentrated within the Baltic Sea (see Figure 2). These findings are to be expected considering the geographic range of operations. While most VOIs in the sample set remained in the Baltic Sea, a few were also observed loitering off the coast of Norway during NATO exercise Trident Juncture.

Figure 2. Location-to-location networks during BALTOPS (left) and Operation Trident Juncture (right) (click to expand)

Upon closer examination, the VOIs active off the coast of Norway during Trident Juncture appear to have loitered near sensitive military locations and displayed abnormal movement patterns. For instance, Figure 3 illustrates the movements of two VOIs with abnormal tracking patterns. The first is an oil tanker owned by the Russian government and operated by a registered shipping company in that country. The second is a commercial chemical products tanker registered in the Marshall Islands, a country often used as a flag of convenience, shown loitering north of Norway.

Figure 3. Abnormal shipping patterns off the coast of northern Norway during Operation Trident Juncture, a Russian owned oil tanker (left) and chemical products tanker registered to the Marshall Islands (right) (click to expand)

Finally, Figure 4 is a network representation of connections between the companies associated with identified VOIs. In this graph, we see that many of the companies are related to each other, with the three largest components colored in blue, green, and orange. For instance, the large blue cluster on the right-hand side of the sociogram contains many small companies, all operating from the same address in northern Russia, each with connections to at most a few ships. The large orange component on the bottom left contains clusters of VOI-associated companies interconnected by sharing some of the same board members. In the green component, shipping companies associated with VOIs are connected by sharing parent, subsidiary, or holding companies. Companies occupying an apparent position of structural brokerage are depicted by larger nodes. One such shipping company (highlighted with an arrow), for instance, was connected to the broader family of like-companies, while also being linked to a large multinational oil company through partial ownership ties (Schelle, 2018).

Figure 4. Company-to-company network. The three largest components are colored and nodes are sized by brokerage potential.

Conclusions and recommendations for further research 

This analysis highlights the value of NA in real-time awareness and tracking of stakeholders associated with suspected gray maritime activities in a strategic era of great power competition. Using commercially available geospatial data, our team identified 56 VOIs loitering in areas proximal to NATO-led exercises in the Baltic Sea and North Atlantic. These vessels were then linked to over 196 state-owned and private companies/entities. Analysis such as this provides insight into a network of stakeholders that may support hybrid warfare, or so-called grey-zone activities, not directly attributable to a specific nation.

The use of the network analysis methodologies discussed here and the tools developed at the Naval Postgraduate School to identify, map, and track gray maritime networks can be applied to any number of threats. While our earlier research into Chinese reef enhancement activity in the South China Sea has already been cited, Maritime Operations Center (MOC) operators and MDA analysts could adapt this toolset to track and assess maritime and terrestrial networks associated with narcotics trafficking, terrorism, Illegal and Unregulated Fishing (IIU), arms and human trafficking, and other security concerns. Integrating these tools into existing MDA systems would also provide for enhanced awareness of how these networks overlap in multiple geographic areas and in malign activities. Further, and perhaps most significantly, they could provide operators timely and actionable information.   

Our research is not without room for improvement. Future iterations of this work should include a richer dataset of state/corporate linkages. This should include a deeper dive into state-sponsored (and military supported) parent-subsidiary company relationships and board memberships, or proximal geographic associations among companies, offices, and ships. Further research is also being considered through the application of system dynamics modeling, wargaming, campaign analysis, and discrete events modeling. 


The authors would like to acknowledge that this research benefited immensely from the partnership between the Common Operational Research Environment (CORE) Lab and Littoral Operations Center at the Naval Postgraduate School, with the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (Forsvarets Forskningsinstitutt, FFI). This research builds on a joint effort to integrate network analysis methodologies into the maritime domain, which won the 2019 NCI Agency’s Defense Innovation Challenge aimed at accelerating technological solutions in support of NATO C4ISR and cyber capabilities.

With more research and interest, these methods can help us better understand the non-linear relationships and feedback mechanisms that contribute to the complexity of great power competition and its manifestations in the maritime domain.

Chris Callaghan is a Research Associate in the Defense Analysis Department’s CORE Lab at the NPS. His work leverages open-source data analytics for understanding and modeling a variety of national and homeland security problems. 

Rob Schroeder is a Faculty Associate for Research in the CORE Lab within the Defense Analysis Department and a PhD Student in the Information Sciences Department at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS). He is currently researching how to use open-source information gathered largely from social media in order to understand and map the changing dynamics in conflict areas and exploring the use of network analysis to analyze maritime traffic patterns. He has presented some of this research at conferences (INFORMS and INSNA).

Dr. Wayne Porter, CAPT, USN (ret.) is a Senior Lecturer in the Defense Analysis and Systems Engineering Departments of the Naval Postgraduate School, where he also serves as Co- Director of the CORE Lab and Director of the Littoral Operations Center.  He holds a Ph.D in Information Sciences and two Masters of Science degrees – in Computer Science and Joint C4I Systems Technology – from the Naval Postgraduate School.  Military duty included Japan, England, Italy, the Balkans, Bahrain (COMFIFTHFLT ACOS Intelligence and MOC Deputy of Operations in the Persian Gulf/East Africa), and three tours on the personal staff of ADM Mike Mullen, including Special Assistant for Strategy to both the Chief of Naval Operations (N00Z) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.  He subsequently served as Chair, Systemic Strategy and Complexity at Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and retired from the Navy in July 2014 after 28 years of active service.  Dr. Porter has contributed to a number of DoD and USN Strategy projects, including serving as systems analyst for the SECNAV’s Strategic Readiness Review.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position or policies of the United States Navy or the Department of Defense.


1. The opaque area in which illicit of malign activity co-exist with licit activity.

2. An analytical method for interactively curating and querying relational databases (Cunningham, Everton, & Murphy, 2016). In a link diagram, different types of entities (e.g., ports, events, ships, operators, and personnel to name a few) are tied to each other explicitly with the goal of describing the environment.

3. Those operating overtly and legally.

4. All collected AIS logs were encoded in AIVDM (data received from other vessels)/AIVDO (own vessel information) sentences and required decoding for further analysis.


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Featured Image: OSLO, Norway (Nov. 13, 2018) Sailors and Marines man the rails as the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) arrives in Oslo, Norway, for a scheduled port visit Nov. 13, 2018. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Daniel C. Coxwest/Released)

Cooperative Deployments: An Indispensable Tool for Preparing for the High-End Fight

By David Wallsh and Eleanore Douglas

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Gilday’s December 2019 Fragmentary Order (FRAGO), “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” emphasizes the importance of building alliances and partnerships to enhance U.S. warfighting capability, with a particular focus on “full interoperability at the high end of naval warfare.” This objective is critical—Washington’s ability to credibly threaten combined warfare across the full range of the competition to conflict spectrum enhances its ability to deter war and improves its ability to win if forced to fight one.

The U.S. Navy’s Cooperative Deployment Program (CDP), a framework for integrating partner nation (PN) navy units into deploying U.S. Navy strike groups, offers a particularly valuable instrument for advancing this goal. The Navy has many security cooperation tools for advancing interoperability, to be sure, but there is little substitute for months-long, real-world deployments. The Navy should therefore think creatively about how best to adapt this pre-2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) program to the demands of the era of great power competition.

Deploying for the High-End Fight

Cooperative deployments come in many flavors. At the advanced end of the spectrum, cooperative deployers participate in pre-deployment planning, training, and all or part of a real-world deployment. These highly integrated deployments tend to include traditional NATO allies.

The Royal Danish Navy (RDN) frigate HDMS Peter Willemoes’ 2017 cooperative deployment with the USS George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group (GHWBCSG) provides an illustrative example. The Willemoes deployed with the GHWBCSG in the U.S. 5th and 6th fleet areas of operation (AO) from February to May 2017, but integration efforts began much earlier. Beginning in early 2016, RDN personnel participated in staff talks, the GHWBCSG commander’s conference, and synthetic training. In December 2016, the Willemoes physically participated in the GHWBCSG’s pre-deployment composite training exercise (COMPTUEX). Willemoes commanding officer (CO) Commander Bo Overgaard later concluded, “Looking back at the start of the deployment…What we, the Royal Danish Navy, have learned and gained from being part of [GHWBCSG] most likely could not have been achieved anywhere else.”

Cooperative deployments such as that of the Willemoes are ideally suited to advancing the CNO’s vision of full interoperability for high end warfare, but the Navy should not lose sight of the value of providing partners with opportunities for smaller-scale integrated deployments. Indeed, CNO Gilday’s FRAGO also reminds us that, “Though we are not exchanging fire with our competitors, we are battling for influence and positional advantage today.” The CDP thus derives considerable value from its scalability. In late 2018, for example, the forward-deployed Ronald Reagan CSG conducted multiple weeklong mid-deployment integrations with Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) warships, including with the destroyer JS Kirasame in October and with the helicopter destroyer JS Hyuga one month later.

These are only a few examples of the ways in which the CDP provides essential value for advancing the CNO’s recent warfighting guidance. Cooperative deployments, if pursued strategically, are uniquely capable of preparing the Navy for the fights of both today and tomorrow.

For today’s challenges, cooperative deployments increase the power of U.S. Navy units putting out to sea right now. Many of U.S. allies possess valuable niche capabilities in which they have prioritized investments, while others may be more accustomed to operating in environments where the U.S. Navy is less experienced. Before the Harry S. Truman CSG in 2018 became the first U.S. aircraft carrier to operate in the Arctic in thirty years, for example, the Norwegian frigate HMNoS Roald Amundsen joined her for months of pre-deployment planning and training. Truman CSG CO Rear Admiral Gene Black later said of his time in the High North, “the Norwegians went out of their way to partner with us…one of their frigates joined my [CSG] and operated with every bit of the intensity and professionalism of one of our ships. And it was an absolute highlight that we could show up, never having operated together, and come together and operate at the highest level and in one of the most demanding environments that we could face.”

Deploying with partner nation ships in formation can also free up scarce U.S. resources for national tasking. This gives a commander flexibility to dispatch a ship for missions she might not otherwise pursue or to fill unexpected gaps. When the USS Fitzgerald collided with a Philippine container ship in June 2017, the New Zealand frigate HMNZS Te Kahana “flawlessly transitioned to help provide security and protection as part of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group,” according to CNO Admiral John Richardson.

As for the future, cooperative deployments are uniquely positioned to advance CNO Gilday’s objectives for high-end interoperability. Combined planning, training, and deployment over extended periods of time provide all parties involved with unparalleled opportunity to test and advance the limits of integration. It allows sailors time to identify and resolve kinks in systems linkages, to learn about one another’s planning processes, doctrine, and capability, and to work through the human factors of building trust, language, and cultural proficiency. The real-world stakes of a deployment, moreover, provide a critical forcing function for problem-solving in the face of the unexpected.

Still another distinct advantage—both for today and tomorrow—involves the strategic messaging opportunity to showcase partners’ willingness to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States military in real-world conditions. Strong alliances and partnerships constitute one of the United States’ most important assets in the battle for influence and strategic position that CNO Gilday describes. In this context, cooperative deployments involving, say, drills in the South China Sea with the Royal Navy or aerial operations in the Arctic with the Norwegians send a more powerful message than Washington sailing alone. Conversely, they can also provide Washington with a bellwether to understand the limits of some relationships. Last summer, for example, the Spanish frigate ESPS Mendez Nunez detached from the Abraham Lincoln CSG when Washington deployed it to the Middle East in response to rising tensions with Iran.


In light of the value proposition described above, we submit the following recommendations for adapting cooperative deployments to the goals of the CNO’s Design and the era of great power competition more broadly.

First, the Navy should explore creative variations on cooperative deployment execution. The Navy should strive to integrate its ships into select partner nation deployments just as it recruits others to join its own. These deployments would send the important strategic message that the U.S. is willing to support its partners in the same way they support the U.S., while enhancing the U.S. Navy’s future combined warfare capabilities. France recently deployed the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to the Eastern Mediterranean with the Hellenic Navy frigate HS Spetsai among its escorts.

Second, the Navy should adhere to a minimum definition of what constitutes a cooperative deployment. A cursory internet search of the term yields press releases of engagements ranging from the Willemoes’ approximately year-long effort to plan, train, and deploy with the GHWBCSG in 2016-2017 and Japan’s various week-long integrations with the Reagan CSG in 2018 to various instances of what appear to be single-day training events with other partners. We recognize that the CDP derives value from its flexibility, but if every engagement is a cooperative deployment then nothing is a cooperative deployment, and that will dilute much of the substance of what makes cooperative deployments valuable in the first place. If the U.S. Navy wants to drive toward “full interoperability at the high end of naval warfare,” it must be honest with others and itself about what it takes to get there.

Lastly, the Navy should deepen the complexity of cooperative deployments with key allies in the Indo-Pacific Theater. Washington has a number of treaty allies in that region, many of whom operate U.S. military equipment and enjoy longstanding information sharing agreements with the United States. This goal may be easier said than done, but for the era of long-term competition it represents an important north star toward which to chart a course.


CNO Gilday’s FRAGO directs the Navy to prepare for tomorrow while working with what it has today. Cooperative deployments are a critical variable in that equation, and the Navy should continue to pursue them in the present while ringing the bell about what agreements it needs to begin negotiating now in order to advance them in the future. Doing so will sharpen an important and in many ways unique tool through which to pursue full interoperability with U.S. allies and partners for the high-end fight.

Dr. David Wallsh is a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), where he specializes coalition operations, security cooperation and Middle East security. He earned his PhD in International Security at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. 

Dr. Eleanore Douglas is a research analyst for CNA’s Strategy and Policy Analysis team, where she specializes in security cooperation, strategy and defense planning. She earned her PhD in Public Policy from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin. 

The views expressed in this article are theirs alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of CNA, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (Feb. 16, 2018) From the left, Royal Norwegian Navy frigate HNoMS Roald Amundsen (F 311), USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG 81) and USS Gravely (DDG 107) transit the Atlantic Ocean as part of the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group (HSTCSG) while conducting its composite training unit exercise (COMPTUEX). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Anthony Flynn/Released)

Why the Sudden Drop in Armed Robbery of Ships off Venezuela?

By Lydelle Joubert

Venezuela has the largest known oil reserves in the world, with 302 billion barrels of proven reserves reported in 2018. Production has however declined from 3.5 million barrels a day in 1997 to 1.4 million barrels in May 2018 due to the persistent economic crisis the country has been facing.

Anzoátegui state is traditionally one of the largest oil production centers in Venezuela. Two thirds of Venezuelan oil is exported through Puerto Jose in Anzoátegui. The concentration of oil industry-related infrastructure in Anzoátegui combined with the declining economic situation and lack of security make it a hotspot for armed robbery at sea in the Caribbean region. Several anchorages lie off the coast of Anzoátegui, such as Bahia De Barcelona Anchorage, Puerto Jose Anchorage and Puerto La Cruz Anchorage. Due to the collapse of the fishing industry, the economic hardship that coastal communities are facing and insufficient security measures at these anchorages, men in small boats approach mostly tankers waiting to load oil and board vessels in order to rob them.

According to the definition of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS, 1982: 61) piracy is limited to acts outside the jurisdiction of the coastal waters of a state. Acts committed in territorial waters are considered armed robbery of ships. As these anchorages are located in Venezuelan territorial waters, it is classified as armed robbery of ships.

For unknown reasons, reports of armed robbery at these anchorages stopped in the middle of 2019. Between January 2016 and the end of April 2019, 36 robberies and attempted robberies were reported at anchorages off Anzoátegui, of which 29 were on tankers. Six incidents were reported in early 2019, but in April 2019 robberies on commercial ships at these anchorages ended abruptly. No robberies were reported for the next ten months, until the end of February 2020.

Robbery of Vessels at Anchorages off Anzoategui, Venezuela (via Stable Seas Database)

What happened in late April or early May 2019 to account for this change? Understanding the cause of this change is important for predicting whether this sharp fall in armed robbery is sustainable or likely to be reversed in the future. Before analyzing potential causes of this sharp decline in armed robberies, it is useful to review what happens in a typical armed robbery at sea in this area.

What Happens in an Armed Robbery at Sea?

Most robberies on ships at these anchorages can be classified as petty theft where a ship’s stores and its crew’s possessions are stolen. Three to seven robbers in small boats approach anchored vessels under darkness and board via the anchor chain and hawse pipe or via a grappling hook and rope. Robbers are usually armed with knives, but guns were observed in a few cases. In a few instances the crew was tied up, threatened, or assaulted and minor injuries were reported.

During a more brazen robbery on 14 October 2018 the bulk carrier Shi Zi Shan was boarded just after midnight by four armed men in national guard uniforms under the ruse of an anti-narcotics inspection. Once aboard they threatened the crew with handguns and commanded them to be taken to the captain’s cabin. They stole all the cash and crew’s valuables.

Most yachts have long since departed this coast, ever since the attacks on these ships turned violent when the Dutch captain of the yacht Mary Eliza was shot and killed at Marina El Concorde in September 2013. These incidents, combined with recent kidnappings of Trinidadian fishermen on the coast of Venezuela, created fear (although unfounded) that piracy and armed robbery off Venezuela could turn into a situation similar to Somalia where crew from commercial vessels are kidnapped from vessels for ransom.

What Contextual Changes Might Account for the Fall in Armed Robberies at Sea?

In January 2018 Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro temporarily closed maritime borders with the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao). Fresh fruit and vegetables from Venezuela were transported to these islands, but the same routes were also used to smuggle gold, silver, copper and coltan from Venezuela.  In February 2019 maritime borders with the ABC islands were once again closed, this time to prevent humanitarian aid from reaching Venezuela from these islands. The measure applied to commercial and fishing vessels. This led to a larger military presence in ports and an increase in vessel inspections on vessels entering ports in an effort to stem the smuggling of aid from the neighboring ABC islands.

At the same time, other economic factors may have reduced shipping traffic and could have reduced opportunities for armed robbery at Puerto Jose. Venezuela suffered from power outages that affected oil production and shipping operations. On 5 April 2019 the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on tankers and shipping companies transporting Venezuelan oil to Cuba, which could have further reduced arrivals of vessels at the anchorages. Tankers looking to evade the sanctions would have strong incentives to turn off transponders near Venezuelan water, making it difficult to obtain accurate counts of vessels at these anchorages. This could also dissuade reporting of armed robberies.

Armed robbery of ships at anchorages off the coast of Anzoátegui, 2016 to February 2020. (Stable Seas Database)

However, these explanations are not satisfactory because not all countries adhered to the call for sanctions and Venezuelan vessels were still operating from the port and anchorages. Armed robbers had ample opportunities to commit crimes near Puerto Jose. A closer look reveals that one specific incident may have initiated a chain of events that led to this decline in armed robberies.

How One Act of Defiance May Have Changed Incentives for Armed Robbery

There was one incident that fit the timeframe coinciding with the end of robberies on vessels at these anchorages, but the fact that it spelled a halt of these crimes was quite unintended.

It appears that dissatisfaction is growing amongst mid-level Venezuelan officials who are unhappy with the government for supplying Cuba with oil while severe shortages are experienced within Venezuela. In previous months, nationwide protests were reported at Venezuelan state-owned, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) facilities, leading to a loss of 30 percent in production. On 1 May 2019 a captain of a PDVSA tanker, Manuela Saenz, defied orders to deliver oil to Cuba and notified PDVSA of his intent. 

Members of the Bolivarian intelligence service (Sebin) allegedly boarded the products tanker near the Amuay terminal and took control of the vessel. The captain was replaced and Sebin members remained onboard while the delivery to Cuba was made. AIS was also switched off for most of the trip.

Since then, Venezuelan Armed Forces (FANB) have been deployed on 15 PDVSA-operated tankers to ensure that fuel is delivered to Cuba and that crew would not sabotage tankers or divert the product. It is also speculated that armed personnel are placed on the vessels in case the U.S. blocked shipments to Cuba.

This added armed security on these tankers is in all likelihood the determining factor why armed robberies off Anzoátegui stopped at the end of April 2019, but this lull in attacks was short-lived. On 24 February 2020, six armed men wearing balaclavas boarded the tanker San Ramon anchored near Isla Borracha, north of Puerto La Cruz notwithstanding the presence of a coast guard armed guard onboard. This time violence escalated. The captain, Herrera Orozco, resisted the robbers and was shot in the face and killed. Another crewmember is still missing after he jumped overboard, and a coast guard sergeant was injured during the attack.


While we cannot know what caused these armed robbers to be more violent than those involved in previous incidents, it is plausible that this is related to increased security on ships, and the situation escalated. Ships at these anchorages are harder targets than they once were, but the root causes of piracy and armed robbery in Venezuela – including poverty and weak state governance – remain. So long as they do, it is possible that attacks on ships at these anchorages will be dissuaded only as long as criminals can be deterred from employing escalating levels of violence.

Lydelle Joubert is an expert on maritime piracy at Stable Seas, a program of One Earth Future. She has an MA in International Relations from the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Featured Image: Venezuelan military policewoman in a presidential meeting. (Wikimedia Commons)