Prepared for piracy

Last updated 31 Jul 13 @ 10:40 |
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Timothy Compston considers how the threat of piracy has changed in recent years and asks how naval forces and ship owners are protecting vessels and crews


While naval efforts such as the EU’s Operation Atalanta seem to be having some success in reducing pirate attacks, there is no room for complacency. Piracy remains an ever-present danger in a number of global hotspots, whether it be the Gulf of Aden and the wider Indian Ocean – one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes – or, increasingly, off the coast of West Africa. In recent years, pirates have transformed their operations from small-scale opportunist attacks into what are, essentially, highly organised and extremely lucrative multi-million dollar businesses, with hundreds of ships having been attacked.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that we have witnessed a surge in naval forces being deployed to patrol the main shipping lanes. Operation Atalanta started back in December 2008 and covers the southern part of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the western part of the Indian Ocean, including the Seychelles – an area equivalent in size to the whole of Europe.

Lieutenant commander Jacqueline Sherriff, a spokeswoman for Operation Atalanta, says the number of attacks in the area has fallen quite dramatically: “If you look at the number of attacks in 2010, for example, there were 174 – including 47 in which ships were pirated – and we were involved in 65 disruptions, whereas in 2012 this was down to only 35 attacks.”

Sherriff attributes this change to a number of factors. “One element is, of course, the impact of the military forces,” she says. “We are becoming more efficient and work extremely closely with NATO, the combined maritime forces and independent deployments to co-ordinate the efforts of the warships operating throughout the Gulf of Aden and the wider Indian Ocean.” She is keen to stress the benefits of good communication: “We talk every day to the different task forces. It is very much intelligence-driven, so if we get word that a pirate action group has been deployed from the coast of Somalia, the nearest warship will go and investigate.”

According to Sherriff, Operation Atalanta has been extended until December 2014 and its mandate has also been expanded. “Before March 2012, we could only take action at sea so we were watching pirates building up their logistics dumps on the beach literally feet away from our reach and they had complete impunity,” she says. “This was changed by the EU and, consequently, we undertook an operation in May 2012 where a helicopter went up at night and fired on skiffs and outboard engines on the shoreline – not at the pirates themselves. This sent a very powerful message.”

Significantly, Sherriff says that it is now more than 12 months since any large ship with hostages was taken to a Somali port. However, the lieutenant commander is worried about a threat looming on the horizon: the MV Smyrni, a chemical tanker – the last vessel pirated for a ransom – was released in March after ten months of captivity. Sherriff says a ransom was paid, arranged by negotiators on behalf of the ship’s owner. The concern is that this money has gone into Somalia and may well feed future piracy: “Ransom payments are the pirates’ business model,” Sherriff says.

On a more positive note, Sherriff points to a recent intervention which illustrates the contribution naval forces can make to keeping piracy in check. An Indian cargo vessel – known as a “dhow” – was assisted by a Swedish ship assigned to Operation Atalanta, HSwMS Carlskrona. The warship was operating in the Gulf of Aden when the master of the Indian vessel issued an alert saying his ship was under attack by 12 armed pirates. HSwMS Carlskrona was able to close in on the scene and, as darkness fell, maintained a constant watch, with its helicopter flying over the area. “Under pressure from the naval forces, the pirates were forced to move closer to the Somali coast and, in the dead of night, abandoned the dhow,” explains Sherriff. Thankfully, the 14 Indian sailors escaped uninjured. As to why the pirates decided to target the dhow, the lieutenant commander says they were probably intent on using it as a ‘mother ship’ from which to attack merchant vessels further out at sea. “This has been their modus operandi over the past few years,” she says.

Another reason for the reduction in piracy in the areas covered by Operation Atalanta, according to Sherriff, is the effective self protection steps being adopted by the shipping industry to make life as difficult as possible for the pirates. “The industry has implemented a wide range of best management practice measures as it knows this is a massive ocean and the military forces cannot be in every place at every time,” she says. “Ships are putting barbed wire around their upper decks, using hoses to spray high pressure water if attackers approach and deploying extra lookouts.” Some ships are even configured with a citadel where the crew can keep safe and control the ship in the event of an attack.

Asked about Operation Atalanta’s stance on the greater deployment of private armed security personnel, Sherriff emphasises that the naval force neither encourages nor discourages such a move: “It is really up to the shipping community,” she says. “What we certainly don’t want is to inflame the situation. Private armed security is there as a deterrent, not to cause a firefight. What we can say is that no ship carrying armed security has ever been pirated.”

Many ship owners are now installing security systems made by manufacturers such as Secure-Marine BV, which has created a number of measures to address the piracy challenge. Raphael Kahn, chief executive of the company, says one of its most popular systems is called Secure-Ship: “Essentially, this places an electrified fence around the vessel and runs five-and-a-half thousand volts through it,” he says. Kahn underlines that Secure-Ship is designed as a non-lethal deterrent: “The voltage is not continuous but pulsates 50 times per minute. Should someone touch, try to cut or short-circuit the fence, they receive a nasty zap.”

When loading and discharging cargo, users can simply turn off the voltage and fold the fence up against a ship’s railing. Kahn also confirms that no special voltage is required to operate Secure-Ship: “You just need a normal power supply and we have an energiser which creates the right voltage.” Regarding applications, Kahn says Secure-Ship is not suitable for tankers or cargo ships with flammable cargoes but can work successfully on bulk carriers, general cargo and container ships.

Another method of defence offered by Secure-Marine is the Secure-Waters solution, which uses water to thwart pirates looking to gain access to a vessel. Secure-Waters, according to Kahn, is containerised so it can be set up quickly on a certain ship and, once it has transited the danger area, readily moved to another vessel. It involves water cannons being installed around the ship with very high-pressure nozzles and associated pumps: “You can have about one-and-a-half to two thousand litres of water per minute per cannon,” Kahn says. “It is very similar to the systems used by riot police.”

Thermal imaging cameras are also increasingly being applied to aid the detection or identification of threats, often in conjunction with ship-borne radar. This kind of technology is now being used not just by naval forces – 80 to 90 per cent of vessels have this type of thermal technology on board – but, significantly, also by commercial ships. Christer Ahlbäck, distribution manager for maritime products to northern Europe and Russia at FLIR Systems, says: “Most of our maritime customers want to be able to integrate their thermal cameras with radar. They can then use the navigation radar for long-distance monitoring and if they see a suspicious blip, the thermal camera can zoom in and check whether it is a pirate vessel or simply a fishing boat. As many of our cameras are compatible with the common communication language used in the maritime sector, this radar integration is easy to achieve.”

In addition, Ahlbäck points to a trend to combine payloads in one camera head – so there might be one camera with cooled and uncooled detectors, another with ultra-low light capability and another daylight camera. He says this is advantageous when dealing with pirates: “If you spot a target in daylight with a thermal camera, for example, but want to zoom in, you can swap to the daylight camera to view a colour picture, or even display both together through a ‘picture-in-picture’ mode.”

Turning to the sensors on thermal cameras, Ahlbäck says they can be split into two categories: “We tend to talk about cooled and uncooled detector technology. With cooled, for instance, a cyrocooler cools the detector to offer a better range and crisper, higher resolution compared with a non-cooled solution.” In the past, he says, thermal cameras featuring cooled detectors were largely the preserve of the military. But now, more and more, they are coming into the commercial market: “An example of this trend is our MU Series, which comes as both cooled and uncooled depending on what performance an application requires.” In addition to fixed cameras, Ahlbäck reveals that portable, handheld cameras are also finding favour with armed security guards hired to work on merchant vessels in pirate-prone regions.

Ultimately, when it comes to piracy, the intelligent application of technology and physical security measures is critical. Combined with the naval effort, this technology can help ships in the firing line to take evasive action and implement counter-measures to prevent pirates from boarding. Importantly, in the worst-case scenario, it can also help slow down the pirates’ progress so the crew can reach a safe room with duplicate controls and call for help.


Timothy Compston is a journalist and PR professional who specialises in security. He studied international relations and strategic studies at Lancaster University, is PR director of Compston PR and is a former chairman of the National PR Committee and the CCTV PR Committee of the British Security Industry Association (BSIA)