Piracy in Focus: Perspective of an Industry Professional

Gordan Van Hook is currently with Maersk Line, Limited as their Senior Director for Innovation and Concept Development. Recently retired from the US Navy after 29 years.

Question: Has the recent surge in piracy affected the way your industry does business?

Van Hook: To some extent it has affected the way that we operate. It has increased our costs a bit, but the overall effect has been negligible.

That said, it is a concern; we are worried about the health and safely of our mariners, that’s the biggest thing. But as far as our flow of business, no, it’s still going.

Question: How close do you think the industry is to the threshold at which the effect of piracy will be large enough that serious measures will be taken?

Van Hook: I think we are getting close to the threshold, but it’s a political issue. As I said, the industry will survive, we will keep moving the goods, but it’s becoming a political issue. It’s on television everyday, I was watching a prime time business show the other day and they were talking about piracy, and this is a just a regular business show. So it’s getting on everybody’s radar, and people are starting to demand action. It’s already being elevated in the UN and the Security Council, the NSC is meeting about it, and Secretary Rice has a piracy action plan that she has taken to the UN, which will considerably elevate the amount of attention that everybody is giving to this. People are starting to wonder why don’t we get the Navies involved? Most industrial western countries invest a lot of money in their Navies; they are very expensive. The commercial maritime industry is starting to ask for more maritime power in the region.

Question: In your opinion, does the presence of government warships in the region help reduce piracy?

Van Hook: Yes, absolutely there is no question it does. Does it solve the problem entirely? No, and I would agree with Dr. Chalk on that, it is not the ultimate solution but it is part of the solution. Every time you start talking about this issue, people tend to say, well more naval ships are not going to solve the problem, and I agree. We have parts of any big city that are dangerous, that I am nervous to walk through, but when we have a spike in the crime rate there, we put more cops on the street. It’s a short term solution, but it helps. Almost all of the people in the industry would like to see more naval presence.

It doesn’t necessarily guarantee your safety, because there have been ships taken while in convoys. It’s a fifteen minute drill, basically if the pirates get on board the game is over, and you can’t really do anything. However, the pirates haven’t intentionally killed anybody yet. The only mariners that have been killed in the recent past are the six poor Thai fishermen that were killed by INS Tabar, which mistakenly blew up a fishing vessel that they thought was a pirate mother-ship. Now, as it been taken by pirates, it probably was going to become a mother-ship soon, but the warship came in with guns blazing, sank it and killed six Thai fishermen. So, warships that are uncoordinated can be as dangerous as pirates if we are not careful.

Question: What do you think about having armed contractors or military personal on board to protect the ships?

Van Hook: I have to clarify that our company policy is opposed to armed security on board. However, we do operate Military Sealift Command ships that are military ships operated by civilian mariners and they put military security detachments on board. So when you have armed and highly trained U.S. military personnel that are trained for this mission, we are supportive of that, but we are not supportive of contracted security or any kind of armed security that are not military, because they might become a liability to themselves and the company.

It’s a difficult problem because these waters are full of fishermen on skiffs, and a lot of these fishermen are armed because they want to protect themselves. So if a high speed skiff goes past you with a guy with a gun, it is difficult to assess if is a fisherman or a pirate. There are all sorts of issues regarding the rules of engagement that require a very high level of training, people that are used to it. The maritime security details that are provided by the Navy are highly trained sailors that do this for a living, and we are very supportive of that, but we don’t expect that all American ships are going to get armed sailors on board.  

Question: In your opinion, what can be done in the short term to reduce piracy, and what about the long term?

Van Hook: Well, there are several things. First would be increased maritime power in the region. That includes surface as well as air because aviation is also very important. Second, improve the coordination. Establish a coordination cell where all ships can call in when they are transiting the region. It should be run by the military, but not necessarily U.S. led, maybe French or EU. So there should be a military center to control the naval assets out there. As I said, the only people that have been killed thus far have been mistakenly killed by a navy ship. There is nothing worse than a warship that has poor intelligence.

So if you are going to put more warships out there, you need to have a central point of coordination. Right now the EU is operating out of Northwood in the UK. Well that’s great, but that’s in the UK. We have CTF 150, Commander of Task Force 150, which is a counterterrorism operation of seven or eight ships reporting to Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. Merchants that travel through the region are told that if they have trouble, to communicate to the UK’s Royal Navy’s Maritime Trade Operation (UKMTO) in Dubai. The ships don’t know who to call. So we need a central point of coordination, a coalition cell where you can have a maritime command control and coordinate the assets in the region and a place where people can call. Now the EU has set up something called the Maritime Security Center - Horn of Africa (MSCHOA), again it’s in Northwood in the UK. It’s a nice website, a great place where people can go for resources. It has pictures of the latest suspect vessels, operating patterns of pirates, lessons learned and measures that ships’ masters can take to avoid being taken or attacked by pirates. It’s an excellent website and they did a good job on it, but I would say that’s only one part of the solution. We need more maritime power in the region, and local command, control and coordination of those assets.

The industry also has to take measures of its own. First, we don’t transit the area unless we have ships that can make at least 18 knots or have 10 meters of freeboard, because no ship has been taken that can travel at over 15 knots. So if high fast ships go through, they can’t get at them, but if you are low and slow, the pirates feel like they have an opportunity to take it. So the industry must also do their part to make their assets less vulnerable.  That doesn’t necessarily mean armed security on board, at least for us it doesn’t, but we would say that’s up to each company. If they want to invest resources in training and take the liability, and they have a cargo that’s so valuable, it’s up to them. It should be up to the company and not up to the state.

Lastly, those are all short term solutions. The long term solution is addressing the problem in Somalia. That’s going to take time and has to be addressed by the international community. Everyone across the interagency and international spectrum, from NGO’s to the military, needs to get involved to solve the mess in Somalia. Somalia is what Afghanistan was, and why we are in Afghanistan now. And by “we” I don’t just mean the U.S., I mean the international community, is going to have to deal with the ungoverned space in Somalia at some point. Otherwise it’s going to fester and become an even bigger problem.

Even though it is widely believed that there is no link between terrorism and piracy currently, I think that’s questionable because there is a lot of money being spread around and it could easily be going to nefarious elements. If there ever becomes a terrorism link, it usually complicates the situation with regard to the payment of ransoms. You get into legal issues where a lot of countries like the UK and U.S. have laws against paying ransoms to terrorists, so what do you do? Currently it’s up to the individual companies to try and free their people and there is no official position from the government on whether or not to pay the ransoms. But once it gets into the situation where there does become a link - personally I think it’s only a matter of time that there will be a link - then it complicates things. It’s just going to get worse. It has all the indications of getting worse if we just continue to deal with it on short term basis and without a long term plan.

Question: Who should carry the financial burden or perhaps how should it be divided?

Van Hook: It’s going to be very difficult to get the shipping industry with its many different players to unite and contribute to, let’s say the coordination center. This is something that really should be financed through international organizations, perhaps the International Maritime Organization. It has to be a shared burden by states, because there are so many different companies operating in that region, how are you going to do it short of imposing some sort of a tax on them? In the meantime, the industry needs to take all the measures possible and proven to harden their targets and make themselves less vulnerable.


-- 01/22
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