Sea Transportation: Smart Security Specialists Saving Ships


April 29, 2009: Thousands of experienced security specialists, now out of work because of a much less violent Iraq (and a much smaller demand in Afghanistan), are finding work guarding commercial shipping. Most of these teams (4-6 men) are armed, usually just with pistols. But it's not firepower they depend on, but a growing toolkit of techniques for keeping pirates off a ship.

The professional security teams are usually defending the most lucrative targets (large ships carrying valuable cargoes). These teams began to show up last year, and the first ones were not equipped with firearms. Instead, several of them had an LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device). Commonly called a "sonic cannon", it is basically a focused beam of sound. It was designed to emit a very loud sound to a very small area. Anyone whose head was touched by this beam of focused energy, heard a painfully loud sound. Anyone standing next to them heard nothing. It was believed that those hit by the beam would promptly flee, or fall to the ground in pain. Some U.S. Navy ships also carry it to keep suspicious civilians away . While the LRAD worked in one case last year, when two boats of pirates were going after a cruise ship, it failed later when pirates went after a merchant ship. Apparently the pirates did some research and discovered that the LRAD was painful, but survivable. That's all they needed to know.

The security teams don't rely on high tech, but will instead  organize and drill the crew on things that can be done to keep the pirates from boarding. This ranges from stringing barbed wire around likely boarding points, to showing the sailors how to use fire hoses and other tools (like long poles) to keep the ladders or grappling hooks from enabling the pirates to get aboard. These drills build confidence, and show how the security team will take the big risks, and how the crew can play a role in defending their ship. The security team also keeps track of how close warships are, and prepare a "safe room" (an area of the ship the crew can barricade themselves in, if they have to, until help arrives.) The security personnel make sure emergency communications is available in the safe room, and that the pirates cannot take control of the ship unless they have the crew. Usually this comes down to barricading the crew in the engine compartment.

The security teams get on the ship outside the danger zone (which, these days, is as far east as the Seychelles islands (1,500 kilometers east of Africa), or the Straits of Hormuz, and get off as the ship enters safe areas, like the Red Sea or south of Kenya. The security teams have to arrange for all these pickups and drop offs, and this adds to the cost (which is $20,000 or more). But the owners of many large ships, with expensive cargoes, find the cost worth it, even though the risk of getting captured by pirates is quite low.

For most of the past decade, the pirates preyed on foreign fishing boats and the small, sometimes sail powered, cargo boats the move close (within a hundred kilometers) of the shore. During that time, the pirates developed contacts with businessmen in the Persian Gulf who could be used to negotiate (for a percentage) much larger ransoms with insurance companies and shipping firms. The pirates also mastered the skills needed to put a grappling hook on the railing, 30-40 feet above the water, of a large ship. Doing this at night, and then scrambling aboard, is more dangerous if the ship has lookouts, who can alert sailors trained to deploy high pressure fire hoses against the borders.

Few big ships carry any weapons, and most have small crews (12-30 sailors). Attacking at night finds most of the crew asleep. Until recently, very few of these ships had any armed security. Ships can post additional lookouts when in areas believed to have pirates. Once pirates (speedboats full of armed men) are spotted, ships can increase speed (a large ship running at full speed, about 40+ kilometers an hour, can outrun most of the current speed boats the pirates have), and have fire hoses ready to be used to repel boarders. The pirates will fire their AK-47 assault rifles and RPG grenade launchers, but the sailors handling the fire hoses will stand back so the gunmen cannot get a direct shot.

Last year about one ship out of every 500 passing near Somalia was captured by pirates. Those odds have persuaded most ship owners to just pay the higher insurance rates, and have the crews practice avoiding capture, and taking advantage of warships in the area (knowing who and where they are, and how to quickly contact them.) Armed security details are, to many ship owners, not worth the cost.

With the pirates getting more and more ransom money for each ship, the number of pirate groups operating in the Gulf of Aden, and elsewhere, is growing. An increasing number of mother ships, usually captured fishing trawlers (able to stay out for weeks at a time, and carry speed boats for attacks) are traveling farther from the coast in the search of victims. Now the danger zone extends 1,500 kilometers from the Somali coast, to the Seychelles Islands. This is putting many cruise ships and super tankers at risk, and these ships are most frequently hiring the security teams to help avoid any problems with the pirates. 





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