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by Senior Editor

Piracy Expert: Maersk Alabama One Slice of a Huge Pirate Problem

Apr 27, 200913 mins
Intellectual PropertyIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Roger Hawkes of Global Industries discusses why some of the debate around piracy this month is misplaced, and how piracy has been a problem for years

The issue of piracy may be making headlines this month, but Roger Hawkes, director of corporate security for Global Industries Ltd., has been fighting piracy and trying to stop the problem for most of his career.

Global Industries, based in Houston, provides offshore and maritime construction to the oil and gas industry. Hawkes has been head of security for the company for over two years, but spent 11 years in the U.S. Navy. He spent one tour commanding a special operations ship that conducted antipiracy patrols in West Africa. He has also consulted for organizations on maritime operations and conducted assessments on how to prevent a security event from occurring at sea.

“I’ve been living this full time,” said Hawkes, in a recent interview with CSO. “I tell people my main job is hunting and fighting pirates and they look at me like it’s funny. But now that it is en vogue, people are looking at me a bit differently.”

While the incident earlier this month involving the U.S. cargo ship Maersk Alabama has brought highlighted piracy and brought it into the global forefront, Hawkes says the problem has always been there. He hopes once the headlines fade, attention and efforts to deal with piracy in world hotspots will continue. He spoke with CSO about what he thinks needs to be done in global waters to prevent more ships from falling prey (See also: How Shipping Companies Can Fight Pirates).

Is all of this attention that is now being given to piracy a good thing?

I think within the shipping industry it has had the attention and been under discussion. It probably warranted an elevation in discussion. But now because of the new media focus on it, everyone is giving an opinion on what they think the solution to piracy is, whether they have the legitimate background to do it or not. What happened with the Maersk Alabama was a sensational rescue and a big story. The fact that it was the U.S. that did it even makes it more of a story. But it almost sensationalizes the piracy issue when it has been an issue that has been around for years and the industry has been dealing with it for years. Now the focus is by the media on specific incidences that raise it up to everybody and now outside of the industry there are many people trying to lend their opinion on how to solve the problem.

Is the discussion constructive? And are the issues being talked about relevant to the real problem?

The whole discussion about whether merchant vessels should be armed or not is not a decision the government has to make. That is a decision the industry has to make. There is nothing really preventing vessels or operators from employing armed security now. In fact, it is done in a number of places all over the world. It is a decision the operators of the vessels have to make based on a standard risk assessment or an operational risk management model of the pros and cons and the threats. It is not something that is new.

Now you have whole-sale debate going on about whether vessels should be armed as if there is a decision that could be made by the public or the government somewhere and then instantly all vessels are armed. That’s not how it’s going to work. It has to be the vessel operators that make that decision.

I’m interested to see what all the debate is going to yield: How we think we are going to change the fight against piracy. What the government thinks they are going to do. The Navy has only so many resources. The way international law works, there is only so much navies can do in the prevention at sea of an issue. What I would like to see more is discussion of the prevention of piracy and dealing with the root cause of it than trying to increase the way we fight piracy. Somalia and the Gulf of Aden are only a piece of the global piracy problem.

Piracy has also been a problem in the Strait of Malacca, in Southeast Asia. But it is often heralded as a place where efforts to stop piracy have worked. Why is that?

The jury is out on why it is a success story. There are a few theories. One is that the governments are co-operating, they are sharing info and working together. It is a unique part of the world because you have Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, a few island countries, that all share jurisdictional territorial waters. It has historically been easy for the pirates to hide and go back and forth between people’s waters and avoid navies or patrols that were out there. But there has been a great improvement in the surveillance of the straights, the use of technology, information sharing and treaties between the governments themselves. That surely has something to do with it.

The other more pragmatic view is that the Tsunami (of 2004) wiped out most of the locations where the villages were and that is why we saw a huge downturn in piracy about the same time the governments started working together. And now we are starting to slowly see piracy come back. It is non-violent piracy by and large. But we are starting to see issues in that area come back.

What is your philosophy about what needs to be done to stop the piracy problem?

People that understand the piracy issue understand that, by and large, what happens on the water is a social indication of what is going on on shore. When you have a living environment on shore where people can’t feed their families and can’t make a living, you are going to have crime on shore. And if they have the means to go off shore, sooner or later they are going to realize that the fishing boats they are using can be used to go off shore and do the same things off shore that they can do on shore.

When you add that with a government, such as a failed government or a corrupt government, then you have real problems. That is what we see in places like Somalia and other areas of Southeast Asia and West Africa.

Piracy cannot be eradicated or solved any more then crime can be eradicated or solved. Piracy is an economic and social based crime and has been around since the days that the first sailing ships put to sea. However, addressing the problem of piracy, just as addressing any criminal act or criminal organization, requires that the stakeholders fully understand the issues of piracy from its social causes to the physical act of committing the crime. Only then can we in the maritime industry and the governments who have a stake in the problem attack the problem effectively.

In my view, such a strategy to address the problem of piracy, whether it be in Somalia or off of the coast of West Africa, must employ a multi-prong approach similar to how society addresses other criminal enterprises such as the illegal drug problem or inner city gangs. The military or law enforcement option is only part of the effort needed to impact the problem and until this is understood and accepted, anything less will be a band-aid approach. The elements of the strategy should include:

1. Dealing specifically with the social and economic conditions that have created the desire for individuals to turn to crime (piracy) to feed their families. This is a common element of any solution that the Civil Affairs units of our militaries address when dealing with insurgents, which is included in any aspect of addressing gang activity here in the US, and is widely accepted as one of the root causes of why the Afghan farmers produce poppies or the locals in Columbia turn to producing cocaine. The foot soldiers who comprise the actual pirates typically find this is the easiest way to support their families and make a living.

2. The maritime industry has to do a better job of implementing anti-piracy measures that include voyage risk assessments, the understanding and development of operational procedures that can limit their exposure to the threat of piracy such as use of speed and maneuverability of their vessels, and the implementation of a variety of physical security measures appropriate to mitigate the threat. The debate should not be focused on arming or not arming civilian vessels, it should be on whether or not vessels are implementing the appropriate security measures to deter or prevent an act of piracy. Weapons are only one part of a potential solution but we seem to want to go from no security to arming merchant mariners and ignore everything else that can and should be done.

3. There must be a credible deterrent in place to give the pirates reason to question the life they have chosen. This includes both a credible deterrence on the water that the pirates must contend with in order to successful conduct an attack (naval forces, private security, etc.,), as well as the ability for post incident investigations to be conducted that will allow governments to build criminal cases, arrest and prosecute the leaders of each of the pirate communities.

Finally, in the wake of 9/11 the International Maritime Organization implemented the International Ship and Port Security Code that now regulates security for vessels and port facilities throughout the world. It was done so in order to address the fear that terrorists would target the Maritime Transportation System. The ISPS Code established a number of required security measures for vessels and port facilities that the maritime industry has spent untold millions of dollars to implement. Almost every vessel that has been attacked in the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere across the world is operating under these security requirements. It would seem that at some point we must question the validity of these requirements and ask why the industry is spending huge amounts of money on complying with security regulations that were designed to improve security on vessels to prevent them from being attacked by trained terrorists when these measures are not even adequate to prevent common thieves from penetrating a regulated port facility, boarding vessels and robbing the crews, much less preventing a vessel from being hi-jacked off the coast of Somali by teenagers armed with AK-47s.

What can companies who have ships in dangerous waters do in the short term, while this problem is going on? What can they use to protect themselves?

My opinion is the tools are all out there. I see daily piracy reports everyday. What we see more and more are piracy attempts where they try and board a vessel and it fails. I believe that is because more and more antipiracy practices are being implemented that are making it harder for pirates to be successful.

When you develop an antipiracy plan, if you have a vessel that is sailing through known hotspots, you have to do an assessment of that voyage itself just like you are doing a risk assessment for a facility or an operation anywhere else. You have to apply the classic security tool we all use: The risk assessment. Your security measures for piracy in Southeast Asia will be different from off the coast of Nigeria or Somalia. You have to match your security measures with the threat.

Once you have done that, there are things you can do that don’t even have a security connotation to them. Things such as altering the route you go through, or going through at a higher speed. For instance, up until very recently, all the attacks in the Gulf of Aden were occurring during daylight hours. So that should tell you right there you want to time your transit to go through those waters as much as you can at night. But in Southeast Asia, most of the incidents take place at night. You can mitigate a lot of piracy risks just by planning the voyage properly if you have those two parts of the equation.

Then you get into security measures, actually physical security measures: Whether they are non-lethal or lethal. You don’t bring a knife to a gun fight. If you are going to put non-lethal technologies onboard a vessel, you have to understand they have a very limited capability to prevent your vessel from being boarded. In Southeast Asia, where the pirates are typically not armed with guns, non-lethal technology would be more effective. Things like high-intensity spotlights, the long range acoustical device, that type of stuff.

But you should consider if it makes sense to put those systems in an area where you have armed individuals coming at you. You have to put a guy behind those technologies and they have people with guns coming at them, they will be shooting at that person, and eventually that person may give up and run for cover. So those systems can be defeated.

The main thing is you have to build your defenses and make them adequate to the threat of area you are going to be in. If you can’t do that, that it comes down to a pure risk analysis of: What are we going to do? Then you get into management decisions and you may have to make some tough calls. Do you employ armed security? That may be an option. I am personally not a proponent of having armed security on a vessel for several reasons; primarily because tactically, if you are arming the vessel itself, then you are kind of making a ‘Custards last stand.’ If you are going to employ your weapons, you are going to do it at very close range whether when the pirates are along side, or if they have already boarded the vessel. That means you are going to get into a shoot out on deck. Even if you have trained security professionals, once you have bullets flying on the deck of a civilian vessel, you’re going to end up getting somebody killed.

I’m a big fan of doing what navies all across the world have always done. That is, using armed boats to go out and interdict the pirates as they are approaching. That ties up the pirates at sea and delays them from being to get access to the vessel. That gives the vessel time to maneuver, increase speed, put the crew into lock down. And it takes the gunfight to the pirates instead of letting the pirates bring the gunfight to the crew.