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22 June 2014

Maritime Security: Make the right choice

Published in Maritime Security Review June 11, 2014

Rene Toomse, CEO, Aburgus Risk Management

An Aburgus team, having recently returned from a mission, told me a story. They were providing security from Galle to Richards Bay, their first time on this large bulk carrier. The Captain was happy with all the settings and told them about a previous security team from another security company. The team leader was from the UK and other team members were an Indian, Sri Lankan and Filipino. A true multinational team one could cheer about but the reality was far from happiness, not to mention effectiveness. 



The bored and somewhat frustrated team leader made his days go by harassing the Asian guards. Pointless orders, deprivation of rest, unreasonable dangerous assignments, like manning the monkey bridge in a storm and so on, were causing a lot of bad mood out there. Of course, the guards did not complain but their true ability to guard was offline most of the time – such was the impression of the Captain. So in case they had to encounter an attack by pirates, he was doubtful whether they could organize and fight with the integrity needed.

This is not a isolated story concerning the issues with mixed teams. There are known problems with some guards’ paperwork. It is not a rare occasion when a man’s CV states years of experience in Naval Special Forces and yet he holds a rifle like for the first time in his life. Very often “excellent English” means barely basic understanding of simple commands. But imagine now if a vessel with such a team comes under a serious attack by a bit more willing pirates, the famous slogan that “no ship carrying armed security has yet been hijacked” would easily end up in the trash.

Another dangerous trend is undermanned teams. Two guard teams are no longer rare. One vessel owner told me that charterer, who was responsible for security arrangements, once offered only one guard. “One is more than enough” – were the exact words according to him. He was smart enough not to agree to it.

There are always options for the vessel owner – to do it right or hire a replica of security. ‘Right’ means a team of the same nationals or at least from the same military culture (like NATO), a minimum three for short transits but certainly four guards for longer transits and larger vessels. It will cost a bit more but they are the most effective in real protection of the vessel and crew that is eventually the point of having a security team onboard. Here are some arguments to support the previous:

- Teams of the same nationality can communicate much better in stress situations. There are fewer chances for errors and misunderstandings. Different nationalities will have more possibilities for messing up that in stress situations can turn to disaster very quickly;

- Same nationality teams have had more options to learn and practice their actions; they share the same standards, cultural discipline and integrity. This will make them sounder on decisions and tactics. Mixed teams tend to meet and do quick familiarization on the vessel. There is no cultural bond, trust and same standard performance. This again will be a significant vulnerability in stress situations;

- One or two man teams are worthless from the point of view of security, no matter who they are. One man cannot stay alert 24/7, two men will lack tactical reserve as a backup. Imagine two guards repelling pirates who attack from both sides of the vessel. If one of the guards gets shot then another cannot cover the other side and the pirates will board. Once they have boarded, they will overpower the single guard very easy. The third guard is an absolute must have to avoid this type of situations. The fourth will come handy to take care of the crew mustering into the citadel and then backing up the rest of the team in a fight. The prime example of the grave violation of the same rule was the fatal incident with SP Brussels near Nigeria on 29 April.

There are some rules of thumb on maritime security to make it work. If they are broken, either by vessel owner or security company, it puts people and property at grave risk. There is also a reason why the security guards are usually required to have at least 5 years of military experience. It is a correct presumption that experienced men can act properly in case of an attack. Meanwhile, the militaries are not the same in most cases. Largely, one can say that NATO countries embrace the same principles that often are not the same with most of the other militaries. So assembling a team of mixed nationals will make the individual experiences, and summa summarum the team’s ability to use them effectively, worthless.

Protection of a vessel against armed attacks is a team effort and unavoidably needs to have a team of adequate size and with the similar experiences to withstand hostile fire and be effective enough to repel the attackers. Anything less than that is a hazardous game played with people’s lives. I hope evidence of this does not have to come via painful experiences, although we can already see them happening.