The Indian Navy chief Admiral DK Joshi at his annual press conference earlier this week, raised pointed concerns about the phenomenon of private armed guards onboard merchant vessels, ostensibly for anti-piracy protection.
An adverse fallout of piracy of serious concern is the largely unregulated carriage of armed guards onboard merchant ships. There are close to 140 Private Security Companies operating in the North Indian Ocean, which hire out Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel or PCASP. These personnel shift between vessels at sea, without entering any port or coastal state regulated maritime territory. There are scores of ships operating as floating armories, outside any coastal state jurisdiction. The recent apprehension of MV Seaman Guard Ohio off Tuticorin with 25 armed guards of four different nationalities is a case in point. Lack of any provisions to deal with such vessels or armed personnel hampers legal actions. We have recommended that this necessitates formulation of a regulatory framework by IMO.
And Defense Minister AK Antony also expressed concerns about the issue after a coastal security review last month, in which he sought the initiation of measures for an international regulatory framework under the International Maritime Organization (IMO) for the regulation of private armed guards.
The Defense Minister Shri AK Antony today asked government agencies to take up the issue of Private Armed Security Guards on-board Commercial Ships, in International fora such as International Maritime Organisation. Chairing a meeting on Coastal Security here, Shri Antony said the issue has assumed significance in the backdrop of two recent incidents close to Indian Coast. He directed that the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Shipping should come out with a plan of action and regulations on the issue at the earliest. The effort would lead to better regulation on the issue of floating armouries carrying private armed guards and weapons in our maritime zones.
These armed guards are typically retired armed forces personnel trained to deal with combat situations. They’re also usually employees of companies that have sprung to service this niche that opened up after piracy went out of control in the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea, a few years back.
Initially, Sri Lanka was a hub for companies providing such services, with guards embarking there and being relieved at Suez and vice versa. This, however, was not cost effective, as the utility of the guards was typically restricted to 3-4 days of passage in treacherous waters close to the mouth of the gulf but total sail time ended up being 15-20 days.
The solution devised for this was the concept of guard vessels or floating armories. These vessels, stationed at the mouth of the gulf or other waters prone to piracy would carry weapons and armed guards, who who transfer to merchant vessels of clients contracting their services and escort them through the high risk zone. Not only does this allow quick turn-around time of personnel, allowing them to service more clients and making their services more cost effective, but also precludes the possibility of run-ins with various port authorities in the eventuality of having to operate from a port, where weapons and armed individuals would be frowned upon.
But the problem faced by such floating armories is logistics and supplies. And that is why the US-owned and Sierra Leone-flagged MV Seaman Guard Ohio got caught in October, after a tip off from Indian fishermen, who reported that the vessel was trying to procure fuel without entering Tuticorin port, for some reason. This instance, but the way, is a model for how coordination between the fishing community and the authorities is intended to work to ensure adequate intelligence to prevent coastal security lapses.
There have been other instances, as well. A couple of years back, an Iranian floating armory, MV Assa, was stationed just outside Indian waters close to the Lakshwadeep islands, from which to and fro movement of smaller vessels was observed. The Iranians ignored Indian protests.
Admiral Joshi suggested solutions to this problem.
It has obvious security implications for us, including infiltration of terrorists. If there are unregulated arms and ammunition present on a vessel the existence of which is not known, where the guards are transferring at sea, this certainly could lead to a situation of that nature on anybody’s soil.
Now the floating armories aspect is an issue of very serious concern because it is entirely unregulated. The number of these armories, the private security guards operating from there – we have also reports that in some cases these are even combatants from some countries who on temporary basis take up this employment and become private armed guards. And in the unregulated manner in which this activity is progressing – there is no track of which ship is coming what guards it has what arms it has where have they been to-ing and fro-ing from.And therefore this needs to be brought in within the ambit of an internationally regulated framework wherein quite like merchant ships – each merchant ship has an IMO prescribed number. Each of these floating armories needs to have an IMO number on a common database, accessible to all the littorals we need to have that on so-and-so ship – ‘these are the fifteen security guards who are embarked and these are the arms and the ammunition that they are carrying’.
Firstly of course it is driven by necessity, since merchant ships traffic these waters around the coast of Somalia – there still is a risk of piracy and therefore they are of course most welcome to embark guards to provide for their own security but this needs to be done in a regulated fashion. All the littorals need to know as to which are the ships which are authorized to hold arms – which are the sentries, how many sentries and what are their identity particulars who are embarked there.
Admiral Joshi also drew a linkage between the presence of the floating armories, the continued designation of High Risk Area by the IMO to these waters, the high insurance premiums and the lack of support by other littoral states to India in persuading the IMO to withdraw this designation, for reasons, which some think could well be purely commercial.
About two years ago a few piracy incidents were reported off our L&M islands. Our robust action in sinking four pirate mother ships was effective and there has been no pirate attack reported within 450 NM of our coast. Consequently we have highlighted the need for reverting the IMO-promulgated High Risk Area (HRA) to its original limits, and have also sought support of other littorals in this regard. The merchant traffic has been operating close to our West Coast to clear the current limits of the High Risk Area. This part from raising insurance and freight costs has also resulted in interference of the shipping and fishing fleets, leading to avoidable unpleasant incidents.
If you take the exit from the Suez, and let us say the vessel was bound for the South China Sea, it would follow a direct path rounding the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Now it feels compelled to hug our coast and it complicates our picture. There is no reason for those vessels to be operating so close to our west coast. That is our primary concern. And with that, of course there remains the mindset that this is a high risk area and therefore it is prone to piracy and the kind of incidents that you mentioned happens because of that, because there is a higher level of, perhaps, concern. Whereas in actual fact, in the last two years plus, no piracy attempt has taken place 450 nautical miles from our coast. And therefore there is no reason whatsoever, for this traffic to be actually hugging our coast so that is our major concern.
The other issue is that because of the high risk area the insurance premiums levied on the shipping companies are hiked up. Whether that is for our cargo and freighting, we are ending up paying much more and every other country is ending up paying much more. We have raised this issue. We are no in the process of getting a – in fact this is something that I had taken up up with the leadership in Sri Lanka recently. We need some more littorals to support us, because why it has not happened in the IMO I imagine is because we have been the only ones so far recommending that it (HRA) reverts to its original limits.