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Q&A with Commodore RS Vasan


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Sharing his thoughts on port and maritime security in the Asian Pacific, Commodore RS Vasan (Retd), Head, Strategy and Security Studies, Center for Asia Studies, recently joined us for a Q&A session. With a spotlight on anti-piracy measures from the role of multinational military forces and armed guards to the current situation off Somalia and the shipping industry\'s responses to countering piracy, Commodore RS Vasan offered a detailed and refreshing look at piracy today.

Just how significant is piracy? As on date nearly 39 vessels of all description and over 573 merchantmen are held in custody.

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Q&A with Commodore RS Vasan

  1. 1. Sharing his thoughts on port and maritime security in the Asian Pacific, Commodore RS Vasan(Retd), Head, Strategy and Security Studies, Center for Asia Studies, recently joined us for a Q&Asession. With a spotlight on anti-piracy measures from the role of multinational military forces and armed guards to the current situation off Somalia and the shipping industry’s responses to countering piracy, Commodore RS Vasan offered a detailed and refreshing look at piracy today. 1. Piracy is the hottest topic for media coverage of maritime issues. We regularly hear reports of escalating piracy attacks, both in terms of frequency and violence and how it endangers world trade. Does piracy affect freight movements in any meaningful way? If so, how? What are the consequences of that? One has to just look at the number of vessels and crew still in custody of the pirates. As on date nearly 39 vessels of all description and over 573 merchantmen are held in custody. In addition to the ransom money that is being paid it has a serious consequence for the morale of the sea farer who is prevented today from carrying on with his legitimate task of using the high seas for commerce and trade. Many of the developing countries including India and China are heavily dependent on movement of energy products and other goods for sustaining their growth. The GDP figures would continue to be affected if the freight movements are frequently disrupted due to the actions of piracy or maritime terrorism. The consequences while clearly has an economic angle, has a greater human dimension in terms of the trauma faced by the innocent law abiding sea farer. 2. By way of comparison, despite penalties and convictions, the problem of crime on land continues. Piracy is crime at sea, is there any hope of putting an end to this crime? Do we have to put up with piracy to a certain degree? Is a certain amount of piracy, in purely practical terms, ‘acceptable’? If so, by how much and how do we decide that? While piracy is a crime at sea, it has its origins over land and there is a need to address these issues at many levels to end this crime. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to do much about the numbers already in the custody of the pirates as they are being used as live pawns for negotiating the ransom money. As long as the pirates know that no action to jeopardize the lives of hostages would be initiated, they will continue with the acts of piracy at times using the hostages as human shields. It would be some time before we can say we are in control. Again in comparison, it must be brought out that by sustained, collaborative efforts the menace of piracy in the Malacca Straits has come down to a single digit from a three digit story. So if it can be done in one part of the world it can be replicated elsewhere provided there is concerted action by the coalition of the willing. 3. At last year’s Port and Maritime Security conference, you delivered a talk on the Mumbai terrorist attacks. Given the tactics employed by the terrorists in their modes of transport, where there any lessons from that terrible incident that we can draw that can be applicable to piracy? What action has been taken since the attacks to tighten India’s port and maritime security?
  2. 2. As far as the applicability of piracy to the Mumbai terror attacks, one needs to remember that a fishing vessel MV Kuber was hijacked (ala an act of piracy) and then used for launching the attack. There is a thin line between piracy and terrorist acts. While, in an act of piracy, the attackers would like to preserve lives of hostages to negotiate a ransom, in an act of terrorist act, the intention is to cause maximum damage to lives and property. Maritime nations would now need to guard against such a possibility of pirates being used by Al Queda,Al Shebab, LeT and other terrorist organizations to carry out attacks on lucrative targets both over land and at sea. Essentially, the surveillance, intelligence and response mechanisms and methods have been revamped. The Indian Navy has been designated as the nodal agency for ensuring maritime security. The entire range of operations is being controlled from Joint Ops Centres (JOC) in each theatre. A special force of a thousand well trained cadres has been created for protection of vital assets along the coast. Special Forces which were located only in the capital of the country is now located in hubs for quick deployment. National Counter Terrorism Centres have been proposed. Intelligence sharing and dissemination has been streamlined. There has been augmentation of naval, coast guard and marine police assets which has contributed substantially in numbers and quality. Network of coastal radar stations has been activated. There are greater Table Top and real time exercises involving all the stake holders. The revamping of the entire Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) architecture is an ongoing process in a dynamic maritime scenario. The job of those charged with security is to make it extremely difficult and cost prohibitive for terrorists to break through various layers of security.4. Do you think Australia or other parts of the Asian pacific could be susceptible to a similar threat? No nation can be immune from such attacks. The attackers would look for targets of opportunity irrespective of the location. With the proximity of other nations with history of terrorist attacks to Australia, as long as there is a target it would be attacked depending on the location and the level of security provided. Australia being a partner alongside US in the Global war on terrorism would invite equal attention by Jihadi elements.5. Although there is a clear distinction between the concepts of maritime terrorism (hijacking / attacking ships for political gain) and piracy (hijacking / attacking ships for private gain) are there any cross-over between terrorist tactics and pirate tactics (i.e. are they learning from each other)? Secondly, are there any links or affiliations between terrorist groups and private groups (e.g. secondment of personnel or equipment, transfer of funds, interpersonal relations)? By and large the two have steered clear of each other mainly due to the economic factor. The pirates are there to make money and the terrorists are interested in causing maximum damage by dramatic attacks on iconic symbols and people. While there have been always fears of the two merging at some stage some day, so far, it has not happened though there is no guarantee that it would not happen soon. The process would be accelerated if the pirates are radicalized and start looking beyond monetary gains to promote the concept of Jihad.
  3. 3. In Somalia, the Al-Shebab movement is very strong. They are Islamist extremists. Under Islamic law, piracy is a grave crime. For the pirates themselves, of course, piracy is a way of life. What is the relationship of the Al-Shebab (or other such movements) and the pirates? Can we expect such political groups to suppress piracy or to tolerate it? Is there any evidence of this? There were great expectations that Al-Shebab would not condone acts of piracy. This was indeed so in the initial stages. However, the recent confirmation that the pirate groups have coexisted with these Islamist extremists is a sign that they have bought peace with the great amount of money which Al- Shebab could use for its Jihadi movement. Unfortunately, there is no evidence now that such groups are suppressing piracy as an act against Islam. However, one should not give up on an effort to emphasise that piracy is not condoned by Islam and therefore, the pirates who indulge in this would be ostracized. Such initiatives would need to be taken up unobtrusively through tribal leaders and others.7. The Indian Navy has had some recent success with patrolling its shores against pirates. Some have argued that this muscular approach may be good in the short term, but could harm the industry in the long run. What’s your assessment? The measures as I have highlighted earlier have to be on many fronts. Both the Strong arm tactics and the long term measures are part of the overall strategy to root out this menace. Even in the short term, that the strong arm tactics have worked is debatable. Yes, it has put some pressure on the Pirates forcing them to reassess their strategy. As witnessed in the MV Asphalt Venture case in which the pirates held back seven Indian crew after being paid the full ransom. Not only do they seem to be relieving this pressure by holding back Indian crew but are demanding the release of the pirates who have been apprehended by Indian Navy thereby reversing the tables on the Indian Navy. There have been reports of the Indian crew being targeted for harsher treatment.8. On land, armed robbery would be regarded as a matter for the police rather than the military. Is it appropriate to deploy military assets (warships etc) and tactics against is effectively a criminal industry? Very strictly speaking, it should be a job for the police or the Coast Guard. Regrettably, not all navies have a coast guard and therefore, they are compelled to use whatever assets they have though it is cost prohibitive. It is no one’s case that high value Carriers, Cruisers and Destroyers should be chasing mother ships and skiffs at sea. But in the short term, there appears to be no choice but to use all available means to contain and combat this menace. Having said that, there is need to review both the “means and methods” deployed for anti piracy missions.9. Given the political sensitivities and the jihadist nature of some of the Somali political movements, what is the political impact of military presence, especially Western military presence, in this region? Is this a consideration in counter-piracy strategy and tactics? If so, what can be done to mitigate its impact?
  4. 4. The West has no choice today except to live with the political sensitivities in the region. While there are some moves to try and convey (for example the speech of Obama in Cairo) that the war is against terrorism and not against Islam, It will be some time before the opponents buy this argument. A serious thought needs to be given to empowering the coastal states in Africa who are part of the Djibouti Code of conduct. This can be done by pooling in resources for creating and training coast guards who can then monitor their own sea fronts and back yards. The international community needs to create a separate fund under the aegis of UN and ensure that the aid fund is used in a time bound manner to strengthen the law and security agencies in the target countries including Somalia.10. The IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) recently issued a guideline on private security guards onboard ships. What impact do you believe that (a) armed guards onboard ship will have (in terms of incident-by-incident impacts and also in terms of escalating the conflict) and (b) what the impact of these guidelines will be? The use of private or Government cleared security guards will ultimately be inevitable due to the increased incidences of piracy. Even if these guards are not onboard throughout the passage, they would be embarking when required for passage through dangerous waters. There are fears that it would escalate the scale and range of engagement. But armed guards onboard would make the pirates think twice when he is being fired at longer ranges from vantage positions on the ship. The Indian Government recently approved a proposal to carry retired Navy/Coast Guard personnel for such duties after due training and sensitization. There also concerns about the Rules of Engagement (RoEs) and the role of master in an engagement. These are issues that need to be resolved by clear and explicit orders that leave no doubt as to who is in control and when.11. The tactic of paying ransom is in the short-term interest of ship owners. It’s a quick resolution to a traumatic incident. But many industry commentators have argued that the payment of ransom escalates piracy demands in the long term. How do you square this circle? Should we make ransom payments illegal? Simply put, the ship, the crew and its cargo are all insured. The Insurance companies are there in it because they are making profit. The premiums would go up with each incident of piracy and the amount paid. Also it is to be noted that invariably it is the insurance agent who is negotiating with the pirates to ensure that he does not pay too much. It is this long winded negotiation that has resulted in the extended captivity of hostages who wait on indefinitely at the mercy of the pirates who have a win-win situation as long as an enhanced negotiated sum is paid by the Insurance Company. Compared to ransom money of Rs 1,50,000 USD paid in 2005, the average figures have gone up to 3.5 mn USD. In November last year the highest amount of 9.5 mn USD was paid for release of a Korean tanker. While the prospect of making Ransom money illegal sounds attractive, as long as the pirates still hold a sizable number of hostages, it becomes a difficult one. Over the past few years, Piracy has become an attractive business model with the annual cost being put at 10-12 bn USD. All the attempts are to be aimed at breaking this model by both short term and long term measures.
  5. 5. How can the shipping industry best help the military in their efforts? In what ways does the shipping industry act that is actually counter to its own best interests (i.e. what should they stop doing? Or, if they’re not doing something, what should they be doing)? IMO has promulgated Best Management Practices (BMP) for use onboard ships against armed robbery and piracy. It is shocking that only some 20 percent of global shipping has taken the BMP seriously. While compliance with BMP does not necessarily make a ship free from piracy attacks, it enhances the chances of its escaping an attack due to the procedures. The insurance companies are already contemplating making payments dependent on whether a ship was in fact following the BMP when it came under attack. In addition to following BMP, the Companies would need to train their crew and review their readiness to face the challenges at sea. At the Secretary General’s level, Banki Moon had commissioned Jack Lang for carrying out a detailed study on various measures. There are over 25 proposals that were submitted in April this year. The need of the hour is to examine these recommendations and implement both the long term and the short term measures with the full support of the shipping industry which is a victim today. The maritime nations who are in the area need to come under a UN umbrella and have a force similar to a UN Peace Keeping force so that the issues of deployment, command and control are streamlined under a common rotational leadership at sea.13. Can you give your assessment of the effectiveness of the most common counter-piracy measures? E.g. operational (the best practice management guidelines etc), equipment- oriented (e.g. razor wire, citadels, LRADs, dummies, fire hoses, propeller arrestors etc etc), military (armed guards, armed escort ships, convoys etc) Simply put, the ships that have these measures in place and has a crew that is competent in understanding the environment to respond to a possible threat has greater chance of succeeding as opposed to a vessel that decides to chug along without any defences. A combination of both material and operational measures sited above is necessary to prevent the pirates from succeeding.Just as the maritime community is innovating, the pirates too are finding ways to beat the system.14. Looking specifically at the situation off Somalia, it’s been argued that there will be no peace at sea unless there’s peace on land. Is that an acceptable response? Is there a solution other than peace in Somalia and does this impact on the call for direct military action in Somalia? It can never be a black and white situation, there are grey areas that need to be understood and evaluated to ensure that the freedom of the high seas is restored and with it the confidence of the sea farer that he would not be interfered with. We still do not have mechanisms in place on how, where should a pirate be tried. There have been many short cuts taken to release the pirates which has emboldened the pirates to repeat the offence.
  6. 6. Looking at onshore responses, what happens when a vessel arrives at a port with crew that’s been hijacked, especially after a long period in captivity? What’s the best way to deal with the crew, the charterers, the insurers, and the press? For any crew to have gone through this ordeal is traumatizing to say the least. In many cases, the crew has decided not to get back to sea again. They would require counseling, medical assistance and support from the parent company and the society. Each company would need to lay down a policy for rehabilitation of the crew by restoring their confidence in the system. As far as the handling of the press is concerned, it is always a tough task and each person who is likely to deal with the press is to be careful in sharing information of classified nature that may adversely affect the safe voyage of the ship. Each company would need to lay down the guiding principles for all the employees of the company regarding the interaction with the press. Ideally, the Public Relation Executive would need to handle this with sensitivity and dignity. Commodore R S Vasan will be discussing anti-piracy measures at this year’s Port & Maritime Security conference on the 28th September 2011. Commodore R S Vasan served the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard for over 34 years, holding many important command and staff appointments. Prior to his retirement, he was the Regional Commander at the Coast Guard Regional Head Quarters at Chennai overseeing maritime safety and security in the Bay of Bengal. He has recently joined the Center for Asia Studies as Head, Strategy and Security Studies.