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November 2008

Commander's Perspective
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With piracy on the rise, force protection is crucial

Force Protection
U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Randall Damm; photo illustration by Rosemary Heiss

They don't fly the Jolly Roger any more, but pirates are real. Ask anyone who has sailed through the Gulf of Aden recently. Better yet, ask any crew member of fleet replenishment oiler USNS John Lenthall. They'll tell you all about piracy.

On Sept. 23, off the coast of Somalia, two small boats approached Lenthall. Despite defensive maneuvers made by Lenthall master Capt. Philippe Julienne and his crew, the small boats continued their approach. At this point, the embarked security team fired warning shots into the water approximately 50 yards from the boats. That's when the boats broke off pursuit. It's not clear whether the people on the boats were intent on seizing Lenthall, but they certainly were not following the "rules of the road" observed by mariners around the globe. It was clear that they were acting suspiciously, and given the location, everything the small boats did was consistent with reports of previous attacks on merchant vessels in the region.

Julienne and his crew did exactly what they were supposed to do when an incident like this happens. They maintained an alert watch and detected the approaching boats, then used defensive maneuvering, and when that wasn't enough, the embarked security team let the bad guys know that they were not messing around with amateurs. Security teams are total professionals, and they mean business.

A Ukrainian freighter not so far away didn't fare as well and is still in the news as this issue of Sealift heads to the printer. MV Faina was taken by pirates, who have locked up the ship's crew and demanded ransom from the ship's owners. The freighter is carrying Russian-built tanks and other weaponry and was bound for Mombasa, Kenya, before it was boarded. Everyone hopes the standoff will be resolved peacefully, but time will tell.

Force protection

Right now, I can't think of anything more critical to MSC's mission than force protection. Geographic combat commanders are responsible for force protection. At sea, that means the numbered fleets have the conn, and MSC ships comply with all force protection requirements that the fleets put out.

Where necessary (and there are some places other than the Central Command area of responsibility where it is necessary), security teams are embarked on our ships to help keep them safe from piracy and terrorist activities. It's pretty obvious that they work, too. Again, just ask anyone from Lenthall.

In port, force protection is a slightly different matter. Here, the key is planning. Every ship has to have a port security plan that takes into consideration the mission, the cargo that they are carrying, port operations and procedures, and the current threat assessment for that port. These are just some of the things that go into developing a port security plan.

Five critical pieces

There are five critical pieces to force protection for all MSC ships. They're related and interdependent. You can't skip any of them.

First, each ship has an assigned anti-terrorism officer who is responsible for helping the ship's master develop a security plan. This is an expert who is up on the latest force protection issues and can offer detailed advice to the master and crew.

Second, each ship has a chemical, biological and radiological defense officer who is a technical expert in the equipment and techniques used to protect against those kinds of attack. Sometimes, this position is combined with the antiterrorism officer.

The third critical piece is practice - conducting force protection drills on a regular basis so the ship's crew is comfortable with the procedures and knows what to do, what will happen and how to react to external threats to the ship.

Annually, each ship conducts a security self assessment. This fourth aspect of force protection is a thorough review of the procedures, plans, techniques, equipment and tactics involved in the ship's force-protection plan. It includes making sure new crew members are properly trained and that they have any personal gear needed.

The final piece of the force protection bulwark is something that most civilian ships don't have, mostly due to international laws concerning sovereign immunity. Small arms and people who are trained in their correct use can be an excellent deterrent to acts of piracy or terrorism. That's why we have them on all MSC ships.

Rules of engagement

Just having small arms doesn't make a ship invulnerable. The bad guys have small arms, too. Awareness is the key.

I talk about maritime domain awareness all the time in relation to knowing where MSC and other ships are on the open sea. But, here I'm talking about awareness of your immediate area. As a crew member of an MSC ship, you should be aware of what's going on around you. Any time you can give your ship advance warning of something suspicious out there on the water, you're giving yourself a head start on security. Keeping a sharp lookout in high-risk areas is crucial. The longer the warning time, the easier it is to take defensive action according to your force protection plan.

That goes back to having a plan and following the procedures that were developed by cool heads when the situation wasn't so urgent.

Navy wisdom

According to the Office of Naval Intelligence, in any piracy or terrorist situation at sea, your best bet is to increase speed. Analysis of recent incidents shows that vessel speed is a key factor in avoiding acts of piracy or terrorism. The analysis examined 21 incidents in the Gulf of Aden that involved weapons being fired at merchant ships and some of the ships being seized by pirates. It revealed that 95 percent of the attacks occurred during daylight hours. The one exception occurred on the night of a cloudless full moon.

The average speed of the 10 ships that were fired upon, but not boarded, was 15 knots. The average speed of the 11 ships that were boarded by pirates was 14 knots.

As a result, the experts recommended proceeding through the Gulf of Aden at night, when it's dark and boarding operations involving small boats and ships with a large freeboard are difficult at best. The experts also noted that proceeding at maximum possible speed is a significant deterrent.

Evasive maneuvers work well. A 30-foot boat is no match for a 15-foot bow wave or the often-violent wake patterns behind a big ship when it's making evasive maneuvers. In fact, a commercial tanker that was fired upon in early September in the Gulf of Aden began evasive maneuvering, going to maximum speed. The first reported attempt to board the tanker from the small pirate boat failed when the speedboat rolled heavily in the stern wash of the tanker, causing three or four pirates to fall overboard. After the speedboat picked up its overboard crew, the chase resumed, only to fail again when the speedboat engine stalled due to rolling in the heavy stern wash of the tanker.

In all the cases where the ships were fired upon, there was either no damage, or barely visible indications of the attack on the ship's hull. Small arms are just not generally effective on steel hulls. While we have all seen videos of insurgents or soldiers firing rocket-propelled grenades on land, imagine someone trying to maintain a steady aim point on a large vessel moving at high speed and throwing its rudder over while standing on the rolling deck of a small speedboat.

Keeping in touch

Even with evasive maneuvering, or embarked security teams, communications go a long way toward keeping individual ships safe and, at the same time, help the overall anti-piracy battle.

NATO's Standing Naval Maritime Group now patrols the area around Somalia. The leadership of Combined Task Force 150 rotates among member nations and is currently commanded by Danish Royal Navy Commodore Per Begum Christensen who says that mariners need to remain vigilant because they are the first line of defense for their own ships. He adds that keeping in touch with CTF 150 when you pass through the Gulf of Aden can make the difference when evasive maneuvers aren't enough.

MSC ships need to keep in touch with the sealift logistics commands in their areas, too, no matter where they are. Piracy issues don't just exist in the Middle East. There have been reported instances in South American waters, off the coast of India, in the South China Sea and off the coast of Vietnam. There was even a bulk carrier that was boarded and the crew robbed near Singapore. Much like the global war on terrorism, the "front lines" are a little fuzzy when it comes to piracy and acts of terrorism at sea.

Winning the war

Piracy and terrorism can be defeated, both in the short term and the long haul. Sometimes avoidance, or just increasing speed, is the best bet for crew and ship safety. Sometimes, other actions might have to be taken, including the use of force by embarked security teams.

The key is awareness

So stay alert, shipmates. Keep that sharp lookout, and make sure you know the ship's force-protection plan. It can mean the difference between a safe, uneventful voyage and a nightmare for us, our shipmates and our families.

Keep the faith,

R.D. Reilly Jr. signature

Robert D. Reilly Jr.
Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy
Commander, Military Sealift Command