by Dan Mercer, Vice President & General Manager, Iridium, EMEA & Russia

Pirate Rescue by NATO forces

Somali pirates apprehended by NATO forces

Iridium is playing an important role in the battle against the Somali pirates that’s disrupting trade in the waters off the Horn of Africa, as well as other pirate hotspots in the world. I’ll explain how in a minute, but first let me recap the problem.

The ICC International Maritime Bureau reported that, since the beginning of the year, Somali pirates have followed or attacked 178 ships — an average of five or more incidents per week.

As of August 18, 2011, pirates hold a total of 18 ships and 355 hostages who are being used as human shields to forestall rescue attempts by military forces. In a new wrinkle, the pirate gangs have recently started using some of the captured ships, with their hostage crews, as mother ships for their smaller attack boats, enabling them to operate hundreds of miles offshore for long periods of time. Ransom demands have escalated, and payments of more than $10 million have been reported. Hostages are being subjected to increasing levels of violence by their captors, including starvation, beatings, torture and even execution. Despite the presence of scores of warships from international navies on anti-piracy patrols in the region, the danger zone is too large for them to prevent all but a handful of attacks, and a military response after the vessel has been captured only puts the hostages in greater danger.

The multi-million dollar ransom payments provide a tidy, low-risk, tax-free income for pirate gang lords who operate highly sophisticated international crime cartels, extending their power, influence and intelligence networks around the globe. The maritime industry is growing increasingly frustrated by its inability to do anything about it, and we see renewed calls for armed soldiers or mercenaries to ride ships when transiting the danger area. This is a more contentious issue than you might expect. The reason is that many flag states forbid the carriage of weapons on ships, and many port states levy stiff fines on ships entering their territorial waters with firearms on board.

Weapons siezed after a failed attack

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has published Best Management Practices for shipping companies and ship masters sailing in the danger zone. It contains guidance on preparing for piracy threats, taking action to deter attack, using countermeasures to keep the pirates from getting aboard the ship and actions to be taken once the ship is captured.

One of the recommended practices is to establish a “citadel” — a hardened safe room below decks away from outside bulkheads and windows, where the crew can take refuge if the pirates seize control of the ship. The idea is that the crew can disable the ship’s propulsion and navigation systems, then barricade themselves into the citadel where they can wait safely for rescue by naval forces. The citadel needs to be sufficiently hardened so that pirates cannot break in. That means an independent source of ventilation and electrical power is required. It also calls for a reliable, secure communication link the crew can use from inside the citadel to communicate with the forces coming to their rescue. This is more difficult than you might think, since the pirates can easily disconnect or destroy the ship’s primary satellite and radio antennas. There needs to be a secure stand-alone communication system installed in the citadel, connected to an antenna and with cabling that pirates cannot disable.

In April, NATO published updated advice for communication systems used in ship citadels. The NATO guidelines call for the citadel to be equipped with self-contained, independent, two-way external communications, specifically recommending a satellite voice/email solution. The communication system should have a power supply for a minimum of three days, based on a continuous open line.

Iridium is the preferred communication medium for this purpose, due to its global reach and reliable real-time telephony and low-latency short-burst data for GPS tracking. In addition, the small, lightweight Iridium antenna units lend themselves to concealment. While it wouldn’t be prudent to divulge full details on how the satellite antenna and cabling are protected from the pirates, it can be said that several Iridium service partners offer Iridium-based citadel communication packages that meet the IMO Best Management Practices and NATO advisory. In addition, all satellite calls from ships equipped with Iridium satellite terminals to the U.K. Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) center are now free of charge (that number, by the way, is +971 50 552 3215).

If the subject of maritime piracy interests you, take a look at the Put a STOP to Piracy LinkedIn group, as well as the Maritime Professionals and Maritime Executive LinkedIn groups, where you will find a lively discussion and debate among industry professionals on the subject.