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British company proposes private ‘navy’ to convoy ships past pirate strongholds

Apr 29, 2013 03:22 PM
U.S. Coast Guardsmen with a task force off the coast of Somalia prepare to board a boat during an anti-piracy drill in 2009. Typhon plans to provide a private force to protect ships from pirates.

Courtesy U.S. Navy

U.S. Coast Guardsmen with a task force off the coast of Somalia prepare to board a boat during an anti-piracy drill in 2009. Typhon plans to provide a private force to protect ships from pirates.

Ships traveling in convoy for enhanced security has proven a successful tactic in the past. The trans-Atlantic convoys of World War II were a big part of defeating the German U-boat campaign. Now British entrepreneur Anthony Sharp is reviving the convoy concept as a way for his new marine security firm, Typhon Maritime Security Service, to protect merchant ships from pirates. Sharp is building what some observers are calling a private navy similar to armed British East India Company vessels from the age of sail.

Typhon, based in London, has announced plans to convoy commercial vessels in the Indian Ocean and in other areas where maritime criminals operate, such as the Gulf of Guinea in Africa. In a press release Typhon, which takes its name from a monster in the Greek myths, announced that participating vessels will travel in a “protected envelope.” Typhon will use surveillance, detection and early warning capabilities to “identify and assess any likely or suspected threats.” According to company statements, pirates will not be able to enter the convoy’s protected zone to launch attacks. (At press time, Typhon had not responded to Professional Mariner’s requests for additional information.)   

The backbone of Typhon’s convoy system will reportedly be what it calls close protection vessels (CPVs). Each CPV will carry 60 crewmembers, including 40 former British Royal Marines or Royal Naval personnel who will be armed with automatic weapons and will have four fast patrol boats capable of speeds of 50 knots that can be launched from the mothership. According to a report on Wired magazine’s website, the first Typhon mothership, a 130-foot containership, is currently being refitted for convoy service, which Typhon says will begin in early April. Shipping companies will be charged from $5,000 to $10,000 a day to be part of a Typhon convoy.

Typhon’s convoy approach is different from the prevailing trend in protecting commercial vessels, which involves putting security teams on board ships, an approach called embarked security. When transiting high-risk areas, ships carry vessel protection detachments (VPDs) — often five or six armed personnel with military experience. Several maritime security firms such as Protection Vessels International and Hart International offer this service. Hart International, for example, claims that all of its teams include a minimum of one medic and that all team members are ex-U.K. military with a minimum of eight years service and are certified as ship security officers.

Typhon claims its approach reduces logistical issues involved with VPDs. As reported by Wired, Typhon CEO Sharp said, “To get those armed guards on your vessel, you have to divert to a port to pick them up, then you have to divert to their international armory in international waters, you then complete your transit and you have to divert to the international armory to drop your weapons off, and then you have to divert to port to drop your armed guards off.”

Perhaps a bigger issue for Typhon is that piracy may be declining. A report from the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau said that piracy worldwide dropped in 2012. “Piracy on the world’s seas has reached a five-year low, with 297 ships attacked in 2012, compared with 439 in 2011.”

According to Claude Berube, an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy and co-editor of a book on private maritime security, the trend in piracy is not a positive development for Typhon. “Somali piracy has significantly decreased because of increased naval presence, industry Best Management Practices, and onboard armed security details; unless one of those factors changes, it’s difficult to see a path for a more costly armed escort vessel option.”
 

“Somali piracy has significantly decreased because of increased naval presence, industry Best Management Practices, and onboard armed security details; unless one of those factors changes, it’s difficult to see a path for a more costly armed escort vessel option.” - Claude Berube

A 2011 industry guide titled “Best Management Practices for Protection against Somalia Based Piracy,” compiled by industry and government groups under the auspices of the Maritime Security Centre - Horn of Africa and United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations, lists a variety of accepted techniques for avoiding, evading or resisting pirate attacks (the guide is available at www.mschoa.org). Some of these techniques include avoiding known areas of pirate activity, increasing speed and maneuvering, the use of dummies dressed a crewmen to make the ship appear to have more crew on watch, the use of fire hoses, enhanced bridge protection with chain link fence, physical barriers such as razor wire, and armed private maritime security contractors. The guide makes no mention of a convoy approach to dealing with pirate attacks.

Berube also pointed out that other maritime security firms, such as Protection Vessels International (PVI), have tried the mothership approach. “If they follow through with their plan, Typhon wouldn’t be the first,” Berube said. “PVI, for example, reportedly started using escort vessels in the Gulf of Aden four years ago, as did at least one other firm as well as firms that hoped to do it. The Gulf of Aden is littered with the dreams of maritime security companies hoping to offer escort vessels. This isn’t to say it couldn’t work in the future. It’s just that it might not work in the Gulf of Aden or elsewhere right now.”

Sharp has publicly stated, however, that while piracy in the Gulf of Aden is declining, other ocean areas are experiencing increases. A late February Reuters news service report, for example, says pirate attacks off Nigeria are spiking, with gangs traveling farther offshore and using more violent tactics. Sharp also maintains that many incidents go unreported for fear of increased insurance rates.

It’s those insurance costs that Sharp hopes to cut into with his service. Typhon is reportedly working on a deal with Lloyd’s of London that would reduce insurance rates for those shipping companies that use his service.
 

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