(From the May 2013 Issue)
By Ike V. Montgomery
A yellow dot enters the dark, round field of a radar screen. Its appearance does not go unnoticed in the wheelhouse of the hijacked, commercial fishing boat—now a pirate “mother ship.” The Somali leader of the “pirate attack group” (NATO’s term for an operational raider unit) studies the screen. After a few minutes, he orders the boat’s hostage crewmen to steer an intercept course with the unidentified ship, still a few dozen nautical miles away on the Indian Ocean.
Minutes pass. Soon, at binocular range, the blip becomes a ship. It is a merchant vessel—not a warship on European Union or NATO counter-piracy patrol. There is no other ship around, no naval escort. Also in the pirates’ favor is that the dark-blue water is relatively calm today, north of Madagascar and east of Kenya. Assault teams ready themselves on the crowded mother ship’s deck,. The pirates stuff fresh wads
of khat into their mouths and grab their weapons and boarding gear: narrow, aluminum ladders with hooks on the top, coils of ropes with grappling hooks, and long-handled wire cutters. These criminals carry Kalashnikov automatic rifles (the folding-stock AKMS variant is easiest to carry, shoulder-slung, during boarding), PKM machine guns, and sometimes RPG-7 anti-tank rocket launchers. Their skiffs—ocean-going motorboats, 20–25 feet long—carry extra cans of fuel for the big outboard motor or pair of motors. Each skiff holds a driver and several heavily armed members of the boarding team.
With the morning sun at their backs, the skiff crews leave the mother ship and navigate toward the target. From a distance of a few miles, the Somalis can see through binoculars that their prey has two huge, rounded tanks half-exposed on its main deck. Soon, they also can see the ship has “LPG” painted in big letters on its side. But, they don’t care—even if they understand English. All they see are dollar signs.
The successful hijack of a merchant ship can bring a negotiated ransom of several million US dollars, maritime statistics show. However, it also could mean a living hell for the hostage mariners. Big-dollar ransoms take weeks, if not months, for pirate leaders to negotiate at long distance with the owners and operators of hijacked ships. Meanwhile, hostage civilian crewmen endure deprivation, humiliation and the constant threat of violent death—at the least—and possibly beatings, mock executions and even torture.
(An international report, The Human Cost of Somali Piracy 2011, describes how some Somali-pirate guards hog-tie hostages and tightly wrap cable ties around the helpless men’s testicles—for amusement.)
Playing the odds
Unless these skiff-borne pirates are deterred in the next few minutes by armed guards on the liquid-petroleum gas carrier (LPGC)—and, odds are better than 50/50 the ship has no security—the pirates likely will follow what has become their standing operating procedure: At a range of a few hundred meters they fire machine-gun bursts, maybe even an RPG rocket, in order to force the bigger vessel to halt and allow boarding.
“The attacks are focused on the accommodation. Once within range, a shooter will fire an RPG [rocket] across the vessel’s bow or directly at the accommodation, often aiming at the bridge,” explains Coping with Capture: Hostage Handbook on Somali Pirates, published in 2012 by the Danish Maritime Officers. “This is done to intimidate and make the vessel slow down or stop, in order to allow boarding. In the case of highly flammable cargo, this initial assault procedure may be enough to make the vessel surrender.”
The accuracy of the weapons’ fire, from small boats pursuing a moving target on the ocean, is questionable. The fact that any one of the few dozen LPGCs in transit off the east coast of Africa might be carrying several million pounds of pressurized propane and/or butane seems to be irrelevant to pirates. They will fire RPG-7 rockets at a ship with the markings “LPG,” according to maritime-security accounts from the high risk area for Somali piracy. The HRA (high-risk area) comprises much of the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman. Fortunately, no LPGC in those waters ever has been destroyed or seriously damaged by a Somali pirate attack. Only one ever has been hijacked.
Guarding a potential bomb
“The one thing that the pirates do not seem to understand is that if the explosive RPG projectile hits the right spot, it would create an explosion that would kill us on board, them, and maybe the mother ship they came from,” explained one armed-security team leader (TL). He works in the HRA several months out of the year on contract with one of the 200 or more maritime-security (MARSEC) contractors across the globe.
The competition for international shipping industry clients is fierce. More than half of the MARSEC companies are British. In the maritime business centers of London, Athens and Singapore, MARSEC marketing terms like “ex-Royal Marine” and “former SAS” carry weight, just as the term “ex-SEAL” is an attention-getter in America.
This seasoned MARSEC TL, however, is an ex-law enforcement officer who has worked undercover against drug and human trafficking. In his new career he has guarded several LPG carriers in the HRA. To qualify for MARSEC work, a few years ago he paid for and completed “STCW95,” an internationally recognized, mariner safety course. The five-day course included hands-on training in abandon ship and water survival techniques and shipboard firefighting.
There is a reason why LPGCs fly the red warning flag of “hazardous cargo” vessel, he noted. “You are protecting a floating bomb,” the TL said. The ship not only has its bulk LPG storage tank(s) but also a “tremendous amount of piping and lines running the length of the vessel.” If a pirate fired an RPG-7 round into a container ship loaded with consumer goods, a bulk carrier ship full of grain or fertilizer or even into a crude-oil supertanker, the ordnance’s explosion might ignite a fire in addition to possibly injuring or killing crewmen. It probably would not be a catastrophic event, however. On the other hand, if a pirate skiff got close enough—300 meters or less, say—for its RPG gunner to make a shot on a relatively level trajectory (striking an LPG-storage tank at a reduced deflection angle), the warhead’s penetration into the highly flammable, bulk product almost certainly would cause an explosion. It might just be a wild shot at the wheelhouse that turned into a “golden BB” hitting the LPG.
How big could the fiery explosion be? Here is a scaled-down illustration of LPG gone wild. Several years ago an American researcher wrote a paper, “Analysis of Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion (BLEVE) Events at DOE Sites.” The senior engineer addressed a “credible accident scenario” at a federal facility: A notional 10,000-gallon propane tank filled to 80 percent capacity accidentally is superheated by a large fire close by and undergoes a BLEVE. In other words, the fire over-pressures the metal tank; it reaches its breaking point and—in the blink of an eye—catastrophically ruptures and spews propane, which ignites and explodes. (A gallon of propane weighs about 4.2 pounds; 8,000 gallons weigh about 33,600 pounds.)
Citing mathematical calculations, the engineer concluded, “The maximum fireball radius estimated for a BLEVE of the 10,000-gal propane storage tank [80 percent full] is approximately 449 ft. …” Fatal, third-degree burns on exposed people would occur out to 292 feet with “second-degree burns up to approximately 600 ft” from the tank’s original site. “Approximately 80–90 percent of the rocketing [tank] fragments … would fall within 1,800 ft of the [tank site], with severe rocketing fragments traveling up to 6,740 ft.”
A 340-foot-long LPG carrier easily can hold more than 100 times that amount of propane.
An elevated threat
Whether single- or double-walled, the LPG-storage tanks—huge steel cylinders a few inches thick—on these ships are not built to withstand the impact of a high-explosive/anti-tank (HEAT) warhead, 70mm or 85mm in diameter, that is designed to penetrate more than 10 inches of rolled homogeneous armor on a military vehicle. A widely referenced maritime document, BMP4: Best Management Practices for Protection against Somalia Based Piracy, covers a variety of recommended procedures for cargo ship protection against attacks. These include the installation of overhanging rolls of concertina razor wire along the hull; pre-positioning of fire hoses to spray power fogs around likely boarding points; and, the secure stowage of welding equipment or other tools that pirates—once aboard—could use to force open the “citadel” safe room into which crewmen have locked themselves. BMP4 acknowledges the particular
threat posed by the pirates’ RPGs. It offers tips on fortifying the bridge (wheelhouse) against incoming rounds.
“The sides and rear of the bridge, and the bridge wings, may be protected with a double layer of chain link fence, which has been shown to reduce the effect of an RPG round,” states the guide, published in 2011 in Scotland. “Proprietary anti-RPG screens are also available.”
The idea of barriers—to prematurely detonate an RPG rocket warhead—erected in larger scale around hazardous cargo tanks is absent in BMP4. Privately contracted guards who protect LPGCs, however, do think about this additional risk, which does not exist on other types of merchant ships.
Boots on the decks
“As a team leader on a LPG tanker, your responsibilities change,” the TL said. “The prime objective is to keep the pirate skiffs at a safe distance. That distance increases on the ‘floating bomb.’ My job is to guide my team to—number 1—protect the lives of the crew; number 2, protect the vessel and cargo or, more simply, the client’s investment; and number 3, lessen the threat to my men.”
He acknowledged that maritime law, MARSEC rules of engagement (ROE) and the lawful authority of the ship’s master (captain) all must be obeyed. MARSEC ROEs specify a graduated series of responses to a suspicious, incoming boat. It begins with visual (and maybe radar) recognition of a possible threat; evasive maneuvers of the merchant ship; warning signals—foghorn, alarm whistles, flares, arm-waving—both visible and audible to the intruders; positive visual identification of pirates; and carefully placed
perimeter warning shots by the TL or a designated sharpshooter. If the pirates still do not break off their approach, the MARSEC operators shoot them.
The target hierarchy for aimed gunfire against incoming pirates usually is RPG gunner first, then PKM gunner, then skiff driver. MARSEC operators typically carry 7.62mm or 5.56mm rifles, including AK variants, FALs, VZ-58s, M4s, or—if nothing else—MAK-90s.
However, in the majority of pirate encounters, the mere presence of an armed security team is enough to halt aggression. Many MARSEC guards never have had to fire at pirates. “An immediate show of strength and readiness to fight usually is sufficient” to chase away pirate skiffs, the TL continued. “I see my job out on the high seas as protector, not warrior, unless pressed to that end. I have a family that at the end of the tour I want to go back to.”
An embarked security team in the HRA lives aboard the client’s ship for weeks, even months, at a time. The best teams integrate nearly seamlessly with the crews, whose members often come from all over
the globe. (English is the official language of the international shipping industry.) But as protective as the MARSEC operators—who typically have military and/or law-enforcement backgrounds—might become of their ship and crew, they cannot just open fire on any inbound motorboat that looks suspicious. Across the HRA, legitimate fishermen use skiffs with large outboard motors; they carry their own AK-47s and AKMSs for protection of their skiffs (as well as trawlers and dhows) against pirates. It is not unheard of for irate fishermen to steer their skiffs at high speed toward a merchant ship to try to make the large vessel change course and not run over unseen fishing nets.
The ROE are intended to prevent tragedies such as that of February 2012. Two Indian fishermen mistaken for pirates were shot to death in international waters, but not by privately contracted guards (who have been disparaged in UN circles as “cowboys” and “mercenaries”); rather, by two Italian marines assigned to guard an Italian-flagged crude oil tanker. The two servicemen were charged with murder in India, according to press accounts, and the incident soured relations between the two countries.
A close call
Somali pirates have, in fact, captured a “floating bomb.” The LPGC MV York was hijacked in October 2010 as it sailed with a load of propane to the Seychelles after making a delivery at Mombasa, Kenya.
According to online news reports and industry information, the York was intercepted about 200 miles from Mombasa by pirates from a mother ship—a South Korean fishing boat that had been hijacked.
The Greek-owned, Singapore-flagged LPGC itself became a pirate mother ship for a few months. Anti-piracy authorities coined a term for this new threat: “large pirate support vessel.” Pirates released the York and its 17 crewmen in March 2011. The ship had no armed security guards aboard when it was hijacked. Privately contracted MARSEC teams in the HRA have had a 100 percent success rate in the protection of their clients, according to maritime records. Further, the heyday of Somali piracy seems to have passed. The numbers of approaches by skiffs and outright attacks and boarding attempts are dropping, according to online reports.
“Somali pirates’ attacks on shipping plunged last year  to the lowest since at least 2007 as increased use of armed guards and naval intervention deterred incidents in an area handling about $1 trillion in trade,” Bloomberg News reported on 16 January. “Attacks fell to 75 in 2012 from a record 237 in
the prior year, the London-based International Maritime Bureau said. ... While the number of hijacked ships fell by 50 percent to 14, the threat of vessel seizures remains as pirates wielding automatic weapons and [shoulder-fired anti-tank rocket launchers] are still seeking targets, the piracy observer said.”
Analysts at the British maritime Web site OCEANUSLive.org recognized the positive trend even earlier, in November 2012: “The now much-vaunted success in the reduction of piracy in the Horn of Africa/Indian Ocean Region through the use of armed guards, better implementation of BMP4 and the naval presence nearer to the Somali coast continues to be effective.”
Even so, from a mariner safety standpoint it simply is unacceptable if even one LPG carrier is threatened with an RPG. The “floating bomb” scenario is yet another good reason for the extermination of piracy emanating from the failed state of Somalia.