UK-based commercial maritime intelligence company Dryad Maritime has welcomed the Japanese government’s plans to submit a bill to the National Diet which will permit the carriage of armed guards on Japanese-flagged vessels, but advise that a number of other precautions must also be taken.
The Japan Times last week reported on Japanese government plans to submit a bill to the National Diet that would permit armed guards to operate on Japanese ships given the view that their presence on other vessels in waters off Somalia has led to a sharp fall in piracy. Current Japanese law prohibits Japan-registered ships from carrying armed private citizens. If this proposed legislation is approved Japanese ships will be permitted to employ private security contractors to provide armed guards.
Ian Millen, Dryad’s Director of Intelligence, said: “The Japanese government’s intention to legislate for the carriage of armed guards is a welcome step toward safer transits of High Risk Areas. There is no doubt that the embarkation of armed protection has significantly contributed to the decrease in successful pirate attacks in both the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden over the last 18 months.
“However, it is by no means a panacea and should be considered as only one of a range of measures which, if deployed in a coordinated manner, can significantly reduce the risk of a Japanese merchant vessel falling into the hands of determined maritime criminals. Full adoption of the measures contained within the IMO-sanctioned Best Management Practice (BMP4), cooperation with regional bodies and international naval forces, alongside the provision of proper risk-based routing and vessel transit monitoring are all positive factors in keeping vessels out of pirate hands.”
He added: “Whilst we have not seen a successful hijack of a large merchant vessel since the MT Smyrni in May 2012, we have seen Somali pirates engage in a number of aborted attacks against merchant vessels with armed guards onboard. There have also been many instances where potential pirates have approached a vessel, only to break off their interest when it becomes clear to them that armed guards are present onboard. The embarked security team’s visible demonstration of weapons to the potential attackers is often sufficient deterrent to change the risk/reward ratio for the pirates”.
According to The Japan Times, 18,000 ships annually sail through the Gulf of Aden including about 1,700 ships registered in Japan or operated by Japanese shipping companies. The total number of ships attacked by pirates in the gulf and nearby waters off Somalia jumped from 44 in 2007 to 111 in 2008 and 237 in 2011. The article went on to say that, since 2007, 13 Japanese ships have been attacked. In March 2011, the Bahamian-registered oil tanker Guanabara, operated by Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, was boarded in the Arabian Sea. Following US military intervention four pirates were seized and handed over to Japanese authorities for trial in Japan. The significant drop in pirate activity in 2012, following the adoption of armed guards by a number of Flag States (including the UK), is thought to be a key factor in the Japanese desire to change national legislation.
‘We must not underestimate the value of a vigilant crew, for example during the attempted hijack of the Danish-flagged vessel, Torm Kristina, in the Gulf of Oman in December 2012. Whilst the ship did not have guards onboard, the actions of the crew in detecting the threat, raising the alarm and retreating to a citadel whilst the pirates were delayed by razor wire, prevented a pirate boarding turning into a hijack. With no control of the ship and the impending arrival of naval forces, the pirates decided to run.
“Armed guards are not for everyone and the vast majority of vessels transiting or trading in the High Risk Area (HRA) of the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden do not employ them. Those that have them can point to their success, given the fact that no vessel with armed guards onboard has ever been hijacked. However, this does not mean that all those that do not have them will be. As with Japan’s current position, a number of flag states do not allow them to be embarked, whilst owners and charterers may choose other, cheaper measures to mitigate the risk of pirate attack.”
Mr Millen concluded: “Dryad recommends a layered defence approach in countering the threat of Somali piracy, of which the provision of physical security is a very effective component. The move toward allowing the embarkation of armed guards on Japanese-registered vessels will doubtless bolster their vessels’ defences and further reduce the risk of pirate attack and hijack.”