The Complexities of Maritime Security

July 28, 2012

By Philip Dwyer

Pirates in the Gulf of Aden – A Scenario

The thick salty air hangs low as evening nautical twilight gives way to the night’s pitch black.  With cloud cover hanging low, the running lights on the fully ladened freighter are the only lights that Mark sees as he stands watch on the port-side, upper deck.  Mark is fully aware these are dangerous, pirate-infested waters and a risky passage for any cargo vessel.  This ship is taking steps to mitigate its risk, however, by having Mark and his team onboard.

As a former Special Forces team member, Mark is highly trained in visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) tactics, and given that this is his tenth Gulf of Aden passage as a member of a small maritime security team he’s got more than enough experience.

The faint, green glow on Mark’s watch tells him it is just past 1am AST.  Out of the corner of his eye, just where the ship’s lights drown in the endless dark, Mark detects a faint contrast.  Before he knows what he’s seen, a skiff darts into view, aimed for the ship’s hull. The vessel rocks to starboard as the shipmaster orders evasive maneuvers.  Then, there’s the unmistakable clank of a missed grappling hook bouncing off the side of the ship and men shouting from below at the water’s surface.

Mark’s earpiece buzzes with chatter, his weapon is already trained at the pirate vessel.  His finger has reflexively eased nearly half of the trigger’s pressure.  The hammer is ready to fall.

Mark’s next action should be the result of intricate planning, decision making, and training processes.  Maritime security as it relates to armed, shipboard security teams is one of the most complex security domains today. That’s due mainly to the large number of decision makers, complicated legalities associated with the movement of international merchant vessels between many countries, and the lack of standardization in the planning and execution of the security.

The Many Facets of Maritime Security

Are you thinking about a career in Maritime Security?  If this is the path you’re going to follow but you’ve not done your homework, you’re already behind the power curve. Any professional in this space needs to be familiar with the issues and topics.  Maritime security is a large topic that includes both shipboard and port facility security.  Shipboard security, highlighted by today’s piracy threat, is one of the most complex fields of armed security.  Why?

Christian Cartner, maritime security subject matter expert and author of Defending Against Pirates: The International law of Small Arms, Armed Guards and Privateers, says, “Maritime security is a complex topic because not only is the operational environment by necessity more dynamic and mobile but the legal and operational planning aspects are exceptional.”  Christian says further, “In maritime security not only is the location constantly changing, so is the threat dynamic regionally and locally. Legally, the course of a voyage with an embarked security team may cover any number of nation states, and the patchwork of laws, regulations and rules all come into play with what are necessarily armed teams aboard a ship.”

Myriad stakeholders are involved in the shipboard maritime security decision-making process.  A few of these stakeholders include the local country authority, the flag state authority, the ship’s owner, the ship’s operator, the insurer, the ship’s Master, and the operators providing the security.

Each of these stakeholders influences the security posture of the vessel and how security will be deployed operationally (i.e. rules of engagement) during transit.   Each stakeholder often has varying levels of influence during the entire lifecycle of one transit.  The result is that both the planning and execution of effective maritime security require significant, thoughtful effort and coordination.  The very presence of Mark and his team onboard the vessel is a decision that has almost certainly been the topic of many discussions among the various stakeholders involved in this transit.

In creating any plan it is essential to know the rules and regulations—the boundaries for what can and can’t be done.

Regulations and Standards

Title 46 of the U.S. Code is maritime law for merchant mariners. Like a lot of legal documents, it’s no easy read. But also like a lot of legal documents, a thorough knowledge of it is vital for the professionals it concerns.

One significant aspect of shipboard security is the weapons used in the application of that security.  Who is authorized to carry weapons onboard a merchant vessel?  In short, no one.  The Code makes no stipulation for carrying of weapons onboard by crew members.  The ship’s crew is subject to standing regulations as defined by the Master of the ship.  So, what does the Master of the ship say about this?  It depends.

In keeping with long standing naval tradition, the buck stops with the Master or Captain of any vessel.  And because different people see things differently, the situation is further complicated.  Yes, the ship’s Master is limited in what he can do and enforce, but he has a significant amount of control and influence over what happens onboard.  This is absolutely the way things should be, but differences in the regulation of shipboard security teams only create issues—not solve them.

Thus far we’ve only talked about U.S. Code.  When ships move into the territorial jurisdiction of other nations they are also subject to those local laws.  This has, and will continue to generate issues.  For example, some governments disapprove of merchant ships with armed security guards calling their ports.  This has resulted in extremely inefficient practices like dumping weapons overboard or making extra stops just to disembark armed teams.  A set of enforceable, international regulations would solve this problem by forcing standardization in the planning and application of security.

The actions Mark and his team take next should rest on the foundation of these international regulations.

In Comes the International Maritime Organization

From an international perspective, continued standardization of both the approach and application of maritime shipboard security will reduce complexity and risk.  The International Maritime Organization (IMO), which is a specialized agency of the United Nations, has done very good work thus far in standardizing an approach.  The IMO’s International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS) is a comprehensive risk-management approach meant to provide a standardized framework for governments to reduce security vulnerabilities of both ships and port facilities.

Specifically in response to piracy, the IMO has issued guidance to flag states, security companies providing private maritime services, and shipowners and ship masters.  IMO Piracy Guidance represents a very specific international step forward in a standardized approach to anti-piracy, but it has its shortfalls.  Guidance is, after all, just guidance.

Laws, codes, regulations and standards all have purpose, but somehow they need to boil down to a very specific set of rules that can be applied in a tactical counter-piracy environment.  We need rules of engagement.

Rules of Engagement – Does Mark Pull the Trigger?

Rules of engagement (ROE) are nothing new. They are just as important in the shipboard counter-piracy environment as they are on the ground in Afghanistan.   They have to be clearly defined and consistently applied.  This requires a well-defined chain of command and appropriate training.

February 15, 2012, is a date that underscores the absolute criticality of these rules.  That was the day two Italian Marines onboard the Enrica Lexie mistakenly opened fire on a fishing boat, killing two Indian fishermen.  The case has strained relations between Italy and India, and it serves as an example of how things can go completely wrong.

The security detachment onboard the Enrica Lexie were Italian military.  Having military security onboard civilian vessels is not new.  However, it presents a scenario where the chain of command gets confusing, and the result can turn deadly.  A military detachment will, ultimately, not report to the civilian shipmaster; they already have a defined chain of command.  In contrast, a privately contracted security team will, more likely than not, report directly to the shipmaster, thus this chain of command will be much less ambiguous when the ROE must be applied operationally.

Any ROE should represent a stair-step approach to an escalating situation.  Training for scenarios when specific steps have to be taken, sometimes very rapidly, requires effort, which ultimately means there is a cost.  This training must start in the classroom, move to “sand-table” exercises, and progress to scenario-based, live-fire exercises.  Deadly force is the absolute last step in any escalation.  There are many non-lethal devices that can be deployed by ship crews and security teams, and those devices require yet more training. The cost associated with this training, however, is a very small price to pay to avoid incidents like that of the Enrica Lexie.

Is Mark 100 percent certain he’s aiming at the bad guy?  Are there other ways to de-escalate the situation that don’t involve gunfire?

Maritime Security Careers Now and Into the Future

Maritime Security is an excellent career choice for any security professional.  There are several factors that will contribute to the growth of this field including:

Limited Resources – The military and other government security resources are already stretched very thin, and that trend will likely continue into the future.  The Coast Guard, our primary domestic maritime security risk deterrent, serves as a primary example. “The Coast Guard’s primary challenge is utilizing its limited resources to meet its security workload. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Coast Guard field units have seen a substantial increase in their security workload,” according to a 2007 GAO report to Congressional Requesters.

Private security professionals will be called in to fill the gaps in maritime security both domestically and internationally, as they are in other security domains now.  In an increasingly global economic marketplace the amount of transoceanic cargo is only set to increase.

More Standardization and Better Processes – Maritime security is not new per se but it has been thrust to the forefront as technology and politics change the face of terrorism.  As standardization of the application of maritime security continues, new career paths will be defined.  Now, much of the focus centers on operators.  There are job opportunities open for security specialists in the maritime environment.  But new career paths and skill sets need to be defined in this space and will be.  Consider the role of security planning and coordination.  Consider the specialized legal and support roles.  Consider certified risk management consultants who can analyze both port and shipboard security according to standard.  Consider process improvement experts who can analyze shipboard and port security processes and refine them to be more efficient and less costly.  There are many considerations in this developing field.

National Security – Never forget that our most important energy commodities such as oil, gasoline, and natural gas are completely dependent on open and unimpeded sea-lanes. This fact alone will continue to drive opportunities for security professionals in this space.  According to 2011 testimony before a House of Representatives subcommittee by Stephen Caldwell, Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues, “Energy tankers face risks from various types of attack. We identified three primary types of attack methods against energy tankers in our 2007 report, including suicide attacks, armed assaults by terrorists or armed bands, and launching a ‘standoff’ missile attack using a rocket or some other weapon fired from a distance.”  Government security and law enforcement forces are reducing the risk, but not enough.


Maritime Security is a large, complex security domain.  Specifically, there are many decision makers who are involved in planning and executing this type of security.  There are also multiple legal jurisdictions that have to be accounted for when considering maritime security in the context of deployed, counter-piracy security teams.

Continued work in developing enforceable, international regulations and standardization in the planning and execution of maritime security, and the training of those involved, is an absolute must. This will help ensure that security teams, like Mark’s, are as prepared as they can be to safely and legally mitigate the growing risk of piracy.

Any professional considering a career in this niche should be well-versed in the current news, trends and issues associated with it.  There is excellent career potential here and not just as a trigger puller.  This career niche will expand to include other professions as it matures. Remember, to date, no vessel with armed security aboard has been taken by pirates.


Phil Dwyer works for SCN Resouces Group.  He can be reached at

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