By: Neeta Lal

The intrusion into Indian waters of the anti-pirate vessel MV Seaman Guard Ohio has angered Indian authorities who are already steaming over the February, 2012 shooting by Italians guarding an oil tanker of two apparently innocent fishermen.

The Seaman Guard Ohio, owned by a US security firm called AdvanFort, was stopped by the Indian Coast Guard off southern Tamil Nadu last week, which found it bristling with weapons and an international cast of elite former military personnel. Although the ship’s real intent in wading into Indian waters is ambiguous and under investigation by the authorities, AdvanFort’s spokesman in Virginia told Asia Sentinel that the vessel was “forced into the 12-mile zone by a typhoon.”

However, the Indian establishment isn’t convinced. “The simple explanation that the vessel was providing security to other merchant vessels from pirates cannot be taken at face value,” Vice Admiral (retd.) K N Sushil, former Commander-in-Chief of the Southern Naval Command said in a media interview.

“Who authorized them? What are the conditionalities involved? Who pays them? What is the right of passage for the vessel to enter Indian territorial waters? Who sanctioned them the right to operate with armed guards? If no countries have issued such a sanction, they themselves should be treated as pirates,” Sushil said.

With just a month remaining before the anniversary of the November massacre when Pakistani militants laid siege to India’s commercial capital of Mumbai, killing 200 people, seizure of the heavily armed vessel in Indian waters has raised alarm bells. Also, with the legal status of floating armories of this kind being unclear, the issue has created a buzz in the corridors of powers in New Delhi.

“In this election year,” said defense analyst Vikramjeet Singh, “the ruling dispensation would like to get to the bottom of the matter ASAP. It can’t afford to provide the Opposition a stick to beat it with on such a sensitive matter.”

India is increasingly sensitive to violations of its maritime boundaries and directly supports the multinational campaign to combat Somali pirates targeting ships in the Indian Ocean with its own navy. But it has been controversial too given the embroilment of India and Italy in the diplomatic row over the deaths of the two fishermen.

The two were allegedly shot dead by Italian marines serving as security guards on an Italian oil tanker off the cost of Kerala. The incident blew up into a major diplomatic standoff when Italy at first refused to return the Marines, saying they had fired warning shots and that the fishing boat had refused to heed them, and then had approached the tanker in the same way Somali pirates did.

When the Italian authorities finally arrived in India, widespread protest exploded across the country against Italy. When later two Italian civilian tourists were abducted in the Orissa region, it was thought to be revenge for the shooting of the fishermen. The two Marines have since been returned to India where they will stand trial for the killing.

Both incidents highlight a worrisome parallel development to the boom in private security in the Indian Ocean, say analysts, which has caught governments unaware. Though there is a legitimate and long-term role for private companies to provide security at sea, they say, their use requires more regulation and coordination from all stakeholders than has been the case so far. There are concerns that poor regulation of anti-piracy measures on high-risk shipping routes is making things worse.

Hijackings and ransom demands translate into billions in economic losses. “Almost every ship passing through piracy-prone sea lanes like the Gulf of Aden, the Indian Ocean and more recently the Gulf of Guinea near Nigeria in West Africa,” says a senior official in the ministry of Defense, “is beefed with trained guards and ammunition. The ship owners really can’t afford to take risks considering how malicious and widespread the problem has become.”

Maritime piracy cost the global economy roughly US$7 billion, including US$530 million spent on private armed guards, according to Oceans Beyond Piracy, a project of the Broomfield, Colorado-based non-profit One Earth Future Foundation. The pirate groups earned about US$160 million last year through ransom payments for vessels and crew.

The PMSCs’ services don’t come cheap.

“A week-long voyage can cost anywhere around US$60,000 for about half-a-dozen armed guards and arms and ammunition for crew of a mid-size customer ship,” said Siddhi Vinayak, a former officer with the Indian navy who is launching a security agency to cater to the region’s growing demand for such services.

Until 2010, India declined to allow armed guards on board merchant ships. However, in August that year, the director general of shipping issued elaborate guidelines on hiring armed escorts.

In an International Security MacArthur Foundation Asia Security Project author James Brown has pointed out that the Somali-based pirates are becoming a private battle as global defense cuts reduce naval counter-piracy deployments. Because governments have struggled to contain the spread of piracy in the Indian Ocean, says Brown, shipping companies have turned to private military security companies to guarantee the safety of their crews and cargo.

The key findings of Brown’s project are: The maritime security business in the Indian Ocean is booming as ships turn to private military security companies to help in the fight against piracy. Over 140 companies now provide armed protection for ships in the Indian Ocean. At least 2,700 individual contractors are employed as armed guards on ships and 18 floating armories are operating in waters near the Gulf of Aden.

Over 40 private armed patrol boats are now operating in the Indian Ocean. The most sophisticated of these private navies is outfitting three large boats in Singapore – each with a crew of 20, capable of carrying 40 private marines, and equipped with a helicopter and drones. The use of these boats, and the aggressive tactics they employ, should be discouraged by governments and the International Maritime Organization.

However, analysts point out that policy discussions on the boom in private counter-piracy have largely ducked one important corollary development – the issue of private navies. If unchecked, these fleets could be more akin to seaborne vigilantes than to private incarnations of naval counter-piracy forces. By the end of next year almost 2,000 naval personnel may be operating in the Indian Ocean under private hire to protect commercial interests.

This private counter-piracy boom is also creating fresh problems, argues Brown in his seminal paper, including shootings at sea which have led to international disputes and confrontations. And murky legal and consular difficulties loom. There is a legitimate role for private companies in fighting piracy. But the challenge for governments will be to recapture the policy agenda and define the limits of what that role is before it leads to new kinds of trouble on the high seas.

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