Monday, June 09, 2008

RAND Does Piracy

A RAND Corp monograph The Maritime Dimension of International Security:Terrorism, Piracy, and Challenges for the United Statesby Peter Chalk can be downloaded here. The study was funded by the Air Force:
The research presented here was sponsored within the RAND Project AIR FORCE (PAF) Strategy and Doctrine Program as a part of a fiscal year 2006 study, “Exploring New Concepts for Joint Air-Naval Operations.”
The piece begins with a summary and statistics: "A total of 2,463 actual or attempted acts of piracy were registered around the world between 2000 and the end of 2006."

While your head may explode with visions of 2000+ ships being attacked on the high seas by Blackbeard-style pirates, the report uses the rather expansive International Maritime Bureau definition of piracy:
Piracy is an act of boarding or attempting to board any ship with the apparent intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the apparent intent or capability to use force in furtherance of that act.6(NB E1: Footnote 6: This definition is the one used by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). It is wider than the conceptualization adopted under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which restricts its focus only to attacks that take place on the high seas (which is problematic, because the majority of piratical incidents occur in territorial or coastal waters). The IMB definition also abolishes the traditional two-ship requirement, meaning that attacks from a raft or even the dockside would be counted as an act of piracy.)
I have complained before that this IMB definition is far too broad. There is, in my view, a vast difference between some poor slob shinnying up an anchor chain and stealing a can of paint or a sack of potatoes compared to an organized gang coming aboard a ship with weapons with the intent to seize control of the vessel or to kidnap important crew members, or the entire crew, for ransom.

If you study the reported attacks, you find that the vast majority of the reported incidents are of the former category but it is the latter type that pose a true threat to the sea lines of communications that are so vital to the world's commerce.

I understand why the IMB chose an expansive definition - they are calling attention to crimes that affect ship owners, their insurers and ship crews. But stealing a sack of spuds should not be a matter of international concern - it is properly a matter of local law enforcement.

My narrower definition focuses on those acts with which the international community should be concerned - and, in fact, the acts that are the primary concern of Mr. Chalk's paper:
A more serious manifestation of piracy is the ransacking and robbery of vessels on the high seas or in territorial waters. This style of attack, if carried out in narrow sea-lanes, has the potential to seriously disrupt maritime navigation (especially in instances where vessels run amok because the crew is kidnapped, detained, or thrown overboard). The IMB describes these assaults as medium-level armed robbery: violent thefts involving serious injury or murder by well-organized gangs who usually operate from a “mother ship” and are equipped with modern weaponry.

At the high end of the spectrum are assaults involving the outright theft of ships and their subsequent conversion for the purposes of illegal trading (although ship owners are also known to have arranged such attacks in order to defraud hull insurers). Often referred to as the “phantom ship” phenomenon, this form of piracy follows a typical pattern. A vessel is first seized and its cargo offloaded into lighters at sea. The ships are then renamed and reregistered under flags of convenience(FoCs) and issued with false documentation to enable them to take on fresh payloads. The new cargo, which is never delivered to its intended destination, is taken to a designated port where it is sold to a buyer who is often a willing participant in the venture. The IMB describes these assaults as major criminal hijacks that are well-resourced and meticulously planned, employing highly trained and heavily armed syndicates working in conjunction with land-based operatives and brokers.
It's not like the major problems aren't big enough to cause concern:
In the 515 attacks between 2005 and 2006, for instance, the IMB documented a total of 826 serious transgressions against ship crews and passengers, including 628 hostage takings, 90 kidnappings for ransom (KFR), and 54 deaths and injuries. The 440 hostagetakings in 2005 remains the highest annual figure on record. (footnotes and referral omitted)
Time constraints are preventing me from a more extensive analysis of the report now, but I will be revisiting this post with updates. In the meantime, Homeland Security Today has an article looking at the Rand report titled "Piracy at Sea: A 21st Century Threat":
The stakes in combating piracy for the US, according to the report, are enormous. “As one of the globe’s principal maritime trading states, accounting for nearly 20 percent (measured in metric tons) of all international seaborne freight in any given year,” it says, “ the United States has a direct, vested interest in securing the world’s oceanic environment. Commercial carriers transport more than 95 percent of the country’s non–Northern American trade by weight and 75 percent by value. Commodities shipped by sea currently constitute a full quarter of U.S. gross domestic product, more than double the figure recorded in 1970.
UPDATE (6/10/2008): Forbes does piracy, too, with reference to the RAND article and the IMB here.

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