Why do U.S. owned private maritime security teams continually get in trouble on ships overseas? Does the U.S. adhere to a lower standard than the rest of the world when it comes to private maritime security? The answer may surprise you.
The United States government reimburses vessel owners and operators the cost of carrying armed security personnel aboard vessels hauling government impelled cargo in high risk waters. One would assume that U.S. ship owners and operators get only the best people for the task. Unfortunately, quite the opposite is true, as evidenced by the recent drug overdose of two Trident Group operatives aboard the Maersk Alabama. In fact, there are really no standards in the U.S. when it comes to armed maritime security so long as someone shows up with a gun and tells the ship’s Captain they were a former Navy SEAL.
This is not the first incident for Trident Group. A mistake with an at-sea weapons transfer last year caused another U.S.-flag ship operated by a company other than Maersk to be detained in Qatar for five days. The Captain and Chief Mate came close to losing their jobs and the shipping company incurred great expense while the ship sat idle for almost a week. That company found a different security firm almost immediately.
AdvantFort, a self-proclaimed private security company with American ties, had at least two recent publicly known incidents involving improperly registered weapons in foreign waters. The AdvantFort weapons storage vessel is U.S.-flag and the crew of that ship is now imprisoned in India and facing trial. AdvantFort has fired its American president and ostensibly abandoned its foreign crew in prison.
It is not uncommon for these so-called American security companies to use cheap foreigners on their teams. When the United States government ships United States government cargo aboard United States flag vessels with United States citizen crews only to reimburse United States shipping companies for the use of non-vetted security teams often comprised of foreigners, something is out of place. I think we can do better.
The subject of private maritime security is sensitive because mariners on ships, and their respective unions, fought hard to persuade American shipping companies for protection in high risk waters. Left to their druthers, many shipping companies would forgo the added expense of providing shipboard security and take their chances with pirates. Understanding corporate aversion to expenditures, visionary members of Congress, including Congressman Frank Lobiondo, took the decision out of corporate calculus. Section 504(e)(2) of Public Law 112-213 made cost a non-issue, reading:
“The Secretary of Transportation shall direct each department or agency responsible to provide armed personnel… to reimburse, subject to the availability of appropriations, the owners or operators of applicable vessels for the cost of providing armed personnel.”
Even prior to the now famous Maersk Alabama hijacking in 2009, maritime security firms had been proliferating commensurate with the rise of piracy. Any guy with business sense and a network of former military special operatives could tout himself as a maritime security firm. And many did. A few years later, the sector has now matured and it is clear the piracy threat will remain, requiring an honest assessment of standards for these varied maritime security companies.
There are still fly-by-night providers that low bid contracts and scrape together guys looking for adventure (and money) who know how to fire an M16. Some of these are guys who search out drugs in strange foreign ports and then overdose. The operatives are not vetted, trained, nor, as we have regretfully learned, blood tested for controlled substances because the contracted security companies do not want to spend the extra money. But if ship operators are reimbursed for the cost of using security teams why wouldn’t they employ the best operatives and quality control measures possible regardless of cost?
I understand the nature of personal relationships in business. You want to work with people you trust. But when the people you trust put your crews and assets at risk through affirmative dereliction of duty, something must be done.
If I operated a ship knowing the government paid me back for hiring security teams you can be certain I would contract with the company that maintains only the highest standards. Standards such as these:
-Thorough vetting of each operative, including background checks.
-Require all operatives to be U.S. citizens.
- Require all operatives to be former U.S. Special Operations personnel.
- Require drug testing of operatives before and after deployments.
- Employ a zero tolerance policy with regard to controlled substances.
- Perform blood testing on operatives and hormonal analysis to detect psychological issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, which often leads to substance abuse.
- Train and test physical and tactical performance standards.
- Leverage innovative technology for deterrence (i.e. unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles, state of the art weaponry and protective gear).
- STCW and Vessel Security Officer (VSO) certified
- Comprehensive insurance protection carried by the security company.
- Financial and moral commitment by the security company to operatives detained overseas.
-Transparent company financial and management procedures.
- Signatory to the 100 Series Rules on the Use of Force (RUF)
After all, don’t we hold many other types of vendors to a similar degree of accountability? My lawn care provider satisfies most of the above. So why turn a blind eye to maritime security? Perhaps these requirements increase cost but the alternative is no longer tolerable. Employing drug addicts and foreign operatives who may have questionable loyalties to the U.S. can no longer be accepted by any segment of the industry. The risk to all is much too great.
And since Congress effectively made cost a non-factor, shipping companies should hire only the best. The U.S. maritime industry faces enough scrutiny. We can ill afford to continue placing assets, cargo, crews, and security teams at unnecessary risk. When I work aboard a vessel in high risk waters I want to rest easy knowing the ship is protected by only the best personnel and technology available. At present our mariners do not have that peace of mind.