Security on the Seven Seas

June 2012
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Magazine


A U.S. Navy sailor watches as an MH-60 Sea Hawk helicopter prepares to touch down aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Germantown during Talisman Sabre 2011. The bilateral exercise enhances planning and readiness between U.S. and Australian forces. The United States and its partners are combating a range of worldwide maritime threats including piracy, terrorism, smuggling and potential nation-state aggressions.

Authorities must combat many forms of maritime threats to ensure peace and protect trade.

The shifting winds of geopolitical change are forcing government and industry alike to take a new tack in ensuring safe passage through the Earth’s oceans. From criminals plying their trade on the high seas, to nation-states seeking to deny access to other countries, the challenges are growing. To counter the problems, militaries and businesses are engaged in overcoming both new and resurgent dangers that threaten navigation over waterways.

The U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) has responsibility for more of the maritime environment than any other U.S. entity. Its area encompasses about half the globe, stretching from the West Coast of the United States all the way to the western border of India as well as from Antarctica to the North Pole. This territory also holds serious potential nation-state threats—namely, China and North Korea. Awareness of budding trouble in the region is growing, as U.S. military leaders recently announced that defense attention and resources will shift to the Asia-Pacific region. However, officials within the command say this strategy shift has not significantly altered their maritime plans.

Cmdr. Michael Gussenhoven, USN, PACOM’s maritime security officer, identifies four main nautical threats in the area: piracy or robbery at sea; territorial disputes that escalate to confrontation or conflict; action by terrorist groups; and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by sea. Worries about countries making the ocean a battlefield supersede those about rogue agents. “PACOM is more concerned about aggression by nation-states over disputed territories and resources, due to the risk such aggression would pose to regional security and stability,” Cmdr. Gussenhoven says. “Nonetheless, piracy continues to be a threat to our interests.” Most nation-states in the Asia-Pacific region have common concerns regarding countering transnational threats, including pirates and armed robbery at sea. “If not dealt with, over a long period of time, piracy and other nonstate threats will have a much more costly effect,” the commander explains.

If countries agree to respect international law and resolve disputes peacefully, a naval sea battle in the region is unlikely. However, the commander acknowledges that parties might have small skirmishes over disputed resources and territories, and the command’s biggest concerns regarding conflict center on them. “An exacerbated arms race between nation-states with disputed claims will only amplify the consequences of such conflicts,” Cmdr. Gussenhoven explains.

PACOM focuses on building relationships with countries in its region as a solution to most problems. Partners include Australia, South Korea, Japan, India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand, but the command wants to work with any nation-state that aims to enhance maritime security to contribute to stability. Officials encourage countries to work multilaterally to build maritime domain awareness and to mitigate independent threats. “Moreover, if nation-states work together to counter common security threats like piracy, such cooperation can build confidence and trust between nations and reduce the likelihood of any other dispute escalating into a skirmish or conflict,” Cmdr. Gussenhoven says. Issues arise when nations expand navies for unknown or aggressive reasons. The commander did not specifically mention China, but the last several years have seen a dramatic increase in that country’s naval activities, including adding surface and subsurface vessels to its fleet.

Adm. Robert F. Willard, USN (Ret.), former PACOM commander, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February that improvements in China’s military capabilities and the regional uncertainties this has created test the command’s ability to manage the evolving security dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region. Areas in which U.S. national interests or those of U.S. allies and partners are being challenged include maritime security in the international waters around the large Communist nation. Adm. Willard stated that China asserts its military developments are purely defensive in nature and that they pose no threat to neighbors in the region.

Yet, combined with broad maritime and sovereignty claims and incidents with lawful operators in nearby waters, there is ongoing international concern regarding China’s activities in the South China Sea. Competing claims and small disputes in the sea already have made waves among China and others, including Australia, a major player in that part of the world and a close ally of the United States.

Discussing steps taken by any government in the area to increase maritime capabilities, Cmdr. Gussenhoven says that, “The concern is determining the intentions of the buildup.” PACOM encourages countries to expand navies when the purpose is to build greater maritime domain awareness, to share information with neighboring countries and to develop the ability to multilaterally deter or counter any actor that violates established norms of conduct or agreed upon common understandings of the rights, freedom and uses of the maritime domain. “In contrast, a country that builds its navy with the intention to aggressively enforce unilaterally determined standards of conduct and claims to resources and territories only counters stability in the region,” he adds.

Other transnational threats such as narcotics trafficking, human trafficking, proliferation efforts, organized crime and natural disaster also affect PACOM and its allies. Additionally, violent extremist organizations, such as Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah, cause concerns on the seas, as does competition for food and energy sources across the region.

To address all locations with potential problems, U.S. forces must prioritize efforts and look to regional stakeholders to share responsibility for maritime security. Success by partners in protecting the Strait of Malacca, for example, has allowed PACOM to shift its attention to higher-risk areas. “Currently, the South China Sea is a hot spot due to its vast expanses of uncontrolled water, the potential for nonstate actors to take advantage of this nonsecure environment and the potential for conflict growing out of disputed resources and territorial claims,” Cmdr. Gussenhoven explains. Other areas of focus are chokepoints, because of their high volume of maritime traffic and strategic significance.

Preventing occurrences that require government involvement is only part of maritime security. As the capabilities of groups such as pirates and violent-extremist or transnational-criminal organizations increase, the threat to maritime commerce intensifies. PACOM officials believe other nations should share these concerns as well as the responsibility of maritime security before there are any long-range implications. Another worry is that a conflict between nations could impact the navigational freedom of commercial traffic into, out of and transiting through the region. The shipping industry derives significant economic benefit from secure shipping lanes, and the presence of private vessels can contribute to maritime domain awareness by reporting on passing ships to regional authorities.

John Arnoldus, the security officer for shipping giant A.P. Moller-Maersk Group, says commercial shippers cooperate and collaborate to enhance safety on the seas. “When it comes to the security of our crews, we are not competing but work closely together to find a joint solution to our challenges,” he explains. Maersk also influences politicians and naval forces through its membership in industry organizations and security networks as well as participates in initiatives to mitigate risks for crews and vessels worldwide. The sheer number of commercial cargo ships coupled with extreme distances from sources of help require them to have independent security processes and enable them to be key partners in safety on the sea.

Piracy remains the main maritime security concern for Maersk. The most dangerous geographical locations for the activity are the Gulf of Aden and the western part of the Indian Ocean, but growing criminal activity near Nigeria and Benin also worries commercial shippers. Though hijacking success rates dropped by 50 percent in 2011, and pirate incidents overall dropped that year except in the waters near Somalia, Arnoldus says the risks for crews are still significant. The cost to mitigate the dangers cost his group $200 million last year. The amount marks a 100 percent increase from 2010 because of an effort to establish preventive measures in line with industry recommendations, the use of higher speeds through pirate-infested waters and an increased focus on courses and training.

Despite the lower number of pirate incidences, Maersk found it necessary to install onboard armed guards as an extra security measure in late 2011 for vessels operating with low freeboard and at low speed. Industry members work together to develop new programs to mitigate risks. A recent step taken by Maersk involves developing training videos that inform crews about how pirates perform attacks and how to meet the threat of hijacking.

Political issues such as Iran threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz or China’s interest in the South China Sea present different concerns for commercial shippers in terms of both navigation and profit. “A.P. Moller-Maersk seeks business opportunities where possible under observance of legal compliance and the security of our crews and vessels,” Arnoldus explains. “As a global commercial company, we are closely monitoring the geopolitical situations worldwide to prepare for possible changes of daily operations.”

Even in areas without immediate kinetic maritime problems, regional governments must pay attention to current and potential issues. Australian waters largely are free of piracy, but as a country heavily dependent on trade, Australia is an active international participant in maintaining maritime stability around the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. It is a member of the Combined Maritime Forces, an international naval partnership that promotes security, stability and prosperity across international waters in the Middle East. The maritime environment there is a vital part of world trade that includes major shipping routes from the Asia Pacific to the Middle East itself and to Europe, making it important to Australia. But pirates and terrorists are only part of the problem with which that country and its allies must contend. Illegal fishing and other behaviors that affect citizens’ abilities to make a living, or infringe on sovereignty, also demand resolution.

However, the nation’s main concern is security in the Indian Ocean. During an address in January, Australia Minister for Defence Stephen Smith said that the critical strategic importance of that body of water continues to be underappreciated. Its security affects worldwide, regional and Australian strategic interests. The Indian Ocean already is a busy global-trade highway, and the transport of energy supplies passing through there likely will increase in the coming years.

Crucial trading routes, the presence of large and growing naval capabilities and transnational security issues such as piracy have forced Australia to rank the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean at the heart of its maritime strategic and defense planning, Smith also stated in the address. Australia joined the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, an initiative of the Indian Navy that promotes dialogue about maritime security among regional members, to address the importance of the area.

Many of PACOM’s concerns also are concerns for Australia, especially activity in the South China Sea. An official with the Australian Defence Department says the country does not take a position in regard to the competing territorial and maritime boundary claims there, but it does have a direct national interest in freedom of navigation, given its role as a trading nation. Maintaining stability in the South China Sea will ensure continued economic growth and prosperity for the region.

As with PACOM, Australia encourages nations to resolve maritime disputes through multilateral security and negotiation mechanisms, thereby investing in their own continued prosperity. Though the Royal Australian Navy focuses on anti-piracy and border protection, it continues to exercise and maintain its higher-end warfighting capabilities in case the need arises to engage other navies in maritime conflict.

Another threat of particular concern to the United States and its partners’ maritime operations is Iran. The Middle Eastern nation is stirring up storms for navies around the world as it threatens to block passage through the Strait of Hormuz, a critical waterway for the transport of energy supplies. Each day, ships loaded with 17 million barrels of oil pass through the strait—approximately 35 percent of the world’s seaborne transport of the fuel.

Dialogue about the situation has shifted from talk of diplomatic solutions to statements that the United States and others will take active military measures to keep the strait open if necessary. To date, Iran has taken no concrete steps to initiate such an action. But the country’s naval leadership has stated that its warships have the capability and are prepared to conduct full operations in the open ocean.

Other countries in the Middle East have announced that they will make contingency plans to move shipments via routes that bypass the Hormuz waters in the event the strait becomes impassable. The U.S. Navy is in the midst of building strength and numbers in the area in preparation for possible confrontations. Extra anti-mine capabilities, including sea and air platforms, are being deployed to the region in higher numbers, according to reports. Use of sea mines by Iran is a serious concern for the United States and its partners.

Australian Maritime Doctrine:
A.P. Moller-Maersk Security:
Indian Ocean Naval Symposium:
Operation Martillo:

Smugglers of the Caribbean

Forget pirates—today’s biggest problem in the waters south of the United States is smuggling, and the success of the illegal operations is funding violence and oppression on land. Transnational criminal organizations are moving illicit goods via surface boats, semisubmersibles and full-blown submarines from countries of origin to the United States or other locations with a clientele for the materials.

Capt. Francis Molinari, USN, deputy director of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command’s (NAVSO’s) Maritime Operations Center, explains that 80 percent of illegal trafficking in the region—most of which is to move cocaine—travels via maritime routes, and the vast majority involves go-fast boats. Trying to interdict the shipments is a major challenge both in terms of finding them and of ensuring that no nation’s sovereignty is jeopardized.

NAVSO’s maritime security efforts differ in considerable ways from many of its geographic counterparts. For one, there is no significant nation-state enemy in its area of responsibility. In addition, the interactions in the region are the opposite of those that involve pirates, terrorists or navies. Rear Adm. Kurt Tidd, USN, commander, NAVSO/U.S. Fourth Fleet, says, “Without being excessively tactical, pirates seek out targeted vessels; they close with their targets. [Traffickers] do everything they can do to avoid being detected.”

Their success in smuggling goods unnoticed results in $180 billion worth of profit each year, and these illicit gains are plowed back into Latin America to undermine governments, leading to national and regional instability, according to NAVSO. In contrast, the combined naval budgets of all South American countries is $1.5 billion. Estimates regarding the worldwide impact of piracy on maritime trade range up to $18 billion for 2012, so the amount of money that transnational criminal organizations control in the Latin American region is an order of magnitude higher.

Adm. Tidd explains that the criminals subvert legitimate traffic and trade, creating entire areas controlled by cartels. The organizations force people to work for them because refusal often means death. Legal commercial activities are impacted as cartels collect subcontractors to complete different pieces of the supply chain, knitting together these dispersed efforts to protect overall operations. In addition to drugs, transnational organized crime networks contain gun and human traffickers as well as those who move bigger weapons, including ones of mass destruction. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently stated that these groups will band together with whomever serves their interest at a given time.

Lack of security in the region manifests itself in murder rates. In the United States, this rate is about five people per every 100,000. In places such as El Salvador and Honduras, recent numbers skyrocket to approximately 66 and 82 per 100,000, respectively. “When murder rates are that high, it tears apart the fabric of society,” Adm. Tidd explains. To add more perspective to the violence, murder rates in Iraq and Afghanistan are lower than the ones throughout Central America.

Fueled by illicit maritime activities, the stability problems are spreading across many South and Central American nations, even in countries that before were relatively free from crime. Naval partners in the region are working together to help limit the threat. “It’s the insecurity on land that manifests itself on the high seas,” Adm. Tidd states, additionally commenting that, “Criminal activity on the high seas is a curse here.”

Fortunately for those who seek to combat that activity, most of the governments in the region, including the U.S. authorities, have good relationships, so cooperation is the norm. Because the transnational criminal organizations have more funds at their disposal than regional navies, allies must combine resources to have any chance at combating them. Adm. Tidd points out that the United States and Latin America share much of the same history and common interests, making relationship building a relatively easy task. Efforts are directed toward detecting and monitoring small smuggling vessels in vast expanses of water. During the day, traffickers will camouflage themselves and lie motionless, moving their goods or carrying out other activities at night. With the recent advent of fully submersible smuggling vessels, interdicting shipments has become even more difficult.

Despite the differences between traffickers and other maritime criminals, Adm. Tidd says several similarities exist to foil their plans. Whether with smugglers, pirates or terrorists, military authorities seek to find the nodes and apply pressure. Similar to many counterterrorism efforts, the military often plays a supporting role in enhancing security in NAVSO’s area of operations. Navies in the area share best practices, and often national defense forces support law enforcement agencies during incidents. Or, for example, a U.S. Navy frigate might detect an illicit vessel and notify a U.S. Coast Guard team that can perform the interdiction.

That work is easier said than done, however. Capt. Molinari says cartels not only have large amounts of money at their disposal, but they also are creative in finding ways to circumvent authorities. The solution goes back to defeating the networks and associated processes that facilitate their activities. A recent partnership initiative among navies in the area is dubbed Operation Martillo. The effort joins European and Western Hemisphere nations to target illicit trafficking routes in coastal waters along the Central American isthmus. Though only a few months old, the operation already has seized millions of dollars worth of cocaine that smugglers tried to transport through the area. Adm. Tidd says that all the Latin American navies that work with NAVSO are capable, first-class, professional and experienced, even though people in the United States rarely hear about them.

While most press and political attention focuses on threats across Asia, significant concerns exist in the U.S. Southern Command’s region. The admiral states that these security risks, increasing murder rates and the effects on U.S. national interests are problems “we can’t afford to ignore.”

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