Tackling piracy with private vessels, state navy

Feb 24 2022

One solution to providing security for tankers offshore West Africa is a private vessel with state navy personnel onboard. PVI offers this service.

Armed private security guards are not allowed to work on vessels within the waters of West African countries.


The legal constraints of carrying firearms and other controlled items within these jurisdictions are too great. Shipping companies may only use armed guards from state navies.


One solution is for private security companies to commit privately owned, purpose built, navy approved patrol vessels to the various jurisdictions, with state navy personnel onboard providing the armed capability.


These patrol vessels then act as the dedicated security escort and overwatch capability towards any commercial vessels trading within the region.


This is offered by UK maritime security company Protection Vessels International (PVI).


PVI provides its own patrol vessels to the region. It has approvals from a number of countries’ navy and military to receive their personnel onboard as the armed deterrent against any potential Pirate Attack Group (PAG).


PVI have kept a proportion of their fleet out of Nigeria. This means they can offer their dedicated security escort and overwatch function to clients trading in and out of other jurisdictions in the high risk area of the Gulf of Guinea. PVI says that no other security company offers this service.


The service “is not widely known about within the shipping community,” says Harry Hayes, director of strategic services with PVI.


“There is a large proportion of the shipping community trading in jurisdictions where, historically, there has not been any offshore escort capability to call upon.”


PVI has a sister company, Southgate, which is a fully Nigerian registered company. It holds all of the necessary licenses and permits to make the necessary arrangements with the Nigerian navy for procurement of Navy guards to operate on their patrol vessels within the Nigerian Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ).


The tanker operator contracts with PVI to provide the dedicated security escort service from a safe distance offshore (up to 200 nautical miles), to the offshore terminal where operations are scheduled.


The reverse is provided for the outward passage upon completion of the Terminal operations.


The vessel’s intended approach to the terminal, coupled with the existence of EEZ borders, will dictate the positioning of the escort link-up and release meeting point.


This should be positioned at a safe enough distance offshore and away from areas of regular pirate activity.


All security escort vessels used by PVI, whether one of its own, or a third-party vessel, will be Tier 1, purpose-built ballistic protected security vessels capable of speeds up to 28 knots.


The dominant vessel within PVI’s owned fleet is the “Bastion class” vessel (see photo). These are capable of speeds of up to 45 knots.


These Bastion Class vessels have been refitted with thermal imaging systems, so can operate in total darkness, through solar glare, through light fog and smoke. They have 12 berths, so can be used for long deployments offshore.


Multiple countries and beyond

Most navy personnel can only provide security to vessels in their own country’s “Exclusive Economic Zones” (EEZs) which extend up to 200 miles from their coastline.


So there is a complexity because a vessel often needs to transit a number of different country’s EEZs before reaching its intended terminal or port.


One solution is to have guards from each jurisdiction operating onboard independent security vessels, providing a handover from one to another on the respective EEZ boarder.


This kind of multi-jurisdictional escort function is a highly complex operation to manage and is not suited to all types of vessels and schedules, PVI says. But it has coordinated and delivered these kind of operations to some of the largest offshore projects in the region.


How the service works

The protection service starts when a vessel meets an incoming  tanker at an agreed distance offshore West Africa, which is far enough away to be difficult for pirates to reach, and where it is possible to check there are no pirates.


“As soon as our security escort vessel arrives at the link-up RVP (Rendezvous Point), it is our responsibility to secure the area and provide a deterrent,” Mr Hayes says. “When the client vessel arrives, they need to feel confident the area is safe.”


The PVI security vessel, with armed navy personnel onboard, then escorts the merchant vessel, remaining at a distance of around 0.5 nautical miles to the rear of the vessel.


Most offshore terminals have their own dedicated security vessels securing the immediate area around the terminal, so a security handover is made from the PVI security vessel to the terminal security vessel.


PVI’s security vessel will remain on the outside of the terminal exclusion zone, maintaining daily communications with the client vessel.


Terminal operations will typically last 24-72 hours. After this, PVI will re-engage with its client vessel, and re-commence the outward escort service to up to 200 nautical miles offshore. Only once the client vessel has been safely released will the security vessel disengage and return back to its base jetty.


How pirates work

Nigeria hosts the largest volume of tankers, because of the large volume of oil production. “It’s where we conduct the greatest volume of escort services,” Mr Hayes says. The “threat profile” of the region has much expanded over 2018-2021.


Historical trends in regional pirate activity emphasised the theft of cargo, particularly oil. This was driven by factors including the resale value of stolen fuel, and the anti-industry stance of many regional insurgent groups.


Criminal groups in the Niger Delta developed relatively sophisticated bunkering and storage sites for stolen oil. Ship-to-ship robberies were likely to involve the use of violence, with attackers using firearms or bladed weapons in order to prevent the crew from interfering with the attack.


Limited numbers of kidnappings occurred alongside these incidents, typically occurring when cargo proved inaccessible, or when isolated crewmembers failed to reach safety in time.


More recent pirate activity demonstrates a shift towards hijackings specifically for ransom of the crew, with the cargo no longer a primary commodity of choice.


This is likely to have been driven by a combination of factors, Mr Hayes says. Firstly, the wholesale price for crude oil dropped substantially in recent years, reducing the benefit-to-risk ratio of conducting robbery, storing cargo, and then reselling.


Additionally, in late 2017, the Nigerian Army conducted multiple disruption operations within the Niger Delta region. As a result, a significant number of illegal bunkering and storage sites were destroyed, along with other elements of insurgent infrastructure.


This shift in the pirate groups’ way of working towards hijacking for ransom has enabled them to operate at far greater distances offshore due to the prevalence of suitable mother vessels. And transporting crew is easier for them than transporting oil.


In September 2020 the Lloyds insurance Joint War Committee (JWC) extended the limits of the internationally recognised High Risk Area (HRA).


“Now we're witnessing successful piracy incidents happening at 250 nautical miles offshore. That presents huge complexities and concerns.

That's a real vulnerability which the shipping community is facing at the moment,” Mr Hayes says.


There have been a number of successful incidents reported over the past six months just outside EEZ borders. “That's not random, that's targeted and tactical, by pirate attack groups.”


About PVI

Protection Vessels International is part of a group of companies called DG Risk Group, which also includes Halcyon Superyacht Security (working on super yachts); a Nigerian company called Southgate providing local relations; and a company called PVI Mozambique providing specialist maritime security services in Mozambique.


PVI claims to have been one of the first companies to provide armed maritime security services offshore Somalia, including in the Gulf of Aden and wider Indian Ocean High Risk Area. 


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