With the media spotlight coming to grips that a seafaring pirates is more than just a Disney character, and much more sinister, it was only a matter of time until the cowboys also had their time in the spotlight.
Enter Blackwater; the US based private military corporation, which has taken some serious flack in Iraq for, shall we say, unscrupulous business practices, has offered up its services to the merchant fleet, plying the waters of the Horn of Africa. They have purchased and remodeled the recently retired survey vessel from NOAA, William Pope McArthur, and are planning to use it a floating base of operations for their merchant ship protection endeavors.
With the various navies of the world seemingly tripping over each other on strategies on avoiding the problem and its political pitfalls, I guess there is definitely room someone to step in in offer force protection to merchant ships.
I am not much of historian, but these piracy developments seem to tickle my “back to the future” funny bone. Its always amazing how we think we are so advance yet we have been dealing with the same problems centuries after centuries. I wonder if the engineer has to carry a “piece”. Mmmmmm?
The Moyock, N.C., company has a ship in Hampton Roads ready to begin patrolling the Gulf of Aden to protect merchant vessels against pirates.
The company has spoken to about 10 shipping firms but as yet has no takers, said Bill Mathews, Blackwater Worldwide executive vice president.
“There’s definitely a need and a desire,” Mathews said during a tour of the 183-foot vessel, named McArthur, on Friday. It’s moored at a commercial pier at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base.
Somali pirates in late September seized a Ukrainian ship loaded with military vehicles in the Gulf of Aden and still hold the ship while demanding a multimillion-dollar ransom. The standoff is being monitored by the U.S. Navy.
In the first half of this year, pirates launched two dozen attacks off the Somali coast, including 19 in the Gulf of Aden, Said the International Maritime Bureau. At least eight vessels reported attacks by grenade launchers and automatic weapons, the organization said.
The 830-ton McArthur was built about 40 years ago for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a research vessel. The ship spent much of its government career in the Arctic and other far-flung seas, said Blackwater’s Tom Ridenour, the ship’s captain.
The ship is named for William Pope McArthur, a 19th-century naval officer and Coast Survey hydrographer.
Blackwater bought the vessel about two years ago and repaired and upgraded the craft in a Seattle shipyard. Mathews declined to reveal the purchase price but said the overhauled ship has a value of at least $15 million.
It went into commercial use last September, said spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell.
The company has contracts with the Coast Guard and Navy, among others, to train service members on maritime security operations, Mathews said. A typical training mission could have the McArthur acting as a target vessel that U.S. forces need to board in open waters.
The ship has several upgrades, including a helicopter pad and storage shed capable of keeping two small MD-530 aircraft. It can carry 44 passengers including crew.
For anti-piracy operations, the 14-sailor crew would be supplemented with Blackwater security guards, four rigid-hull inflatable boats and helicopters, Mathews said. Security teams could follow a merchant vessel by air and land.
Mathews said the crew and guards are qualified to provide maritime security, noting that the security teams would consist of former Navy SEALs. The force is highly trained in handling vehicle boardings and anti-terrorism missions.
The ship could be overseas within 40 days, pending approval from the State Department and roughly a month long transit across the Atlantic.
The use of private companies to protect merchant ships has a long history, said Claude Berube, a former congressional staffer and professor who has written on the topic. The East India Co. employed private convoys about a century ago along the coast of Africa, he said.
Even today, the area remains at risk.
As piracy threats have grown near the Horn of Africa, insurance premiums on ships have risen ten-fold, Berube said. The U.S. Navy and its allies cannot cover all the seas, and a private force could help fill the security gap, he said.
“It would be feasible,” he said. “I think we have to be open to all options.”
Louis Hansen, (757) 446-2322, firstname.lastname@example.org