By CDR Chris Rawley, U.S. Navy Reserve and LCDR Claude Berube, U.S. Navy Reserve
The last decade has again reminded us that irregular warfare can be every bit as challenging and deadly as conventional wars, even in the maritime setting. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Somali pirates, and Lebanese Hezbollah have demonstrated at least some capability to challenge the primacy of modern navies at sea. Maritime non-state actors wreaking havoc on the ocean are nothing new. Pirates in particular have menaced merchants and navies around the world for hundreds of years. But the advent of transnational terror groups with IEDs or modern anti-ship missiles capable of destroying a warship is fairly recent. The evolution of these non-state actors at sea challenges the conventional definitions of a naval force.
In the twenty-first century, is it unreasonable to question how a navy is defined? Navies, like any other military organization, have recognizable attributes. They have platforms – ships, aircraft, and in some cases, submarines. They operate to achieve military objectives in the maritime environment in both peacetime presence missions and during conflict. They are manned by conscripted sailors or volunteers with a variety of motivations.
Among maritime non-state actors (MNSAs), the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has the closest assembly of platforms resembling a fleet since the demise of the Tamil Sea Tigers. The organization was established in 1977 as a non-profit marine conservation organization, founded by Paul Watson who had been with Greenpeace.  Examining Sea Shepherd’s goals, strategies, platforms, and tactics is a worthwhile endeavor because it serves as a model to understand the motives, operations, and threat posed by emerging maritime non-state actors. Understanding the irregular challenges these MNSAs pose can help navies and coast guards respond to similarly-structured groups in the future.
Defining the Challenge
Motivations are one of the key traits distinguishing malevolent MNSAs from legitimate and benign MNSAs such as fishermen, merchant shipping, or sea-going non-governmental organizations. An example of the latter is Mercy Ships, which provides medical services to disadvantaged populations. The objectives of MNSAs can be political, criminal, or military, and range the spectrum of conflict from activists to terrorists. In the middle of the spectrum are profit-motivated narcotics and illicit smugglers who exploit the sea for logistics purposes, and pirates, who although violent, are still in it for the money. M/V Karine A, a Palestinian freighter which was carrying 50 tons of weapons allegedly bound for Hezbollah when it was seized by Israelis, is typical of these smugglers.  One of the most successful – and dangerous – MNSAs in recent years was the Tamil Sea Tigers, from the now defunct Sri Lankan LTTE insurgents. Al Qaeda presents the greatest threat of these groups from a US perspective, and has planned a number of attacks at sea, attempted a few with moderate levels of success, and in the case of USS Cole in 2000, nearly succeeded in sinking a multi-billion dollar modern warship. In 2006, Hezbollah launched a C-802 anti-ship missile that killed four crew members of the Israeli ship INS Hanit. Though the ability to conduct suicide boat-borne improvised explosive attacks and other isolated operations would not meet the criteria for a naval force by any standard, the demonstration of successful offensive maritime capability proves that MNSAs are worthy of concern.
Sea Shepherd is a prime example of a less-than-lethal MNSA, using tactics that could be considered activism, but bordering on criminality.  The group is very experienced in seaborne operations and has been fairly effective in its mission to save marine life, thus explaining the categorization as an environmental activist group. They have harassed and even rammed ships, but their activities have not resulted in a loss of life. Greenpeace, Sea Shepherds’ older, but slightly more docile sister organization, has also engaged in aggressive tactics throughout its history. These deliberate acts are designed primarily to draw attention to a cause. In some cases, they are meant to invoke an intentional reaction, or better still, over-reaction, by corporate entities, maritime law enforcement agencies, coast guards, or navies. Although their campaigns to protect whales against Japanese whaling fleet have been their most famous operations, the organization acts on behalf of several other fisheries and marine mammals around the globe, including blue-fin tuna in the Mediterranean, dolphins in Japan, seals in Canada, and sharks in the Galapagos.
On 25 February 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth District ruled that the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is a pirate organization. “When you ram ships,” the opinion noted, “hurl containers of acid; drag metal-reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders; launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks; and point high-powered lasers at other ships, you are, without a doubt, a pirate.” Beyond the fact that they have modified the skull and crossbones to a skull and tridents as their logo, a legal case can be made to brand them as pirates. According to Article 101 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), piracy consists of “any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew.” Although a lower court limited “private ends” to financial enrichment,” the Court of Appeals ruled that “private ends” is far broader than simply taking money, despite the fact that historically pirates have not attacked ships for any other reason than to take the ship, cargo, or ransom the crew. But the definition of piracy does not include political ends and this is where Sea Shepherd is different since, like Al-Qaeda or the former Tamil Sea Tigers, they seek policy changes.
Sea Shepherd might be considered a terrorist organization if compared to a definition of an entity that promotes violence or scare tactics for political ends. However, Sea Shepherd’s tactics intentionally fall short of lethal violence. And terrorists, with the exception of publicity-hungry leadership, rarely expose their personnel as publicly as has Sea Shepherd. In addition, terrorists like al-Qaeda might have leaders or spokesmen who go on camera in a controlled manner to send a message, but Sea Shepherd has its own team of photographers for the Animal Planet television program “Whale Wars” and most of the M/V Steve Irwin’s crew were briefly interviewed and filmed which was distributed via social media.
Sea Shepherd could also be characterized as a maritime security company since it is funded by interests who want particular marine areas or species protected through direct action. While the public may be more familiar with the Private Security Companies (PSCs) that operated in Iraq and Afghanistan (or long before that in Africa with companies such as Executive Outcomes), the era of modern Somali piracy led to the migration of PSCs to the maritime environment, especially in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Most firms offered on-board security teams and a few offered escort vessels. In 2009, Blackwater attempted to provide convoy escort with their refurbished M/V McArthur but the effort fizzled out due to lack of customers. Other companies, however, emerged, such as Protection Vessels International, which had at one time claimed to have three escort boats and a “floatel.” The sea-based floating hotel was used to house personnel and arms in international waters thus avoiding the variety of costly port transfer fees and restrictions against importing weapons into some countries’ territorial waters. Sea Shepherd, like maritime PSCs, has ships, paying customers (Hollywood and other contributors), and a security mission (protect whales another other marine life). In one case, Sea Shepherd even secured an agreement in 2011 with the Pacific island nation of the Republic of Palau to provide protection against shark fin poachers, an approach companies like Hart Nimrod and others attempted with local governments to address illegal fishing in the territorial waters of Somalia and Puntland.
Sea Shepherd’s equipment, personnel, and tactics have similarities to many other sovereign navies but also commonalities with violent non-state groups. Regardless of how it might be categorized, Sea Shepherd is operating as a type of non-state navy – a maritime organization with political objectives and with the platforms and support from other non-state actors to accomplish its mission.
Order of Battle
In an age of austerity among governments, few navies are expanding. Conversely, private sector and non-state actors have more opportunities now to grow their forces. Both short-lived movements (such as the Tamil Sea Tigers or Somali pirates) and more enduring organizations (Sea Shepherd) will expand if sovereign nations fail to address the maritime security gaps created by the absence of traditional navies and coast guards.
Like Somali pirates between 2004 and 2011, Sea Shepherd has acquired the resources to adapt and increase in each of its past seven whaling protection campaigns. It gained new platforms including ships, small boats, helicopters and surveillance drones, thus exceeding the Somali pirates who only evolved from using skiffs to captured mother ships. As of this writing, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s “fleet” has a gross tonnage of about 2,221 tons. This size is equivalent to several small African navies including Namibia (1,762 tons), Ghana (1,324 tons), Ivory Coast (1,876 tons) and Nigeria (2,170 tons).
Table 1 demonstrates the growth of the Sea Shepherd fleet and evolution of their counter-whaling campaigns. The fleet’s multiple ships provide several tactical and operational benefits. They also allow organic logistics support as the Bob Barker is able to serve as an oiler for the smaller Steve Irwin and other vessels in the fleet. In 2009 the addition of a high speed trimaran – the Ady Gil – as a scouting vessel greatly improved the ability to locate and harass the whaling fleet. In 2010, a larger trimaran – theGozira (later renamed Brigitte Bardot) – replaced the Ady Gil. In 2011, Sea Shepherd added drones to scout for the whalers and in 2012 the campaign employed jet skis to pursue the Japanese ships. Also that year, the Steve Irwin was repainted with a new dazzle style naval camouflage scheme (similar to that later employed by the littoral combat ship USS Freedom) which reportedly helped them evade pirates off the Horn of Africa.
Sea Shepherd enhanced its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities in 2011 with the introduction of hand-launched Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), but little was reported publically on how or if these vehicles were actually deployed. Because of their increasing affordability and availability, these sorts of do-it-yourself UAVs will likely proliferate with other MNSAs in the next few years. Sea Shepherd also has a rudimentary intelligence network using radio direction finding and tippers from cruise ship passengers and other vessels to locate the Japanese whaling fleet.
Manning the Fleet
The motivation to recruit sailors for many MNSAs extends beyond simple economic opportunities. Modern pirates are driven by money, but most MNSAs and maritime-oriented Non-Governmental Organizations such as the Tamil Sea Tigers, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Nigerian Delta, Hezbollah, the Gaza Flotillas, and Women on Waves,are motivated by political or ideological ends. Similarly, Sea Shepherd relies heavily on an ad hoc assembled unpaid multi-national crew motivated by more than a paycheck or patriotism. Sea Shepherd draws upon a diverse pool of international volunteers while state navies rely upon either conscripts or paid “volunteers.” Motivation for optimal performance in many state-run navies is minimal and conscripts are likely to leave the service when their terms are complete. Sea Shepherd’s penchant for “direct action” distinguishes it from other marine conservation organizations that only engage in campaigns to protest or raise awareness. The direct action mantra is apparent during crew interviews and a major driver of their passion for the mission.
What sort of person volunteers for this type of organization and how do they differ from sailors in state-sponsored navies? Although they are all driven by similar goals, the backgrounds of Sea Shepherd sailors are highly diverse as revealed by recent 90-second vignettes placed on YouTube on the crew of the M/V Steve Irwin. The twenty-nine crew members interviewed represented twelve nationalities. State navies are comprised of younger personnel – the average age of a U.S. Navy sailor is twenty and going to sea is usually their first time far from home with the exception of basic training. By contrast, most Sea Shepherds are in their late twenties and thirties – they have life and travel experiences around the globe generally exceeding the average first term enlisted navy sailor.
Critics of the program “Whale Wars” have described the Sea Shepherd crews as inexperienced and incompetent, but this accusation is not necessarily fair as other navies (including the U.S.) occasionally have accidents at sea. Although an early episode showed one of Sea Shepherd’s small boats capsizing during launch; despite their apparent lack of seamanship, during nearly a decade of operating in unforgiving Southern Ocean waters none of their crew has ever been lost. One ship– the Ady Gil – sank without loss of life but it remains unclear whether the collision was an accident or intentional on the part of the activist group or the whalers. Approximately one-third of the crew have previous experience with Sea Shepherd campaigns at sea thus passing down expertise to newer crew, comparable to non-commissioned officers who train fresh recruits in state navies.
Unlike many conservation groups, Sea Shepherd has a clear hierarchical organization – captains, first mates, quartermasters, deckhands, etc. – that roughly emulates a merchant fleet or state navy. Unlike most irregular insurgents or terrorists, the Sea Shepherds sometimes wear uniforms, and Paul Watson occasionally dons a service dress uniform with four stripes like those of a western nation navy captain. The organization has expanded in each of its seasons, with more than one hundred volunteers participating in the most recent counter-whaling campaign, OPERATION ZERO TOLERANCE.
Operations and Sustainment
Most MNSAs operate regionally rather than globally; that, however, could change if they adopt the operational model of Sea Shepherd. Unlike similarly-sized state navies that remain in coastal waters due to equipment constraints and the focus on local maritime enforcement, Sea Shepherd is a blue-water, globally active private navy. Based out of Australia, they have executed campaigns in the Southern Ocean, the Mediterranean, the Faroe Islands, and elsewhere.
Funding is an integral component to Sea Shepherd operations and drives the organization to be entrepreneurial. Their controversial tactics should not be viewed exclusively in terms of operational effectiveness – although they have been quite successful in meeting their marine conservation objectives – but also as a sustainment mechanism. The organization competes for recognition and funding from the same group of donors as Greenpeace and other more mainstream conservation non-profits. The more dramatic Sea Shepherd’s operations, the more likely it is to get noticed, and consequently receive greater funding. Terror groups similarly compete with each other with more and more spectacular attacks to attract foreign donors and support. During the peak of the Iraq War, numerous insurgent and terrorist groups tried to out-do one another to maintain relevancy, launching increasingly deadly attacks.
Sea Shepherd has embraced celebrity endorsers to promote their cause, which is no different than many other political or environmental NGOs – or, in fact, no different than actors and actresses testifying before congressional committees to bring awareness to a particular cause by increasing media coverage of the hearings. Part of Sea Shepherd’s financial support comes directly from public figures and corporate patronage. As a point of comparison, most United States Navy submarines were named after fish until the 1970s. Admiral Hyman Rickover famously said that “fish don’t vote,” recognition that his naming of the Los Angeles-class attack submarine would receive more public and congressional support for future naval acquisitions than continuing the more traditional name scheme. Sea Shepherd uses a similar method by naming their ships after major contributors, hence theBob Barker, Steve Irwin, and Brigitte Bardot. They even named one of their Osprey UAVs after the daughter of the recycling mogul who donated it.
Ships cannot operate without fuel, logistics, and maintenance resources based ashore. If the governments basing Sea Shepherd’s sustainment infrastructure on their territory did not implicitly support the group’s activities then they would likely identify the organization’s funding and logistics sources and treat them as they would any other transnational criminal or terror organization. Entities that financially support modern Somali piracy or terrorist networks are normally designated and have their assets frozen, but Sea Shepherd continues to sustain its operations around the world with varying levels of circumspection.
Tactics, Media, and Lawfare
Sea Shepherd tactics have evolved over the years, as have those of their primary opponent, the Japanese whaling fleet. Harassment operations have been a tactic occasionally used by mainstream navies, as witnessed by ramming incidents by the Soviets in the Cold War and more recently in 2009, when the Chinese Navy and maritime agency vessels impeded the navigation of the USNS Impeccablein the South China Sea and other incidents with Navy ships. Harassing tactics are also used by MNSAs. Sea Shepherd’s mainstay tactic is to harass Japanese whaling ships to disrupt their operations either through dangerous navigational practices or intentional ramming. Small boats are used to launch attacks intended to be disruptive to whaling operations or ship’s mobility. In the past, these attacks have including throwing rancid butter to taint whale meat and launching fouling lines to ensnare the ships’ propellers. The boats have also launched teams to board the whalers.
No terror or insurgent group operates without an active media and influence campaign and the Sea Shepherds are no different in this regard. The underdog narrative the Sea Shepherds frequently uses sounds remarkably like that of any number of insurgent or terror groups. Captain Alex Cornelissen of the Bob Barker said in reference to the Japanese Whaling Fleet, “They have ten million dollars for every one million dollars we have to finance our three ships. They have the full support of their government and literally have a license to kill because if any of us are injured or killed, their government will back them and justify their actions. Our governments condemn us just for tossing rotten butter on their decks.” MNSAs, including Sea Shepherd use various forms of media to build legitimate support and justify their unconventional tactics. A cable station has popularized their organization through the series “Whale Wars.”
Founder Paul Watson wrote in “Earthforce! An Earth Warrior’s Guide to Strategy” that “media manipulation is merely a matter of survival in a media culture.” No incident goes without a press release or an immediate feed through social media (especially via Twitter). Air time in “Whale Wars,” which has been one of the highest rated programs on cable television’s Animal Planet, is a key piece to the organization’s operations. During its most recent campaign, several crew members were devoted to photography and media including a live-stream operator where viewers could watch a real-time chase of the Japanese whaling ships by Sea Shepherd. Similar live-streaming could conceivably be used as an information operations adjunct to future naval clashes. For example, a swarm of Iranian speedboats harassing navy vessels might entice an over-aggressive reaction which would then be linked to an immediate Twitter feed, much like those chronicling many of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings.
Also like a number of criminal and terrorist organizations, Sea Shepherd has learned to operate between international legal seams and jurisdictions. Sea Shepherd contends that its activities at sea are guided by Sections 21-24 of the United Nations World Charter for Nature which provides authority to individuals to act on behalf of and enforce international conservation laws. The group has filed criminal complaints against Japanese whalers in various jurisdictions alleging wide-ranging infractions including piracy. Conversely, numerous legal actions have been taken against the Sea Shepherd organization and its members.
In early 2013, after months of moving covertly between various countries as an international fugitive, Paul Watson stepped down from paid positions “with Sea Shepherd anywhere Sea Shepherd is registered and operates as a non-profit organization in any nation.” He also did not serve as a ship’s captain during the latest Sea Shepherd campaign. Despite this apparent resignation, Watson remains the organization’s notional leader and spokesman. Leadership can be a center of gravity for some non-states actors. When Shoko Asahara and Abimael Guzman, founders of the terrorist organization Aum Shinrikyo and Shining Path, were arrested, activity within their organizations largely abated. Other groups, such as al Qaida, have proven more resilient to leadership attrition. Paul Watson is the founder and charismatic leader of Sea Shepherd; when he no longer serves in that role, it might be difficult for the organization to continue in its current form or trajectory.
Common to illicit smugglers and historical pirates, Sea Shepherd will shift operations and flag registries from country to country as necessary to stay one step ahead of the law. At one point, the STEVE IRWIN was Dutch-flagged, the BOB BARKER Togo-flagged and ADY GIL flagged in New Zealand. Because of their non-profit status, they are not subject to the regulations of merchant ships. For example, at least one ship is registered by the Netherlands as a motor yacht vice a motor vessel; a motor yacht does not require a qualified crew or even licensed captain, much like a small personal pleasure craft. This also gives Sea Shepherd far more flexibility when endangering other ships at sea. Though he has denied it, there is ample evidence that Paul Watson has intentionally rammed other vessels. During the second season of Whale Wars, for example, Sea Shepherd was about to go off station ending the show on a low note. Apparently needing some dramatic television footage, Paul Watson clipped the stern of a harpoon vessel. In another case, the Captain Pete Bethune of the Ady Gilclaimed that Watson told him to sink his boat in January 2010 after an incident with Japanese whalers to generate media interest. This incident caused a rift between the two personalities which drove Bethune to develop his own direct action maritime conservation group. Internal strife in a MNSA or land-based terror or insurgent group can provide exploitable opportunities for friendly influence operations.
Sometimes joining your opponent is a better choice than trying to beat them. The Sea Shepherds are renowned for controversial and dangerous tactics like ship boardings and rammings, but less known for their partnerships with international law enforcement organizations. As an example, Sea Shepherd purchased trained police dogs and donated them to the Ecuadorian National police for use in detecting illegal poaching and wild life smuggling in the Galapagos Islands. These sorts of non-controversial operations complement their more aggressive maritime campaigns. Likewise, it is not uncommon for terrorist groups to conduct humanitarian operations to win popular support in conjunction with more violent activities.
Recommendations for Navies and Coast Guards
The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard can capitalize on lessons learned from non-state groups by standing up a small combined Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard irregular adversary fleet using junior officers and sailors. This concept could be developed cost-effectively by temporarily chartering or leasing a few vessels such as offshore service craft and local fishing boats for a one year pilot experiment.
The teams – perhaps one for each coast – would be given little guidance and encouraged to improvise. Their direction would simply be to learn about the behavior of MNSAs and develop disruptive tactics against US forces. These operational concepts would be demonstrated against fleet platforms during exercises like Trident Warrior, much like Williams Sims encouraged competitions among ships to improve gunnery. Besides testing innovative tactics at sea, these “red” teams would incorporate intelligence, information operations, deception, bare-base logistics, and other aspects common to non-state navies. In addition to providing realistic training for the fleet against future unconventional threats, the irregular adversary teams would provide unparalleled opportunities for leadership and learning for the junior officers and sailors assigned there.
Organizations like Sea Shepherds are changing the way maritime non-state actors are viewed. These maritime non-state actors are analogous to the computer hackers of yesteryear; initially, they were viewed as bothersome to the private sector and ignored by the military. Today, cyber warfare is accepted as a major threat to national security and significant defense resources are being arrayed against the problem. Regardless of their motivations to conserve marine life, Sea Shepherd has been a danger to ships and lives at sea, often in remote areas where no navy or coast guard operate which might be needed to conduct timely rescue options. Although they do not offer a threat to conventional navies, their tactics, techniques, and procedures can be mirrored by groups with more malign intentions.
Studying these groups is not an endorsement of their actions. For example, Naval Institute’sProceedings has published articles assessing the maritime terrorist threat of al-Qaeda, the operations of the separatist Tamil Sea Tigers, modern pirates off Somalia and the Gulf of Guinea, and drug traffickers. The same willingness to professionally and objectively study a maritime non-state actor must be true of Sea Shepherd because understanding how it conducts its operations could help to evaluate other maritime non-state actors.
About the authors
Chris Rawley is a civilian counter-terrorism planner at US Special Operations Command’s Interagency Task Force. He is also a surface warfare officer in the United States Navy Reserve, having served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, the Persian Gulf, and Western Pacific. He writes on irregular warfare issues at the maritime strategy blog, Information Dissemination.
Claude Berube is the author of “The Aden Effect” (Naval Institute Press, September 2012). He earned his B.A. in History and Soviet Studies, his M.A. in History from Northeastern University, and his M.A. in National Security Studies from the Naval War College. He is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on Andrew Jackson’s Navy through the University of Leeds.
He was a 2004 Brookings Institution LEGIS Fellow and a 2010 Maritime Security Studies Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. He worked on political campaigns, for the Office of Naval Intelligence, in the U.S. Senate, and taught at the United States Naval Academy where his courses included American Government, Terrorism, Campaigns & Elections, Intelligence & National Security. Maritime Security Challenges, Naval History, and Emergent Naval Warfare. An intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, he has served on active duty assignments in Europe and deployed to the Persian Gulf in 2004-2005 with Expeditionary Strike Group Five.
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Republished with permission from the Small Wars Journal