Typhon’s Private Navy: A Game-Changer or a New Maritime Counter-Piracy Maginot Line?

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January 24, 2013

By Martin Edwin Andersen

The announcement earlier this month that a British company, Typhon, is creating a private navy to protect commercial clients from piracy off the Horn of Africa and beyond caused a small sensation in much of the world’s media.

One of the entrepreneurs involved, Anthony Sharp, bravely claimed to The Telegraph that the effort, using real or-hoped-for assets–motherships, helicopters and small boats–was “the first of its kind for probably 200 years and will protect private shipowners’ assets at sea.”

Listening carefully, however, Typhon’s offer left me with the question: Is going back to a 200-year-old model truly a “game-changer” in the already highly-competitive counter-piracy market?

Or would reliance of it likely become the maritime counter-piracy’s equivalent to what the Maginot Line was to those who defended France against land invasion in the run-up to World War II, filled with blind confidence and a false sense of security?

Conceived of in the 1920s and built in the 1930s, the Maginot Line was a massive system of defenses that were initially considered to be impregnable, but that became infamous as they were easily overrun by the German army in 1940.

Emblematic of strategies or objects that people hope will prove effective but instead fail miserably, the Maginot Line remains the best known symbol of the adage that “generals always fight the last war, especially if they have won it.” (Perhaps a problem of some admirals, as well.)

In a very interesting blog written by LCDR Claude Berube on the USNI blog, Berube brushes aside the client offer behind the creation of a “private” navy as neither really new nor much needed. (Link: Piracy – Another Private Navy Announced)

Sharp’s comments, Berube patiently noted, were “incorrect,” as several other companies “have either attempted to provide this type of private security or have actually conducted operations.”

“The former company Blackwater offered a decades-old NOAA ship, the M/V McArthur, RHIBs and an embarked helicopter with the intent to protect ships from pirates,” Berube added. “But the ship arrived in the Red Sea without clients; absent business, the ship left the region and the industry.”

“It isn’t clear if the current level of piracy will support additional vessels,” Berube noted, adding that downward trend in and around the Gulf of Aden “can be attributed to the increased use of private embarked armed security (as well as private armed escort vessels), improved Best Management Practices by the shipping industry, and the creation of Combined Task Force 151 as well as other international maritime operations in the region.”

Although Berube’s pointed analysis did not specifically include them, questions also remain about the possible high costs potential clients face as they likely spend precious (read: costly) hours getting into position to participate in Typhon convoys, which may or may not be there when individual vessels first approach a high-risk area, or stay with them until they leave it. And will ship owners, operators, insurance companies and their factotums band together, and remain united, to make this structurally-complex alternative a real one over time?

Also, one should remember the wise words of RADM (Ret.) Terence E. “Terry” McKnight, the pioneering U.S. Commander of Task Force 151 off the coast of Somalia and the author of Pirate Alley. McKnight recently underscored in an interview that piracy is “a money-making business and they are going to try their hardest to stay ahead of us. … (T)hey are always looking for tactics to overcome those of ours.”

However, because it was Berube who tacked against the winds of conventional wisdom—that of those that seem to applaud the idea of creating a private navy that is neither new nor likely much needed—it is his words that perhaps best close the “private navy” counter-argument as well.

“While piracy attacks in the heavily-trafficked Gulf of Aden have decreased, incidents have increased elsewhere in the Indian Ocean,” Berube wrote.

“If Typhon and other firms are interested in filling that maritime security gap, they will have to identify larger ships that have the range and speed or improve their logistics that can support clients in a broader region.”

Martin Edwin Andersen is editor-in-chief of Piracy Daily

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