Maritime Security at a Crossroads

It is our pleasure to introduce today’s contributor, Thomas Bennett, LLB MSc (Oxon) Solicitor.

bennett_master (4) publicity pgiThomas Bennett LLB MSc (Oxon) Solicitor. Thomas Bennett qualified as a corporate lawyer in 1995. He practiced corporate finance law in a ‘magic circle’ law firm in The City of London and has a higher business degree from the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. He was a legal adviser and business consultant to Protection Vessels International Limited thereafter Protection Group International Limited from 2010 until 2013. In 2012 Tom was a visiting professor of maritime security at the World Maritime University in Malmo Sweden. Tom is the owner of VHenry&Co. and VHenry&Co. Limited. The former is a legal practice, the latter an advisory business each specialising in the needs of the security sector (maritime, land and information security).

Somalia remains a failed state. Poverty, the absence of enforced law and psychopathy masquerading as a just cause foments an environment where money for gain, or money to finance terror, means that piracy in The Indian Ocean has not gone away. What started in the Somalian North as a tax on shipping is a continuing threat to global trade.
Still; maritime piracy has abated. Nation states have acted, armed guards have helped. The threat has been contained. Has it? It is a brave shipping company who sends an unprotected crew through the high risk area of The Indian Ocean. And if the rationale for piracy remains, then piracy remains. Somalia, lawless as it is, will wait.
Western powers will not finance armed forces to patrol the Indian Ocean indefinitely. The maritime industry will price the risk according to the threat. The probability of piracy has diminished. The business of maritime security must adjust. As the perception of threat falls, so will the cost of protection. Competition will force prices down and many armed security companies will not survive. Some will merge. Consolidation is inevitable. Or so it seems.
Maritime security is still big business. We estimate that total transit revenue in The Indian Ocean is $400 million a year. The supply chain ranges from nation states to former servicemen, maritime agents to legitimate dealers in arms. All vested interests. All of who take their piece of the whole. Today, prices for transits on vanilla routes are so low that it is hard to discern how a profit is achieved. If there is no more profit to be had, then competitive tension is designed to push all but a few players in this market to mutually assured destruction.

Regulation? Not Really
Gifting weapons to non-state actors is not without precedent. This gift does, however, breach most political theory as to who should have the right to bear arms. Regulation is and was inevitable. Law only works when it is applied to all; and regulation – the benchmark against which the use of lethal weapons is measured, should have the force of law. It does not. ISO28007 has not worked. Some have it; some do not. There are many buyers who do not require it. There are many sellers who do not bother. BIMCO’s recent endorsement of ISO28007 may help. It may be too late. Buying patterns are entrenched. Too many stand outside Anglo-centric regulatory initiatives. It is easy to do so, legally, practically. As former Royal Marines increasingly price themselves out of the market for guards, a once Anglo-centric market along with its regulatory attire, becomes increasingly irrelevant. ISO28007 may remain the standard for some; edicts from the UK may be the benchmark for others, but, economics is forcing this marketplace to change. There is a very long tail of buyers who have little time for edict; and an equally long tail of sellers who go along.
Who does; who can, police this market? Flag states perhaps. Yet the paradox of policing a market that pays well usually results in piecemeal regulation at best. After all, piracy is a diminishing threat – no vessels have been taken within corporate memory. So why change? Qui bono?
What of littoral states – those adjacent to the High Risk Area? Again, there are economic imperatives at work. Nation states and their agents do well out of maritime security. There is no overwhelming rationale for change.
What of Sri Lanka, the UAE and Oman? Sri Lanka’s place in maritime security is channelled through Avant Garde Maritime Services (AGMS) under a public private partnership with RALL. AGMS is being critically evaluated by the new government. The suggestion is that the Srisena government will change the way it regulates the way in which weapons and men are distributed to passing vessels. In which case, AGMS may lose control. But Sri Lanka, will not. Pre-AGMS, weapons were held on land and disseminated by the Sri Lankan Navy. Fees were paid. The state took control then; it may do so again.
As to Oman, or The UAE, or indeed any of the littoral states adjacent to the outflow of The Red Sea, there seems to be little real appetite to manage the risks attached to having floating armouries within sight. Floating armouries are, of course, in international waters and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea makes a fist of keeping these states away, however, one need only ask what Her Majesty’s government might do if there was a floating armoury bobbing about within sight of Plymouth.
Which brings us back to regulation and market forces. Consolidation in the maritime security sector is inevitable. Or is it? It should be. Any standard business textbook on strategy will tell you that a market with multiple competitors will shrink to but a few. In a shrinking market, consolidation pressures are more intense. Companies will merge in order to marshal forces. Bankruptcy will emerge where sale, merger or deep pockets are absent.

Consolidation; What Consolidation?
Consolidation has not happened. Why? Some have tried to diversify (PGI). Some have gone bump (GOAGT). Some have divested then gone bump (Drum Cussac). Some are grabbing market share (Ambrey). Others do what they do, well (Diapolous). The long tail? All are out there, with shrinking margins, taking risks, fighting to the death. And it is, perhaps, in this last phrase, that the clue to this market is apparent. We have seen at first hand, how former soldiers start companies in the space and trade their fighting spirit from the military to the commercial. The enemy bears a different name. And absent commercial experience (which most do not have) the strategic confusion amongst alpha males in charge of such companies leads to a community of egos who cannot see the benefits of cooperation in a disparate market. Who, after all, if two companies merge, is going to step down and be subservient to the other? Better to die trying than take orders from someone else.
This is dangerous. In a poorly policed market, where the trade is civilians offering protection through resort to lethal force, a race to the bottom will result in cut corners. From four, to three; from two to one guard on a vessel – a poorly trained guard at that, economics and ego will force lip service to safety and the very reason guards are on vessels in the first place. Lose (no profit). Lose (no safety).

A Solution; What Solution?
Is there a solution that offers ship owners respite from this worst of all worlds; and offers the maritime security community respite from itself? There is. The answer lies in economies of scale. It lies in better logistics. It lies in cooperation and sometimes, in merger or sale. The market has already found the answer. Unfortunately it is, in its present guise, illegal and politically untenable.
The model is this. Put a cheap guard on a salary; put him on vessel after vessel with a kit box and float him around the Indian Ocean for a couple of months, avoid land, make fleeting visits to floating armouries and you have a highly efficient business with very high gross margins. Once a guard’s salary and costs are paid, the additional revenue is all gravy.
There is value in this (idealised) model. Most maritime companies do not have the infrastructure or the client base to support it. Instead, margins are decimated as a result of flights, agents’ fees, weapons storage costs, floating armoury charges, transfers, daily accommodation costs and hotels. If the next transit is a week away, profit may be lost altogether trying to keep guards in theatre. Profit will be lost sending them home. Weapons could be in the wrong place. Kit may be travelling in the wrong direction. Clever logistics management may help. But, fundamentally, a maritime security business trading on increasingly paper thin margins has to find efficiencies to survive.
Unless, of course, it has that critical mass of men, equipment and transit volume. If it has, then clever logistics and financial modelling are key. Critical mass is an absolute. And if critical mass is not an option, common sense, clear strategic thinking and sound commercial management should force decent maritime security companies to find partners to buy or merge with. Get it right and profit will increase as logistics, financial modelling, economies of scale and buying power combine to force gross and net margins up. Get it wrong and bankruptcy or closure looms. Many maritime security companies understand decent logistics, efficiencies and the bottom line. But, they have not the client base to action it. Instead, it is actioned in a piecemeal way. It is actioned in an illegal manner. These efficiencies have led to the sharing of men and in particular, weapons. Sharing weapons is illegal, it is politically charged, it is extremely dangerous.

Weapons For Hire – The Beginning of the End
Although no one has an absolutely precise figure to hand, we believe that there are at least 40,000 licensed weapons floating about or stored, ready for use, in The Indian Ocean. They sit on floating armouries, adjacent land or are in theatre under use. These weapons are not tracked on a real time basis. Companies are only put to proof when asked. In other words, regulation requires the sector to know what weapons they have and where they got them from.
Under UK law, weapons cannot be leased, or licensed, or ‘lent’. Heavy sanctions wait for those companies that do. But, the congruence of economic necessity and piecemeal regulation (many maritime security companies have nothing to do with the UK) means that weapons are passed between companies and used on a mate’s basis. For some, if weapons are not shared, the efficiencies that the smaller companies need to survive through sharing, will be lost. It is beg, borrow, or go bust.
Weapons swapping, sharing, hiring and licensing – it all leads to the same thing. It is not politically sustainable for enough arms to service a third world army to be bobbing about the sea with little idea as to who has what. The United Nations has taken notice, the US State Department has taken notice, the EU has worked it out and The British Foreign Office has been briefed.
Unless the gift of allowing private citizens to bear arms is to be taken away (or managed) by nation states once again, sensible actors within the maritime security space need to consider how best to service their shareholders and maximise profit in a highly responsible manner – merge, consolidate, sell. Choose economies of scale, clever logistics, astute modelling and commercial cooperation. There really is no alternative.
Weapons cannot and should not be traded at armouries or elsewhere. It is the beginning of the end. Equally, ship owners and charterers need to utilise their power and refuse to partake in this race to the bottom. It is, after all, the preservation of the safety of their men that is the end-game. And those that advise the maritime sector – its trade associations and the professional services who have done so well over the last five years, have to stand up for corporate social responsibility. We live in dangerous times. Somalia remains a failed state. Terrorism is prevalent in theatre. Meaningful regulation is piecemeal. Profit is being decimated. Corners are being cut. Weapons may start to go missing. There is a choice, a viable commercial solution for maritime security companies facing home truths. They must take it before it is too late.

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New ISO Standard for Private Maritime Security Companies

It is my pleasure to welcome a guest post by Dirk Siebels, a PhD candidate at the Greenwich Maritime Institute in London.  Dirk has been working with the Security Association for the Maritime Industry and the Marshall Islands shipping registry, conducting research on the performance of armed guards on board merchant vessels.  In this post, Dirk discusses new ISO standards for private maritime security companies.  Welcome Dirk!

Since the statistics peaked in 2011, the number of piracy incidents off Somalia has dropped from 237 to just 15 in 2013.  Nonetheless, private maritime security companies (PMSCs) are by now an integral part of the shipping industry and it is estimated that there have been about 20,000 passages with armed guards through the High-Risk Area in the Indian Ocean in 2013. Demand for PMSCs in other regions, most notably in West Africa, is also rising and ship operators are eagerly waiting for the new ISO/PAS 28007 standard.

 During a seminar organised by the Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI) in January 2014, the representative from the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) underlined that the first certification bodies for the new standard will be accredited over the coming weeks. Currently, four companies are waiting for their certificates which will enable them to audit PMSCs against the new ISO standard.

 While the number of potential auditors may be small compared to other ISO standards, it is important to note that the market is limited. Nevertheless, PMSCs will be able to choose between different auditors. Other companies could enter the market at any point, based on their ability to identify business opportunities and to pass UKAS’s thorough accreditation process.

 For the time being, the new ISO standard is a so-called Publicly Available Specification (PAS) which may be issued when there is an urgent market requirement for such a document. After further reviews, a PAS can be transformed into a regular international standard.

 In this case, the market requirement for ISO/PAS 28007 came from the shipping industry as many companies where looking for a reliable standard. While armed security guards on civilian vessels would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, there has been a sea change within the industry. Ship owners and operators have realised that armed guards are not just providing protection. Other benefits are just as important, most notably an added sense of confidence felt by crews and captains. Many ship operators would even like to transfer the successful PMSC model from the Indian Ocean to other regions with security problems.

 The legal environment in regions such as West Africa, however, is a lot more complex and has caused shipping association BIMCO to shelve its planned publication of an amended version of Guardcon, a standard contract for the employment of PMSCs. At the same time, BIMCO points out that the introduction of the new ISO standard is an important step forward. ISO/PAS 28007 will allow independent certification yet governments are still able to control critical functions.

 Over the past couple of years, the only international standard available to PMSCs was the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoC). While the ICoC Association is an independent organisation based in Switzerland, the US government has played a major role in drafting the document itself.

 Various incidents during which private security contractors killed or injured civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan had made it necessary to introduce some form of quality-control for private security providers. Influenced by such developments, the ICoC was first and foremost focussed on land-based security. It has since been developed into an ASIS standard which has been adopted by the US Department of Defense in May 2012, and the United Kingdom in December 2012 for all future contracts with private security companies.

 Neither the ICoC nor the ASIS standard are really applicable to the maritime environment though. For the shipping industry, ISO/PAS 28007 therefore looks set to become the most important global standard.

 It remains to be seen whether flag states will require ISO certification or use it to replace licensing requirements they have introduced in the recent past. Germany provides an interesting example for a unique licensing regime; as of 18 February 2014, only eight companies (six of them based in Germany) had completed the necessary process.

 The large majority of PMSCs would rather spend money and resources on certification against ISO requirements. It seems to be a good bet as the shipping industry has been looking for such a standard and industry requirements have been very important for political decisions in the most important flag states over the past years.