As IML and many commentators have been predicting, the latest pirate season in the NE Indian Ocean has seen a significant change in the tactics employed by the pirates.  For the reasons set our in our article of the 15th October (The Current Situation in the North Eastern Indian Ocean) the focus of pirate activity is no longer the Gulf of Aden, but eastwards, from bases in the Seychelles and the Yemen.

The pirates, who include Yemenis, have received financial support from wealthy individuals in the Middle East, seeking to make good returns. There have been suggestions from the Saudi military that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are also assisting the pirates, a move that may make sense given Iran’s covert involvement in Yemen’s civil war. However, there have been pirate attacks on Iranian vessels and the Iranian navy undertakes anti-pirate patrols in the Arabian Sea, but the Iran Revolutionary Guards are not part of the normal military command structure and it quite possible that they have their own agenda. The question of possible Iranian involvement is therefore unclear, but must be seen as likely, and this raises the possibility of logistical support, in future, from ports on Iran’s Gulf of Oman coast.  In IML’s opinion possible Iranian support for piracy is of greater importance than the involvement of “terrorist” organizations; Iran is a state that sponsors a number of aggressive players in the Middle East.

At the recent Interpol Conference in Singapore Jean-Michel Louboutin said that Somali piracy is organized crime and referred to the fact that the pirates have acquired sophisticated weapons and tracking devices “allowing them to extend their reach.”  At the same conference Mick Palmer, Australia’s Inspector of Transport Security, noted that the attacks are taking place further and further out to sea, as far as 1,200 nautical miles offshore, and added that “they are getting some quite sophisticated assistance in locating big trading ships.”

We believe that Mike Palmer was quite correct and that the two hijackings in the middle of October have served to confirm his analysis.  On the 15th October the Singapore-flagged Kota Wajar bulk carrier was hijacked at Lat. 01.33°S Long 54.52°E and on the 19th October a Chinese bulk carrier, the 40,892 ton panamax, De Xin Hai, was taken at Lat. 01.53°N and Long 060.05°E.  Port Victoria in The Seychelles lies at Lat 4.37°S, Long 55.27°E, so both vessels were taken approximately 5° North of Port Victoria and on a longitude track between 54° East and 60° East.  The fact that the De Xin Hai was the first ship to be taken east of the 60° line of longitude is a major development and shows that the Indian Ocean between the Seychelles and the Maldives is now a danger area. IML believes that pirate attacks can now occur as far eastwards as the 65° line of longitude, and the Maldives may also see pirate activity in due course.

IML has been arguing for some time that the international naval presence in the Gulf of Aden has successfully reduced the threat of piracy (at present) in that area, but will move the main hijacking areas eastwards outside the patrolled area. The size of the Indian Ocean is such that there are not sufficient vessels available to provide adequate protection outside the Gulf of Aden area.  It is interesting that neither of the two container ships hijacked at this time was routed via the Gulf of Aden, the De Xin Hai was en route from South Africa to China with a cargo of coal, and the Kota Wajar was en route to Mombasa from Singapore.  Both masters would have thought that they were well away from any threats.

These recent hijacking also confirm a second aspect of Mike Palmer’s claims, that the pirates now have the capability to track and locate big trading ships at sea. The most likely means by which they are tracking their targets is the Automated Identification System (AIS).  Since 2004 AIS has been mandatory for vessels over 300 tons and the system broadcasts information about each ship using the system, including its name, position, course, speed and destination, ships in the area receive this information and can track each vessel in their vicinity. There are a number of programs available which enable AIS information to be read on a standard PC, including Navmaster ECS, which describes itself as an electronic chart system; we are not suggesting in any way that this program is used by pirates, rather it is an example of the technology which is now available to mariners.

Electronic Chart System

Electronic Chart System

Larger vessels carry Class A AIS using SOTDMA technology, the equipment includes Each Class A AIS system consists of a 12.5W VHF transmitter, an integral global navigation satellite system (i.e. GPS) receiver, two VHF TDMA receivers, one VHF DSC receiver, and standard marine electronic data interface (IEC 61162/NMEA 0183) to shipboard display and sensor systems.  Class A AIS can tune over the whole 156.025 -162.025 MHz VHF maritime band.  According to the U.S. Coastguard AIS has a range is similar to that for other VHF applications, essentially depending on the height of the antenna. Its propagation is slightly better than that of radar, due to the longer wavelength, so it’s possible to “see” around bends and behind islands if the land masses are not too high. A typical value to be expected at sea is nominally 20 nautical miles.  20 nautical miles is equal to one minute of arc of latitude, and a pirate mother ship can therefore cover a diameter of 40 arcs of latitude using an AIS receiver. The Win Far No.161, a Taiwanese trawler, is typical of the type of vessels available to the pirates as long-range motherships. AIS receivers are freely available, such as the RADARPLUS SM1610-2A manufactured by Shine Micro, Inc. in the U.S. and sold for US$4,400; which offers, “demonstrated long range performance”.

The investment in piracy operations in the last year is more than sufficient to place a number of motherships in a chain, approximately 40 nautical miles apart, any vessel crossing this line would then be identified and followed, and the track ship would be unaware of the threat. It appears that pirate tactics may be evolving along the lines of U-Boat tactics in the North Atlantic during the Second World War.  However, there is a second tracking system that is mandatory under IMO regulations. This system is known as Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) and as its name suggests is long-range, it uses Inmarsat C equipment to broadcast a signal to satellites every six hours. IML is not aware of any use by pirates of LRIT data, although corrupt government agencies could theoretically make such information available. Even if LRIT information is not generally available there is a system which coordinates data from AIS feeds, AISLive, and this service offers, a state of the art tile based mapping system, full access to all the global charts on AISLive.com, 5 day weather forecast, dynamic vessel searching, up to 16 levels of zoom on nautical charts, coverage of circa 25,000 live vessels at any one time and it also covers over 2,000 ports, terminals and anchorages (http://www.aislive.com/services.html). Obviously this service is only available to companies operating in the maritime industry, but it only takes one employee to search the database regularly to provide a number of possible targets to the pirates.

There is one incident in June 2007 where it appeared that pirates used AIS to identify and track a vessel, and that occurred in the hijacking of the Danish bulk carrier, the Danica White. According to the official Danish report on the hijacking, the vessel saw a report on it’s AIS screen of a 220 metre long pilot ship with a fishing licence. “The ship was named NAUTICA + another name. The Master thought it looked odd. He was able to see the ship visually and the length was less than 100 meters. They spoke of this on board. It was sailing in the opposite direction at about 2 nm.” (Division for Investigation of Maritime Accidents. Danish Maritime Authority, Case: 200711082, 16 November 2007, page 11).

Finally the source of the more sophisticated weapons mentioned at the Interpol Conference may well be the United States, as reported in The New York Times the U.S. supplied 40 tons of weapons to Sheikh Sharif’s “government” forces, local reports from Somalia are that some of these weapons were types that were not available before and that the weapons were subsequently sold to Somali merchants by Sheikh Sharif’s ill-disciplined militias. It is logical that some of these U.S. supplied weapons will find their way on to pirate boats.

In conclusion the new stage in the N E Indian piracy campaign is now in progress. The tactics of the pirates have changed, they have the ability to use automatic tracking devices (AIS) to identify and track targets, and probably to select them long before they enter the area between the Seychelles and the Maldives, and it seems that they may have new U.S. supplied weaponry, if reports from Somalia are correct.

The upshot of this that shipowners really need to be prepared to deal with a new set of circumstances, and that piracy is as much a threat as it has ever been.

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Information on AIS is from the U.S. Coastguard