The gunship archipelago

The growth of secretive floating armouries raises a challenge to maritime security worldwide. 

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
18 December 2014

The MV Sinbad is a vessel of 250 gross tonnage, originally built as a fisheries patrol-boat in Sweden in 1981. With a crew of ten it is usually to be found in international waters, most recently in the Gulf of Oman off the coast of Fujairah, one of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). There, MV Sinbad is not protecting local fisheries but acting as a floating armoury supporting anti-piracy operations by the Sri-Lankan-based Avant Guard Maritime Services. The latter is a "private maritime security company", and itself an offshoot of Sri Lanka’s largest private military company.

The MV Sinbad is identified on the company’s website as one of three floating armouries, used to support a number of commercial anti-piracy protection schemes operating principally in the Arabian Sea. As such, its purpose is clear. But where it touches the recent trend towards floating armouries outside of territorial waters - a development that is little known outside specialist maritime-security circles - a far more murky aspect emerges.

Even the number of boats involved is far from clear. Some maritime-security companies sub-contract the running of the boats to other companies, making it likelier that boats are registered in countries different to those where the original contracting companies are licenced. Moreover, some of the countries in which the ships are flagged have little capacity for inspecting or controlling the use of the armouries, adding to the risks for everyone involved (see "Floating arsenals: The boats full of guns for hire against pirates", BBC, 18 December 2014).

A war in the shadows

A new report from the Omega Research Foundation sheds much needed light on this situation. Floating Armouries: implications and risks published on 17 December, 2014, was in turn commissioned by the Remote Control Project. 

This group researches and critiques the worldwide trend towards "remote" war involving the increased use of special forces and armed drones, as well as the rapid recent growth of private-military companies. In all these areas, the project is concerned both with the lack of transparency and debate and an even more fundamental question: whether the new developments actually work to improve security.  

The Remote Control Project was established in 2013. It is funded by the Network for Social Change and hosted by Oxford Research Group. In investigating the extent of the move towards remote warfare, it has uncovered a particular tendency towards the sometimes unaccountable use of private companies seeking to keep their profile as low as possible. In the course of the Omega research it has become clear that the issue of floating armouries needs much more attention, not least by the governments that are licencing the companies.

The number of armouries has risen because of the increased problem of piracy, primarily in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea but also in parts of southeast Asia and, more recently, the Gulf of Guinea off west Africa. In some cases naval forces are involved in trying to control piracy, but many shipping companies prefer to hire private companies to guard their ships. This entails a further complication: the security personnel involved naturally require weapons, but states often are dislike having private armouries on their territory. One answer to this dilemma is to deploy the guards on the high seas, outside any national jurisdiction.

The floating armouries themselves are not purpose-built but may be adapted from former tugs, research-vessels or patrol-boats (and in one case even a roll-on/roll-off ferry). There is no binding international agreement for them to have standardised internal storage such as strongrooms; yet they can carry large quantities of semi-automatic and automatic assault-rifles, semi-automatic pistols and shotguns, as well as body-armour and night-vision equipment.

Some of the states wherein the armouries are registered may be "flags of convenience", their capability to inspect ships minimal. That problem is heightened since up to half of the known floating armouries may be so flagged - yet the precise number is unclear, because only some of the armouries are operated by companies keen to follow accepted standards and to be open about what they do.

Omega’s report collates various sources which together suggest that between ten and twenty ships were active in 2012. A United Nations report identifying eighteen ships owned by thirteen states. More recently, a report from Britain's foreign office in 2014 put the figure at thirty-one, while Omega's supplementary research has now identified thirty-two (fifteen of them registered under flags of convenience).

An international effort

In themselves, these findings do not mean that any of the companies are acting illegally. The problem is much more one of the lack of national and international standards covering such issues as effective record-keeping, secure storage, and assurances that weapons cannot be diverted. The fact that so many of the ships are anchored close to unstable and even ungoverned territories increases concerns over these matters. Omega makes the point that if the ships were located onshore the states concerned would almost certainly exert much tighter controls.

Of the many recommendations in Omega’s report, the key one is that an intergovernmental body “should be mandated to review existing control regimes that may be applicable to the regulation of floating armouries and then regulate, monitor and inspect the armouries”. The obvious body is the International Maritime Organisation, a UN special agency which is headquartered in London. This, however, would require both political will and funding from UN member-states.

More generally, the issue of floating armouries is yet another indication of the trend towards the privatisation of security. The process is both incremental and largely unnoticed - evidence of which is the very fact that so very few people are even aware of the existence of these armouries. In this context it is welcome that some governments, not least in New Delhi, are showing concern. Omega’s report should contribute to spreading awareness of the problem and to the need for coordinated efforts to address it. 

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