According to the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre, the number of piracy attacks worldwide for this year alone stands at 176 reported incidents, including 10 hijackings.
The centre indicates the number of crew/vessels currently held by Somali pirates as 57 hostages.
Although the IMB indicated that piracy attacks dropped to a five-year low in 2012, the number of piracy-related attacks remains high and on certain routes seafarers are still considerably at risk. In Somalia, and elsewhere, vessels most commonly attacked are container ships, bulk carriers and tankers loaded with oil, chemicals and other products. Fishing vessels and other smaller boats are also at risk.
The hard fact is that piracy against merchant vessels poses a significant threat to world shipping, and with more than 90% of global trade transported by sea, it is cardinal that this vulnerable supply chain is as secure and efficient as possible – but what actually happens during such an attack?
According to the World Shipping Council, in many instances Somali pirates use hijacked merchant ships as mother ships to carry out attacks in the north Arabian Sea and near the coastline of India. It explains: “Pirates make use of multiple, high-speed skiffs (small attack boats) to approach and fire on the bridges of vessels with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, in an attempt to slow or stop the vessels so the pirates can get on board.
Once a vessel has been hijacked, the pirates typically request a large ransom – often in the millions of dollars as payment for the safe return of the crew, vessel and cargo.”
Pirates are often supported by terrorist organisations and thus more frequently have access to more advanced weaponry, including laser guided munitions.
These pirates are often difficult to prosecute in international courts as, when confronted with a modern naval force, pirates will throw their weapons overboard to eliminate the evidence.
Gareth Morris of Saab Grintek Defence South Africa, which produces, among others, electronic warfare technology and systems geared towards asymmetric operations like anti-piracy, indicates that there is good news in the form of the advances made in the field of navy-protection technology.
“Currently, Saab has the NLWS system and the SME-50 system, which are not only geared for asymmetric operations like anti-piracy, but also drug smuggling, maritime terrorism and trafficking,” he elaborates.
This technology is finding global application in promoting maritime defence and security, with indigenous South African products being sold to the world market.
Morris reveals that SGD has developed numerous technology and radar electronic warfare solutions for surface ships and submarines, and that this technology has been expanded to international markets like Germany and South Korea.
The German Navy, for example, makes use of the SGD SME-100 Radar ESM System, as well as the SGD Naval Laser Warning System aboard its Mine Counter Measure Vessels (MCMV), which are used in United Nations Interim Force in the Lebanon (UNIFIL) operations.
“Although the chances of a laser guided missile sinking a large naval ship are slim, the damage it causes will most probably affect a mission kill. The damage to smaller vessels and commercial shipping may, however, be extensive. With this in mind, and the known proliferation of these weapons across the globe, ignoring this threat is done at peril. Laser-guided munitions are low cost, relatively easily obtained and manufactured and operated by most countries across the world,” Morris explains.
Various types of laser threats may be encountered. These include:
Dazzlers: These lasers are specifically designed to cause permanent blindness to unenhanced vision. Although prohibited in terms of the Hague Convention Protocol IV to the 1980 Convention, they are still being used, but our system does detect them as well as detecting the other systems below.
Range Finders: Range finders are the most common type of lasers encountered in the maritime environment. It ranges from commercial use to weapon applications and is available from a wide variety of suppliers. It is generally used for ranging or as part of the calculation of a fire solution.
Designators: Designator lasers are used to illuminate or paint a target, and the missile then homes in on the reflected laser energy. The missile and the laser source do not necessarily have to be co-located.
Beam Riders: Beam rider operation requires the missile and the laser source to be co-located. In the case of the beam rider, the laser source illuminates a detector channel situated in the back of the missile. The laser source guides the missile onto the target by sending steering guidance information to the detector.
Most of the SGD ESM and NLWS systems are provided to the navies through shipyards and other large-scale system integrators in Germany, the Middle East and South Korea. These systems are easily integrated with other ship systems which add to the overall safety and effectiveness of the vessel. Typical sub-system integrations include the Combat Management Suite and Counter-Measure systems.
Morris concludes: “Ships on the open seas have become extremely vulnerable targets, but it is important to stress that solutions exist to combat this vulnerability and to enhance security.”