Saturday, February 22, 2014

The cost of protecting cargo ships just got higher.

I hate to sound like a tinfoil-hat conspiracy wingnut, the type who has the theme song to Coast to Coast AM as a ringtone and has an autographed picture of Art Bell on his desk. However, I'm really beginning to be alarmed by the number of current and former Navy SEALs who keep ending up dead.

Sad to say, it's happened again. This time the fallen are former SEALs Jeffrey Keith Reynolds, 44, and Mark Daniel Kennedy, 43. They were employed by the maritime security firm Trident Group, who hires former SEALs as private security contractors aboard client's ships. In fact, to be hired by Trident it is mandatory for you to have spent at least six years as a SEAL and have worked in an operational capacity as a SEAL within the past two years. The firm gets its name, I would wager a guess, from the trident insignia that sailors receive upon graduation from the Basic Underwater Demolitions/SEAL (BUDS) training.

The two men were found dead in their cabin aboard ship by a member of the 24-man crew of their ship as it was moored in Port Victoria in the Seychelles Islands off Madagascar. Autopsies are being conducted to determine cause of death. The mens' deaths were "not related to vessel operations or their duties as security personnel", according to Kevin Speers, a senior director for Maersk Line Limited.

Maersk, you say? why, yes. You've heard of Maersk, the multi-billion dollar Danish shipping company.It is considered the largest container shipping company in the world by revenue and employs approximately 25,000 people. Maersk Line operates over 600 vessels and has a capacity of 3.8 million TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units). Maybe you've heard of their ship Maersk Alabama?

Yeah, that Maersk Alabama. The one hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009, and featured in the Tom Hanks film about it called "Captain Phillips".

The Maersk Alabama transports food aid to East Africa in support of the U.S. government’s 'Food for Peace' program, according to the company. Crew members also help support the Bee Hive Children’s Home in Mombassa, Kenya. She also acts as a feeder, meaning she picks up and drops off containers from smaller ports to and from larger ports for bigger ships to take.

Maersk's subsidiary company Maersk Line Limited operates 33 vessels under the US flag, under contract for the US government. That's kinda how the Maersk Alabama hijacking made the news in the first place;  because it was a US-flag vessel involved. The Skinnies have been jacking and pirating ships for years, centuries really. It's a sort of bizarre tradition there and they still jack ships but it's not sexy headline news anymore, and while they just recently really stepped it up to capturing mega-vessels for ransoms the past few years, they’d never screwed with a US-flagged ship before the Maersk Alabama. They just happened to hit the wrong ship at the wrong time. I guess they just saw "Maersk" and didn’t know any better. That’s mostly because there are damned few US-flagged ships making cargo runs anymore; it’s too expensive to register your vessels here. The cheap way is to register it and flag it out of Panama. Evergreen Line (the conglomeration of what used to be four branches of the same tree: Evergreen Marine Corp. (Taiwan) Ltd., Italia Marittima S.p.A., Evergreen Marine (UK) Ltd. and Evergreen Marine (Hong Kong) Ltd.) rolls into port in Charleston, SC pretty much daily in these huge 955-foot bright green container ships with PANAMA on the ass end under the ship's name.

The Panamanian-registered M/V Ever Racer, sliding by my old warehouse. The Maersk Texas (see below) was moored on the right side of the pier in the above picture, Veterans Terminal's Pier Zulu.
International law requires that every merchant ship be registered in a country, called its flag state. A ship's flag state exercises regulatory control over the vessel and is required to inspect it regularly, certify the ship's equipment and crew, and issue safety and pollution prevention documents. As of 2006, the United States Bureau of Transportation Statistics count 2,837 container ships of 10,000 long tons deadweight (DWT) or greater worldwide. Panama was the world's largest flag state for container ships, with 541 of the vessels in its registry. Seven other flag states had more than 100 registered container ships: Liberia (415), Germany (248), Singapore (177), Cyprus (139), the Marshall Islands (118) and the United Kingdom (104). The Panamanian, Liberian, and Marshallese flags are open registries and considered by the International Transport Workers' Federation to be flags of convenience. By way of comparison, traditional maritime nations such as the United States and Japan only had 75 and 11 registered container ships, respectively. Gee, I wonder why? Because they are expensive as hell to operate under.

As I said before, Maersk Alabama is operated by Maersk Line Limirted out of Norfolk, Virginia. MLL handles the US-flag operations for Maersk. With the largest U.S. flag fleet in international trades, MLL supports military and humanitarian missions through the transport of cargo on its container, tanker, dry-bulk, multi-purpose and roll-on/roll-off ships. That means that when you run into a Maersk ship under a US flag, it’s full of governmental goodies. And that means when you jack one, you can expect to get drilled in the forehead with extreme prejudice.

At the time of the hijacking, another MLL ship, the Maersk Texas, was just about to leave the port of Charleston. She was bound for, if memory serves, Kenya with a stop in Pakistan. Now, in 2009 a trip to Pakistan meant the ship was loaded with military supplies especially since the ship hadn't loaded at one of the container terminals but upriver at the Goose Creek Naval Weapons Station.

Until the situation off Somalia could be resolved, Maersk Texas (which is homeported these days in Majuro in the Marshall Islands and not Norfolk as it used to be) was moored behind the warehouse I was working in, under guard 24/7 by two Rigid-Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBs) manned by the US Coast Guard. Each RHIB had a pintle-mounted 7.62mm machine gun in the bow and another at the stern. The ship stayed buttoned up, and the only crew member I saw was the same guy on a daily basis out for a run. After a few days, the runner came & paid me a visit & asked if he could trouble us to use our forklift to move a pallet from one end of the pier up to the ship. I sized the dude up carefully. Young, maybe 30 or so, fit and athletic but not some gargantuan hulking behemoth, concerned enough with his fitness to run daily. The pallet he asked me to move was loaded with sandbags. I may be a college dropout but I quickly did the math and asked him simply, "You were with The Teams, weren't you?". He smiled & nodded. I then said, 'You're using the sandbags to build a hasty fighting position as a just-in-case.". I didn't make it a question. I was stating fact, and he didn't contradict me. He just gave me a look that said he was re-appraising the guy standing in front of him and realizing I wasn't just some Joe with a forklift. I grinned & said "None of this ever happened and you were never here." Then he grinned too and we shook hands, and told him I was a former Army cop. We chatted a little as I rolled his pallet down the pier and the we parted ways.

A Coast Guard RHIB with both guns mounted.

By and large, shipping companies traditionally did very little to protect their ships from attack. They were told to use their fire hoses on full blast to ward them off. Kids, Uncle Steve is here to tell you that a water spout does diddly shit against AK-47s, RPK light machine guns, and RPG-7s. Like I said before, hijacking attempts still occcur with alarming frequency over there. In fact after the April 2009 attack the ship was attacked again just six months later. Pirates attempted to hijack the vessel in March 2011, and then again in May of that year. Our friends on Maersk Texas fought off a hijack attempt in May of 2012 by a number of skiffs in the Gulf of Oman. Maersk Texas activated defensive measures per the U.S. Coast Guard-approved Vessel Security Plan. Despite clear warning signals, the skiffs continued their direct line toward Maersk Texas and the embarked security team fired warning shots. The pirates then fired upon Maersk Texas, and the security team returned fire per established U.S. Coast Guard rules of engagement. Like I said, Uncle Sugar takes a dim view as of late of Skinnies trying to jack US Government assets.

Now, maybe some of the shipping companies in the world are okay with paying ransoms and encouraging these Skinnies to keep on taking their ships, when instead they should be arming their crews, or hiring out some security. I know there’s an assload of currently underemployed and bored Blackwater guys (oh, wait...Blackwater got a black eye after some of its people went off the reservation & did Very Bad Things, and they changed their name to Xe Services and then again to Academi) who need some gainful employ after being kicked out of Iraq. Perhaps instead of selling off all our older Perry-class frigates to foreign navies we should transfer them to the US Coast Guard and let them escort US-flag cargo ships in and out of certain Third World shit holes where pirates lurk, especially since the USCG is in sore need of some deep-water assets to replace some seriously aging cutters. It’s hard to guard the coast with 40-year old cutters in need of drydock and stuff that shouldn’t operate more than 20 miles offshore.

Look, the Coasties get the shitty end of the stick and we all know it. Move them back under Department of the Navy where they belong, instead of being under Transportation until wartime. They have ships and guns and uniforms and ranks; they’re military. Treat them as such. Give them some decent gear though. The two cutters assigned to Charleston are the biggest ships the USCG has, but they’re also a year older than me and really need replacements. Oh, wait. make that HAD. Both cutters have been decommissioned. The Dallas was sold to the Philippine Navy and the Gallatin is going to the Nigerian Navy. This leaves approximately ZERO heavy assets to patrol Charleston's shipping lanes, because all that's left to protect the 8th busiest port in America is a buoy tender, some inflatables and harbor patrol craft, and a single 87-foot patrol cutter with two .50 caliber machine guns.
USS Rodney M. Davis, a Perry-class frigate.
The Perry-class frigates that we keep selling off to Poland and Pakistan and Egypt and Turkey and Bahrain could be transferred to the Coast Guard instead. The Navy already removed the missile launcher and magazine from the few remaining ships anyways, leaving them no better armed than the current cutters the Coast Guard possesses, but they’re on average 20 years newer than the 7 remaining Hamilton-class cutters and more capable for deep water operations than the Bear-class. It could provide a stop-gap until more Legend-class cutters can be built and then you can sell them off. Charleston will be receiving the fourth ship of the Legend class  in September of this year.

One of the new Legend-class cutters

But I digress.

Until someone; i.e.: the spineless gutless UN (Useless Nations) puts together a multinational force to float the hell over there and take out the pirate bases and mother ships, they’ll just keep coming back. And compared to sitting around in your own filth in a country with no government or economy, chewing khat weed and waiting to die in between calls to prayers, a life of piracy is a pretty good-looking alternative unless we make it less lucrative and fulfilling. And while retrofitting your 800-million-dollar cargo ship and multimillion-dollar cargo with a rather inexpensive ($50,000 to $70,000 each) set of four Minigun stations is a no-brainer, the brains are in remarkably short supply in shipping, it seems. Cargoes are insured and people are cheap to replace, I guess. And security contractors? Well, they knew what they signed up for so to the companies the human cost is a moot concern.

Pirates tend to disintegrate at 3,000 rounds a minute. Fifty-eight rounds a second. 'Merica!

So far, the best idea that I’ve heard  wouldn’t really be that far off from what I mentioned before about guys from Blackwater and other contract guns for hire.One of the powers of Congress, little used, is to issue Letters of Marque and Reprisal. A letter of marque is an official warrant or commission from a government authorizing the designated agent to search, seize, or destroy specified assets or personnel belonging to a foreign party which has committed some offense under the laws of nations against the assets or citizens of the issuing nation, and as such would be pretty handy for dealing with pirates. You keep the military out of it and hire people to go after them and destroy them with extreme prejudice. What's the difference, you say? Using the military incurs the wrath of the sniveling assclowns in the UN but the Marque & Reprisal route is rooted in international diplomacy. Semantics, I know... but simpering suits in squirrel-cage offices love to think diplomacy solves everything but we all know who gets called when diplomacy inevitably fails.

The formal statement of the warrant is to authorize the agent to pass beyond the borders of the nation ("marque" or frontier), and once there to search, seize, or destroy an enemy's vessel or fleet. It is considered a retaliatory measure short of a full declaration of war, and, by maintaining a rough proportionality, has been intended to justify the action to other nations. As with a domestic search, seizure, arrest, or death warrant, to be considered lawful it needs to have a certain degree of specificity to ensure that the agent does not exceed his authority and the intent of the issuing authority. In the past, a ship operating under a letter of marque and reprisal was privately owned and was called a "private man-of-war" or "privateer." The French sometimes used the term lettre de course for its letters of marque, giving rise to the term corsair. So we can just issue a letter of marque against the pirates and turn out the high-dollar mercenaries (um, I mean government contractors) to ventilate their skulls and ribcages with many large-caliber holes. Then again, getting the current dunces in Congress to actually do it is another matter.

But unless & until we go that route of chasing them down and wiping them out, we're left with just the option of companies being responsible for their own security and having to hire contract personnel to fend off attackers. Which is how we ended up with two former SEALs dead in a foreign port. Police have issued a statement saying that drugs & drug paraphernalia were found in the cabin; ie: narcotics traces and syringes. I'm a bit dubious of this. It smacks of a set-up, like they were killed and the drugs were planted to cover the trail. What makes me say that? These guys are professionals, in general above reproach. The Special Warfare community tends to weed out shitbirds and dirtbags early on, and these guys had each served over ten years in the military. And the frogman community is pretty small and incestuous (in a good way); if these guys were bad seeds the word would have gotten around and they would likely never have been hired by Trident. If you make your living based upon the bona fides and credentials of the former US Navy SEALs under your employ, you tend to make pretty deep looks into your prospective and current employees, lest your contracts dry up from lack of confidence and credibility.

Jeff Reynolds

Mark Kennedy

Kennedy enlisted in 1995 and completed his final tour of duty in 2008, according to a summary of his record provided by the Navy. Kennedy was assigned to an East Coast-based special warfare unit, according to the record. Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base, adjacent to Trident Group's home in Virginia Beach and Maersk Line Limited's home in Norfolk, serves as the home of the Navy's East Coast SEAL teams. He had medals for serving in campaigns in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Reynolds enlisted in 1990. He was assigned to a West Coast-based special warfare unit at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, California until he was discharged in 2000.
Mark Kennedy on active duty

The company drug tests its employees and has a zero tolerance policy. I just have a  hard time believing that two professional warriors, former Special Operations types with good records, guys in their forties, would jeopardize their presumably lucrative careers and sully the reputations of the SEAL community by being smack junkies. I'm not sure what Reynolds' situation was, but Kennedy had a wife and son at home. In my experience, both as a soldier and as a cop, neither fits the profile of an intravenous drug user.

Any idiot with a laptop can log into any number of websites and track virtually any commercial vessel in the world and determine their port call schedules. Many ports have websites that broadcast what ships are coming & gioing and if a port is small enough, the knowledge of a ships' arrival &departure is like to be common knowledge all around. Some bribes to local officials in a remote port in the second or third world to gain access to a vessel isn't that far-fetched a concept.. Where do you think most of the world's heroin base comes from? The poppy fields of Afghanistan, home of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, neither of whom are big fans of SEALs these days. This simply does not, in my estimation, come across as two guys getting high for shits & giggles. This smells like a hit, either by Islamists or by a rival security company to discredit Trident. The former scenario makes me mad, the latter makes me sick. Probably something slipped into their food to render them incapacitated, maybe some ether piped into their cabin...and then someone tied them off and injected them with heroin before making their way out.

Tinfoil hat? Maybe, maybe not.

Either way, two families have lost loved ones who served our nation in time of war and I, as an American veteran, want answers. I'm sure families do, too.

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