Saturday, 13 December 2008

Mercenary vessel to combat hijackings

Blackwater’s “MacArthur” offers protection in Gulf of Aden.

[Mumbai, October 24]
Blackwater Worldwide, the controversial private military contractor headquartered in North Carolina, USA, revealed last week that it has plans to dispatch the MV MacArthur, a 55 metre vessel, to the Gulf of Aden to provide escort services for clients’ ships. The MacArthur, a multipurpose vessel redesigned in 2006 to support military training, carries an armed crew of 14 and has helicopter landing facilities. The ship and its helicopters are able to patrol in the vicinity and route of client merchant vessels’. Blackwater’s selling proposition seems to be that owners would not need to pay for onboard private guards, an alternative that has legal and operational problems. The company later plans to expand its presence in the region by increasing its fleet to two or three such vessels.

In a press release, Bill Matthews, executive vice president of Blackwater Worldwide, “Billions of dollars of goods move through the Gulf of Aden each year. We have been contacted by ship owners who say they need our help in making sure those goods get to their destination safely. The McArthur can help us accomplish that."

A Blackwater spokesperson has confirmed that the company will need a State Department license to sell its services to a foreign government or business.

Analysts say that some ship owners, hit by insurance costs for the region which have risen tenfold, ‘war zone’ allowances to crews and by ransom payments if vessels are captured, may well be exploring options such as Blackwater has to offer. One expert told Marex that he felt that the hijacking of the Ukrainian ship Faina with military armament on board was the flash point that triggered Blackwater’s clients’ interest in the region.

The outfit, described as mercenary and trigger happy by many of its critics, was started by ex Navy seals Eric Prince and Al Clark in 1997. Mired in controversy in Iraq and elsewhere, its licence to operate in that country was temporarily suspended after it killed 17 Iraqis in September 2007 , 14 of them ‘without cause’, according to an FBI report. The shadowy organisation continues to garner 90% of its revenues from US State Department contracts and is the largest private security firm employed by the US Government. A majority of these contracts are ‘no bid’ contracts, adding to the unease with which the organisation is viewed internationally. Senior officials at Blackwater Worldwide include ex CIA personnel and Navy Seals.

Industry experts say that ship owners are getting increasingly worried as Western naval coalitions express their inability to successfully control hijackings off Somalia, and in fact seem to be recommending private security firms such as Blackwater. The recent dispatch of an Indian naval vessel to the region does not inspire much confidence either; its rules of engagement and its place in the naval coalition are still unclear and it is reported to have limited endurance and coverage abilities.

It is also felt that Blackwater’s services would be expensive, though may be partly set off against presumably lower insurance premia. An industry source said that he saw US oil companies with deep pockets as Blackwater’s main clients, as “many smaller shipowners will not be able to support these costs”.

Another analyst was cynical. “Given Blackwater’s murky connections with US administrations, this seems to be another attempt to secure the oil flowing into that country without overt or official US government involvement”, he said. “This should not be seen as an anti piracy measure by the rest of the world.”

It is felt that there may be considerable industry disquiet at this development, given Blackwater’s controversial history and reputation.


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