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On the High Seas, Oil is the New Pirate Treasure


Long gone are the romanticized stories of pirates swashbuckling their way across the placid, sunny waters of the Caribbean. Hoarded treasure chests brimming with shiny baubles and golden doubloons? Nobody’s looking for those. 21st century pirates are pursuing a different kind of buried treasure: these brigands are thirsty for oil. And the current global economic crisis has made them very thirsty, indeed.

Exacerbated by the catastrophic Covid-19 recession, violence at sea is on the rise. While overall global attempted attacks are relatively low this year, the number of successful assaults is still alarmingly high. According to the ICC International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reports, more than 90% of piracy incidents in 2021 have resulted in victim vessels being boarded, crew members kidnapped, injured, or killed, or cargo and technology being stolen.

A Worldwide Problem

Africa and Asia have long been considered dangerous regions for maritime piracy for all seafarers, from pleasure crafts to fishing boats to large cargo ships. The IMB recently flagged the Gulf of Mexico and the Callao Anchorage, off the coast of Peru, as hotspots as well.

Oil tankers passing through busy sea lanes in the Gulf of Guinea, the Singapore Strait, and the waters surrounding Indonesia and the Philippines are particularly at risk. Slow moving and with small crews, these vessels are ideal targets for pirates ready to take hostages and demand exorbitant ransoms. Attacks along these critical trade routes are sophisticated and nefarious: professional pirates lying in wait for their prey. The Gulf of Mexico faces very different, but equally sinister, circumstances. There, floating storage vessels and working offshore platforms are sitting ducks. The region has seen an extraordinary rise in raids by armed bands of renegade thieves with tenuous or no known connections to organized crime.

The High Price of Pillaging and Plundering

The cost of piracy extends well beyond the loss of oil cargo or high kidnapping payouts. Modern pirates are clever, targeting victims in the farther reaches of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), where it’s much more difficult and expensive for the sovereign countries to monitor suspicious activity. Billion-dollar, military-grade OTH radar systems are beyond the economic reach of most countries. Dedicated navy and coast guard patrols require countless man hours and pricey vessels and aircrafts. A recent Reuters article reported that negotiations to ransom a hijacked crew in the Gulf of Guinea can run upwards of $300,000 USD.

Time also adds to the high price of counteracting oil piracy.  A coordinated attack can happen in minutes, deftly making use of the time delay that plagues most S-AIS tracking devices. Tech-savvy pirates immediately deactivate a boarded vessel’s AIS and LRIT and damage communications equipment. What’s more, security and rescue teams can be hours away, hindered by slow response times across vast distances, and alerted only once a vessel has been breached.

From both a financial and a logistical viewpoint, adequately protecting 200 nautical miles from the coast is a massive endeavour.

Coordinated Counterattack

So how can security forces respond sooner? Persistent surveillance and real-time, multi-source monitoring systems can provide the most effective coverage, even when a ship goes dark. Maerospace offers advanced maritime domain awareness (MDA) tools that can help governments and commercial organizations identify and counteract potential attacks at sea.

Many countries maintain basic microwave radar and/or land based AIS systems, which are limited to a 20-40 nm reach, leaving most of the EEZ unprotected. And pirates take full advantage of that. Coastal nations need to be able to monitor the gap from their horizon lines to the extent of the 200 nm region. Maerospace’s cutting-edge PASE™ High Frequency Surface Wave Radar (HFSWR) readily covers that distance. And persistent radar coverage provides the most cost-effective solution available, operating at a fraction of the cost of naval or aircraft surveillance.

Their full suite of maritime intelligence products includes a versatile predictive analytics engine that uses multiple data sources to provide immediate, synchronized vessel location and verification details. PASE™ is designed to work seamlessly with C2 and C4 ISR systems, and to incorporate information from external S-AIS. In addition, Maerospace’s patented AI data analytics and detailed databases provide complete, up-to-the-minute intelligence reports. Vulnerable oil tankers and suspicious ships alike can be identified and tracked through this highly accurate information system, and assets can be quickly and efficiently deployed to intercede when necessary.

Batten Down the Surveillance Hatches

Oil piracy and other seafaring threats happen every day in the world’s busy-but-remote shipping regions. Maerospace’s unified, reliable, and affordable technology makes protecting the oceans that much easier. With a robust and vigilant maritime security plan, pirates can be thwarted long before they board their first ship.

About Maerospace

Transforming the awareness, assessment, and response to critical economic, environmental, and human threats in national maritime domains

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