Maritime security firms have seen demand soar following the attacks on oil tankers on June 13. But defending ships from allegedly involved state-backed forces such as Iran's Revolutionary Guard may not be easy.
The demand for private maritime security personnel has shot up since the attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on June 13, as shippers step up efforts to protect their ships and keep global trade going.
The US has blamed Iran for the attacks, which took place near the Strait of Hormuz, which is used to transport a third of the world's seaborne crude. Iran has denied the accusations.
DW spoke to Dimitris Maniatis, chief commercial officer of Diaplous, one of the largest private maritime security firms, to get a sense of how the industry is responding to the latest crisis in the region.
How have the recent events in the Middle East impacted demand for security in the region?
After the May 12 attacks on the four tankers anchored off Fujairah, we saw an increased concern from the international maritime community about the safety and security of their vessels in the region. However, after the attack on June 13 in the Gulf of Oman, there has been an intensification of the interests of all the stakeholders in the maritime industry for the security of their crews and vessels. We've have seen about a 12% to 17% rise in the actual requests that we receive for security in that particular region.
The locations where the June 13 attacks took place are not within the designated high-risk area of the Indian Ocean. So we cannot operate with weapons in those areas. Now, the concern from vessel operators is for ships going into the Persian Gulf, trading within the Persian Gulf, and then exiting the Persian Gulf. So if we are to provide security services to those vessels we cannot embark weapons, which can only exist where there is a mandate for an armed response.
So what's your strategy?
What we have devised is an unarmed security service. These three-to-four member teams will assist the crew in order to prepare the vessel for this voyage with additional passive security measures and additional training to the crew in order to mitigate this risk. So looking at the way all these incidents took place, we feel there are very effective measures that you can take without the use of weapons in order to protect those vessels.
Could you please elaborate on some of those measures?
Ships are big and go quite fast. They can do a lot of different things in order to evade anything that's incoming. We don't believe that the June 13 attacks were done with projectiles such as missiles or torpedoes or anything like that. We believe that earlier in the night, under the cover of darkness, somebody in a small craft approached the vessel from the back and basically managed to stick an explosive — a water-borne improvised explosive device or any other explosive device — on the hull of the ship.
If the officer on watch on the ship realized that something was incoming, there would be a lot of things he could do in order to avoid the incident. However, when vessels are transiting the Strait of Hormuz, navigation is key and safety is also very important. It's a narrow stretch of water. You cannot go left or right. You have to maintain a position within the separation scheme.
So the officer is only looking forward and only paying attention to safe navigation. If we embark an unarmed security team on board, their job is not the safe navigation of the vessel but the security of the vessel. So they will be looking where the crew can't.
If an incoming target is identified, then the standard operating procedures are very specific. The vessel will advance to its maximum operating speed. It will perform evasive maneuvers basically causing a wake. This wake is going to make it very difficult for anybody who's trying to approach the hull of the vessel. All lights will be switched on. Other parts of security measures such as the fire hoses will be activated. So there's going to be a water curtain. There are going to be flares fired at the incoming craft. So it's not going to be easy at all. And if by any chance that small craft manages to come alongside and place something on the vessel then we know it's there. So the naval forces in the region will be immediately notified and there's gonna be an adequate response.
Do you expect the demand to hold up or even increase amid the ongoing tension in the region?
I don't think that this is going to set a standard, a new standard of sorts. What we see from our long experience in this industry is that when there is an incident there is a spike of interest and concern which fades out as the weeks go by.
How well-equipped are firms like yours to meet the increased demand?
We feel with the way our SOPs [standard operating procedures] are designed and our response methods are implemented, any vessel that we protect is going to be 100% safe from harm. However, if we're talking about state actors and a sudden full-fledged attack on the Iranians or the Saudis or the Americans, anybody who wants to close the Strait of Hormuz for geopolitical reasons, there's very little that we can do. We are not an army. We are not a country. We are a private maritime security company. So a four-man team cannot fight against an organized tactical force like the Iran's Revolutionary Guard for example. So if it goes full fledged, there's pretty much nothing we can do.
The US Department of Defense released this picture of composite material, which it said was left behind following the removal of an unexploded limpet mine
What are the shipping companies most worried about?
It's the type of attack that we saw on June 13 when somebody placed explosives on the side of that vessel. And of course, everybody has the fear of a full-scale war or military operations targeting Iran for example, which would highly affect trade in the region and globally.
Are they considering pulling out of the region? Is that even possible given their long-term contracts with clients?
This is a complicated matter and it has more to do with the insurance market.
So you have different types of vessel owners, managers, operators and tanker pools. Some of them have a larger risk appetite than others. For example, following the June 13 event, the Heidmar tanker pool, which is the most prestigious tanker pool in the world, basically stopped any vessel that belongs to the pool from going into the Persian Gulf until a further risk analysis was completed. And this is a very professional approach to the matter.
Other companies suspended operations altogether from the Persian Gulf. Companies affected by the incidents of the May 12 have suspended bunkering operations from Fujairah, which together with Singapore is among the most important fuel bunkering global positions for ships. So a lot of Singapore-based management companies entirely ceased operations in Fujairah.
Now, because of these incidents, the Gulf of Oman and the entire Persian Gulf have been characterized as high risk areas, not because of piracy but because of state-actor aggression. This means that additional insurance premiums will apply to every single vessel going into the Persian Gulf.
Ship owners are businessmen and their purpose is to make money. If their evaluation concludes that a journey is risky but at the same time lucrative. They will go ahead with it. You know, this industry does not shy away from danger. On the contrary, it will go where it's dangerous because it'll pay more.
What does this increased demand mean for the costs of hiring security personnel? Have you increased your prices?
I can only speak for my company and not for the others. Our core belief is protecting human life at sea. Our background is from the Hellenic Navy. All our personnel on the water are mostly former military and the code of ethics that we have in the company is protecting life at sea, then the vessel and then the cargo. We don't want to profit from an unfortunate situation that the industry finds itself in. We will be charging the same amount of money that we charged last year or on May 1, before the attacks. We do not add additional charges just because the risk environment is amplified.