Floating Liabilities? Maritime Armouries, Risks and Solutions

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USS Mitscher, US Fifth Fleet/flickr

This article was originally published by Sustainable Security on 2 January, 2015.

The use of security forces to protect merchant vessels from piracy has led to a rise in ‘floating armouries’: vessels that are used for weapons storage, often moored in international waters. This growing trend raises a number of concerns over security, oversight and transparency.

From 2005 onwards, cargo ships traversing the seas off the coast of Somalia into the Gulf of Aden have become targets of maritime piracy. One of the responses has been to station armed guards on the ships, or on support vessels travelling with the ships to protect them. On commercial ships these guards have generally been provided by Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSCs) with weapons owned by the PMSCs themselves or leased from governments or other PMSCs in the region.

PMSCs need to have storage for the weapons when not in use. One option is to store them in land-based armouries, the other is to store them in ‘floating armouries’. A new report  by the Omega Research Foundation commissioned by the Remote Control project examines the issue of floating armouries and offers recommendations for how they could be regulated.

What are floating armouries and why are they used?

Floating armouries are ships that store weapons, ammunition and other equipment such as night vision goggles and body armour for use by PMSCs engaged in vessel protection. They also provide other logistics support including accommodation, food and medical supplies storage. They are typically commercially owned vessels, and are often anchored in international waters. These vessels are not purpose built, but ships that have been converted and retrofitted.

Due to the tightening of state regulation over the use of land based armouries, restrictions on weapons in some territorial waters, as well as the fees levied at PMSCs to move weapons through ports, PMSCs have increasingly turned towards floating armouries.

What are the issues?

Whilst PMSCs have dramatically reduced piracy off the coast of Somalia, the Omega Research Foundation’s report sheds light on an underexplored issue: the lack of regulation, oversight and security of floating armouries. It is not known how many floating armouries there are in operation – due to the lack of information on these vessels it is hard to verify their numbers. In 2012 a UN report detailed 18 floating armouries; other reports put the number at between 12 and 20 (See an industry newsletter and a Guardian article quoting the EU Naval Force). In September 2014 the UK Government published a list of floating armouries that UK PMSCs were licensed to use, stipulating 31 armouries. As this number only represents floating armouries licensed for use by UK companies, there may well be other armouries in operation.

In 2012 the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea highlighted concerns over the safety and security of floating armouries, citing the lack of national and international regulations. The Group stated:

“This new and highly profitable business for PMSCs is uncontrolled and almost entirely unregulated, posing additional legal and security challenges for all parties involved.”

Two years on there is still no international regulation and only limited national regulation. As the floating armouries are often moored in international waters, they operate in a ‘legal grey area’ with, in some cases, the only regulation coming from the states that register the vessels (the flag states). There are at least 3 states (Djibouti, Mongolia, and St Kitts and Grenadine) that give explicit approval for vessels to operate as floating armouries. Other states do have some regulation regarding the carrying of weapons on board ships but it mainly relates to PMSCs rather than floating armouries specifically.

Some of the vessels operating as floating armouries are flagged to countries that are on the Paris MoU or Tokyo MoU ‘black lists’. These black lists are derived from the Port State Control authority’s inspection of ships for compliance with international conventions and international law. Port State Control publishes an annual list evaluating the performance of flag states and assigning each a white, grey or black classification. The Omega Research Foundation has raised concerns that some floating armouries are flagged to states where there are serious concerns over the regulation of ships that fly under their flags.

There are also concerns over the construction and physical security standards of the floating armouries. None of the vessels currently used as floating armouries have been purpose built for that function. Existing vessels have been adapted, which means they may not have acceptable storage facilities for arms and ammunition. As a minimum, floating armouries should have an armoury contained within the structure of the ship and should have a secure entrance. Arms and ammunition should be stored separately, and should be kept in a weatherproof, ventilated and shelved environment.

What are the solutions?

Whilst states can introduce legislation to regulate floating armouries operating within their jurisdiction, the most effective regulation needs to be at an international level. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) as well as international trade bodies, such as the Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI), should review current regulation and implement the necessary changes.

As a first step there should be an international in-depth study into the number of floating armouries currently in operation and the establishment of a central registry that contains information on the vessels used as floating armouries and the companies that operate them. The IMO or another international body should also review any existing national regulations and examples of best practice. Subsequent work should focus on establishing an international regulatory framework for floating armouries and an effective monitoring and compliance mechanism.

The Omega Research Foundation is an independent UK-based research organisation dedicated to providing rigorous, objective, evidence-based research on the manufacture, trade in, and use of, military, security and police (MSP) technologies. Their report, ‘Floating Armouries: Implications and Risks’ is available here.

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