UK Flagged Vessels exposed to greater risk in Indian Ocean?
There is a possibility that the UK government may have inadvertently exposed UK flagged vessels to a greater risk of hijacking and to have also undermined the deterrent effect of the widespread arming of ships in the Indian Ocean.
The deployment of armed guards on UK flagged vessels is only allowed in “exceptional circumstances and where it is lawful to do so” and this principle is set out in the Interim Guidance issued by the Department for Transport in December 2015. This makes it clear that armed guards can only be employed in the High Risk Area (“HRA”) a term with which the industry is now very familiar. That was reduced in size in October 2015 on the initiative of various industry bodies after pressure from countries like India and Oman who had suffered by having the HRA lapping against their own territorial waters. But by restricting the right to employ armed guards to the industry defined HRA, UK owners are being presented with a confusing and unsatisfactory situation.
When the piracy problem escalated during 2008 the military quickly established a Voluntary Reporting Area (“VRA”) that was effectively the whole of the Indian Ocean stretching north into the Arabian Gulf and south to just short of Sri Lanka. Its boundaries acted as the trigger for vessels transiting the area to register with the military authorities and MSCHOA in London. By the time the industry issued the fourth version of Best Management Practice the “high risk area” which had always sat within the VRA, had become the High Risk Area (a term of art with capital letters). Significantly there was by then a direct correlation between the HRA and the Listed Areas set out by the Joint War Committee which then attracted war risk Additional Premium. The areas had become one and the same and it meant every ship had to pay more war risk premium and at the same time we saw the risk for piracy move from the hull to the war underwriters.
The move to widespread acceptance of armed guards by flag states was much slower. By the time the UK allowed armed guards to be deployed on their vessels it was understandable perhaps that they focused on the High Risk Area which after all was the area the industry determined to have a higher risk of piracy. It meant that UK vessels crossing any part of the Indian Ocean could deploy armed guards subject to the usual approvals by the P & I Clubs and insurers.
However, the problem with tying the right to employ guards to the HRA has been exposed by the reduction of that area which may be exacerbated by any further reduction in the future. The direct effect is that UK vessels trading north to south from the Gulf to Sri Lanka to the east of the HRA cannot employ armed guards. It is appreciated that the risk of attack is lower, but UK vessels are out of kilter with the balance of the world’s fleet. The industry and military wants to keep the risk to the pirates as high as possible. It may be that the UK government intended this but the same mistake has been made in the recently amended trade control license that is issued to maritime security companies to allow the transfer of weapons across the HRA. It makes much more sense to ensure that weapons can be deployed in the wider military VRA and not restricted to an area one which looks increasingly to be one which is effectively defined by the insurance market.