Wednesday, September 1, 2010

When Bad Policy Gets Worse

I have never been more excited to attend an event like I am for attending the United States Naval Institute History conference this year. While the contractors have been working on my home office I had a chance to read RADM Joseph F. Callo, USNR (Ret.) book John Paul Jones - which is remarkably well written and applicable for the US Navy today. Actually, I'll be talking about many of the folks who will be at that conference over the next several blog posts - but in this blog post let me just say that I hope when Stephen Carmel of Maersk Line gives his luncheon keynote address he speaks to this rather incredible issue nobody seems to be talking about.

The Suez Canal Authority’s decision one month ago to no longer allow commercial vessels with onboard firearms to transit the strategic waterway is causing severe complications for some ship owners and operators trying to protect crews, cargo and assets from Somali pirates.

Maersk Line Ltd. learned about the new policy by surprise when one of its ships was prevented from entering the Suez Canal until it surrendered its supply of weapons to Egyptian authorities, Stephen Carmel, the company’s senior vice president of maritime services, said during an interview...
This article by American Shipper's Eric Kulisch is almost certainly going to end up in a CRS report very soon, because the article goes on and on with incredible moments of hand to forehead frustration - read the whole damn thing!

Are the ships chartered to bring home US Army equipment from Iraq - with tanks, vehicles, etc... having their security personnel disarmed when passing the Suez canal? YES.
"The real ridiculous part of this is we’re on some ships that have military hardware and we have to take our little M-4s and 9 mms off," Rothrauff said, referring to the rifles and pistols stored on board the cargo vessels.
I'm not even going to touch the firearms export rules, because the article suggests the State Department has a good understanding of the problem - and I know there is at least 1 CRS report about it because that is where I first learned of the firearms export issue a few months ago.

But still...jeeez.

The real problem here is that the US government forced a policy of self protection on the maritime shipping industry outside of any international regulatory framework. The complex nature of global maritime trade can make unilateral policies of any individual country even more dangerous than the problems they are meant to correct due to secondary and tertiary network effects. On one hand the Navy and Congress is telling the industry to put armed security on ships, and on the other hand nations - including the United States - are legitimately enforcing firearms export laws preventing ships from bringing guns into ports.

Neither Congress nor the US Navy are providing an alternative that represents a well thought out security solution to ships moving in and out of the pirate areas. Both the Navy and Congress have instead been pushing bureaucratic paper shuffling alternatives intended to inefficiently circumnavigate the complex system that has ultimately only further increased the cost of trade above and beyond the original costs of hiring the security in the first place.

And in the places where a ship is most vulnerable - like a Persian Gulf port or the Suez canal - the weapons are being removed by the local state - who has a legitimate right just like our own Coast Guard does to remove firearms from ships approaching ports. The solution to this problem is not easy, and by no means do I think the US government should put security on every ship - but can we at least protect the billions in Army equipment returning from Iraq with something a bit tougher than a hired gun whom another nation can disarm at will, or do we have to be like Canada and take action only after there is a problem.

The American Shipper article is fantastic, and discusses many points not covered in this analysis.

I will say this though... the timing is very interesting because the Egyptians began the enforcement just prior to the beginning of Ramadan. There is a lot of internet chatter about Al Qaeda affiliated groups in Yemen doing a lot of research and talking about efforts towards sinking a US flagged ship. The action by the Egyptians could suggest Egypt is very aware of this threat and is taking necessary steps to prevent such an attack from taking place at their strategically and economically important choke point. I imagine to an extremist organization looking to make a big splash in the maritime domain, a US flagged ship with unarmed security team on a ship carrying the equipment of an US Army combat brigade returning from Iraq, sitting off the Med side of the Suez canal waiting for Egyptians to return firearms - looks like a much easier target than a US Navy warship on pirate patrol.

Hopefully folks outside the State Department are aware of the Egyptian policy change, and aren't stupid enough to trust in security through the obscurity of the issue.

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