It is one thing to ward off Somali pirates. It is another to tackle the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
The maritime security industry has experienced a flood of demand from shippers spooked by last week’s attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman, which the US and UK have blamed on Iran.
“We have been flat out and have deployed an additional 70 guards in the Gulf since the attacks last week,” said John Thompson, co-founder of UK-based Ambrey, which over the past decade has become the largest provider of security personnel to ships.
Mr Thompson expects the number of security guards deployed on vessels to increase by approximately 25 per cent in the coming weeks, based on the number of inquiries Ambrey has received.
Dimitris Maniatis, chief operating officer at Diaplous, said his Cyprus-based security firm had witnessed a “12 per cent rise in requests” for placing guards on ships in the Gulf.
It represents a welcome boost for the industry, which has experienced a lean period as piracy off the Horn of Africa diminished over the past few years just as an influx of cheap labour drove down costs.
The cost of hiring a team of three or four guards for a 12-day journey has dropped from the industry peak of $40,000 to well less than half that level. One executive said that previous pricing “wasn’t sustainable”. Now guards on ships have become a “commoditised service”.
“It’s not the rock star days that it used to be,” said Patrick Rogers at S-RM, a risk consultancy that advises a number of major shipping companies
When pirate attacks off Somalia became commonplace last decade — inspiring a Tom Hanks film detailing the capture of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship — the number of security firms offering guards proliferated, often founded by ex-special forces or other elite military personnel.
Guards were generally drawn from the ranks of elite military units in the UK — usually former Royal Marines, Parachute Regiment, or ex-special forces soldiers such as those that have served in the SAS or SBS.
Jason Franks, a former private marine guard, said that at one stage the high pay meant the Royal Marines were “haemorrhaging” men attracted by what amounted to a cash-lined bridge back in to civilian life.
Many found the life testing. Conditions on ships can vary widely: some modern cargo ships are equipped with gyms and high-end canteens while older vessels are often basic at best, with guards facing a lottery every time they are deployed.
Kieran Ryan, a former Royal Marine who worked as a guard for two years, said that to be assigned to a Greek-run vessel meant “you knew you would eat like kings”. A Chinese-run ship, on the other hand, “often required a strong stomach”.
Increasingly, guards are now lower-paid Asian or eastern European contractors who command far lower rates.
Mr Ryan said that the level of specialised guard training has improved in recent years because of increased industry regulation and the fact that former marine security officers have set up centres to prepare recruits. But the changing demographic meant the average guard does not arrive with as much experience as five years ago.
“Now a lot of the guys going into the industry are from India and Nepal instead,” said Mr Ryan. “They’re brave,” he added. “But Nepal is a landlocked country.”
Mr Maniatis at Diaplous, who spent four years as a private maritime security contractor, said that increased competition had already driven consolidation across the industry. He estimated that it would soon be whittled down to just a “handful” of major companies.
“Around 2011 or 2012, there were about 460 private maritime security companies,” Mr Maniatis said. “But many have gone missing in action”.
Some companies have thrived under the new conditions. Ambrey, which many in the industry say helped drive down costs when they launched nine years ago, has increased turnover from £26.1m in 2016 to approximately £50m last year, according to its accounts and Mr Thompson, the co-founder.
“It was a frothy market five years ago,” said Mr Thompson. “But it’s gone through a natural evolution.”
The tense situation in the Middle East might not return the industry to the boom times but it does present welcome demand — as well as specific challenges.
Guards deployed in the region tend to be unarmed: opening fire on elite state-backed forces is considered unwise, even in self defence, while the rules on carrying firearms vary from country to country in the Middle East.
But trained guards can improve the quality of lookouts onboard, providing extra manpower and utilising specialist equipment like night-vision googles, helping sight potential attackers early.
The nature of the attacks — which is still being hotly debated in maritime security circles — has also complicated the response from shippers.
The US, UK and Saudi Arabia have accused Iran of being behind the attacks, highlighting video footage that appears to show an Iranian military vessel attempting to remove an unexploded limpet mine from one of the tankers. Iran has denied responsibility, while Germany and Japan have cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
If, as suspected, though, the attacks were carried out by a state, it presents a very different challenge to piracy or other threats guards are normally tasked with deterring.
Mr Rogers at S-RM said that some of the largest tanker operators were likely to proceed cautiously. “We still don’t know for certain what kind of threat shippers are facing,” he said, adding there was still debate over whether the vessels had been attacked with mines, or potentially rockets or even drones.
“In the circumstances, improving procedures on board — from monitoring the tanker both in port and at sea, ensuring the crew know what to do in the event of an attack, to dusting off crisis management procedures at corporate level, may have more benefit than putting guards on board.”
Maritime security experts said clients with tankers in the region could consider a number of measures, from trying to ensure they travel in daylight through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow choke point separating the Gulf states from Iran where approximately 20 per cent of the world’s oil flows every day, to sailing at maximum speed.
Robert Hvide Macleod, chief executive of Norwegian tanker company Frontline, whose Front Altair vessel was one of those attacked last week, said the company would “consider all possible measures to ensure the safety of our crews and vessels”.
The mystery has complicated the response. While last week’s attacks were the second on tankers in the region in as many months, consultants warn the next attack could be very different. On Wednesday a rocket hit an area of Basra, Iraq’s southern oil and gas hub, close to the border with Iran.
Security advisers also say that if the attacks did involve limpet mines, it is unclear whether they were attached while the vessel was in port — the two tankers left from Saudi Arabia and the UAE — or after the ships had begun their journey.
“We are not confident of who or what is executing these attacks,” said Ben Stewart, at Maritime Asset Security and Training, which has provided guards to at least one tanker in the region. “If this is being done by the Iranians, they need to maintain deniability.”