January 30, 2014

Guns and cavity searches

Now that Devyani Khobragade fracas has reached some sort of conclusion that saves face on both the US and Indian sides, I am curious to know what will develop in the case in India that involves AdvanFort and its crew detained in India. It is possible that I am a hammer seeing only a nail, but I believe that the two events are closely intertwined and that US actions were in response to the Seaman Guard Ohio detention of its mercenaries and crew. Countries do not react to diplomatic petty crimes in a vacuum, and neither do they humiliate female diplomats of friendly countries with body cavity searches unless they have an agenda or want to send a message. I believe the agenda was AdvanFort. 

Interestingly, while the Khobragade affair was in full bloom, so to speak, with vitriol flowing freely from both sides, Advanfort put out a public statement saying that the crew aboard the armed-guard accommodation vessel had been released on bail. This turned out to be incorrect; the bail order had been rescinded by a higher Indian court and the crew were never released. I wonder if this happened because a US-India deal went sour. 

I am not too concerned with the Khobragade affair; I will only point out that both the US State and Indian babudom (and other Indian elite) share some distasteful traits that escalated the mess- they both believe that exceptionalism should apply to them, that they are above any law- national or international- that they choose to break and that individuals or countries perceived weaker than them are fair game. So I leave them to their own predictable devices.

The Seaman Guard Ohio incident is curious. Here is a ship owned by AdvanFort and its self- proclaimed billionaire Arab owner Samir Farajallah who is based in the US; he lives close to the White House. AdvanFort calls itself a private maritime security company; however, it belongs more in the shadowy world of US military contractors that operate around the world, and not just in Iraq or Afghanistan. (A recent report says that US Special Ops forces are present in a staggering 134 countries around the world, i.e. in 70% of them. This is not a Bush thing alone; these numbers have gone up by 123% during Obama’s reign. And, while US Special Ops are not private contractors, the US does use the latter extensively along with the former. AdvanFort has, amongst other things, supplied arms to Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan.) 

AdvanFort has been manned in the recent past almost entirely by senior ex US naval officers, and retired intelligence and military officials ashore. Two of its senior (non-military) executives quit this month amidst rumours that AdvanFort was in financial difficulties. Given its background, it is unsurprising that the company has very close links with the US government and military, even though it paid a fine in the US two years ago for making false statements in connection with arms purchases and end-user certificates. 

To facts regarding the Ohio are ominous, and bring up, in India, the ghost of the 1995 Purulia arms drop in West Bengal. The Indians have recovered 35 assault rifles and 5,724 rounds of ammunition from the Ohio; Indian security and intelligence agencies are apparently trying to now determine if there is an LTTE, Islamic terrorist group or naxalite connection here. 

AdvanFort’s explanations about the Ohio, its arms and its location are interesting- and most of them do not wash. An anti-piracy armed guard ship, which is what they claim the Ohio is, has no business hanging around the south-eastern tip of India, thousands of miles away from where the action is. Then, it was claimed that the Ohio was forced close to the Indian coast because of a cyclone; Indian officials were quick to point out that the ship wasn’t in cyclone affected waters to begin with.  It does appear that the ship was low on fuel, though, which is why it came that close to the coast, and which is why it came about that its 10 crew and 25 security guys- Britons, Indians and East Europeans- are now in jail.

High profile British law firm Ince & Company has now been recruited by AdvanFort to fight the Ohio case. Ince claim that the ship had been boarded many times by Indian officials, including in Kochi, within the last few months and are campaigning to move the case to a ‘neutral’ forum. Stories have appeared in the British media about the squalid conditions of Indian prisons and the need to honour soldiers who have fought for that country (at least one of the mercenaries detained off the Ohio is ex British army.) Other stories say that this is another case of seafarer criminalisation. British PM David Cameron says he is doing ‘everything possible’ to have the six Britons who were on the Ohio released from Indian jail.

Caught up in the high octane Khobragade incident, the Indian media has largely underreported the Ohio incident. In my opinion, however, the Indian government is doing things right, for once. They say they are investigating the Ohio- only fair, given the huge national security implications and given, also, the existing presence of many foreign intelligence networks in South India. There are no strident accusations claiming that the Ohio was definitely gun running, though presumably national intelligence and security agencies are working hard behind the scenes to rule this possibility out.  

India messed up badly with its handling of the 2012 Italian marine shooting incident; let’s hope it continues to do things right this time. Let us hope it ignores who lives close to the White House, or who is in bed with who in Washington, as it investigates the Seaman Guard Ohio affair- which is far more important to the nation than the Khobragade body cavity search tamasha.

Meanwhile, to those who are crying criminalistion of seafarers, I will say this- armed men, whether they are mercenaries or armed guards, are not seafarers. Even so, I agree that they should be released as soon as (and if) they are cleared after investigation in India. As for the squalid Indian prisons bit, well, that is the way the cookie crumbles, sometimes, in life, when you work far from home. Ask any real seaman.


January 23, 2014


That the predictions some of us have made, over the years, on China’s exponentially growing influence in the commercial maritime space have come true is no consolation to the many beleaguered  Indian shipping companies on the verge of bankruptcy. Or to me, who writes this piece in some despair. The gap between Chinese and Indian merchant shipbuilding and shipowning businesses was less apparent in the boom years, when a rising tide lifted all boats and every shipmanager and shipowner looked smartly visionary, and where every government could hide its many incompetencies easily. However, Indian maritime weaknesses have been laid bare - and badly- since, with the mini-collapse of markets across the world. We are naked, and it is cold.

A ‘Future of Shipping’ poll conducted recently by a maritime magazine has seen two thirds of the respondents agreeing that China will overtake countries like Greece and Japan and become the country with the most merchant ships in the world by 2020.

Now this is just one poll and its results- essentially opinions and predictions- are hardly guaranteed to happen in reality.  But that is not the point; whether China becomes the largest shipowning nation or not in six years is actually immaterial to Indian shipping. The point is that China is already a global commercial maritime power, and that the gap between the Chinese and Indian maritime industries is already near insurmountable. And this gap will widen rapidly with each passing year. It will make Indian shipping less and less relevant, even if it survives. 

The hand-wringers amongst us- and they are many- will say that China started its reforms decades before us, that it is not hampered by the clamour of democracy and that it is already too late- the race is already lost. While they may be correct on all counts, India must get its act together anyway, and quickly. For one, giving up the race now will mean ceding to China- a rival, even a future enemy-  and handing it everything on a platter. For another, our shipping is exposed and open to being overtaken by other smaller developing economies. And finally, India must get its maritime act together because otherwise its maritime industry will be decimated by overwhelming Chinese power. It is clear and logical that Indian shipping will be utterly destroyed if this trend continues.

As the Chinese fleet grows, it will continue to employ its own nationals, not Indians. Its ships will carry Indian cargo. China will spawn its own management companies and increase the depth of ownership at the expense of Indian shipping. I will not dwell on the geopolitical implications of expanding Chinese maritime power too much here except to point out that a rival country already allied with a neighbouring foe and which has encircled India will naturally be antagonistic to any Indian interests, including commercial or geopolitical. It is one thing to be overtaken, quite another to be threatened with annihilation. India will feel massive pressure wherever it has strategic interests, but particularly in its own Indian Ocean, Africa and in regions that it presently sources oil and other resources from. 

That aside, we can actually learn from China, where successive administrations have managed, overall, a pretty blistering pace of reform in the maritime space. China has shown that concerted and long term planning shows results when it is backed by government support and the will to execute. It has pumped in resources to shipbuilding and shipowning- the two big pillars. It has, despite some pretty endemic corruption akin to India’s, executed on its plans. India cannot go down its old path of anaemic policy making, lazy implementation and third-rate execution much longer. It needs to learn from the Chinese.

Then, China has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into its education system (including, importantly, its vocational education system) and billions into R&D initiatives across industry. India cannot match this, but it must allocate handsomely towards manpower development and education. It must promote excellent vocational schools; tertiary benefits will include a much better calibre of seagoing personnel.

Support to shipowners- the much discussed level playing field- is actually a smaller issue and relatively easily done. Policy must be pragmatic and consistent, and, equally critically, must be quickly translated into action. Policy makers need to show some will here, and some spine, for once. 

Unfortunately, I do not see  much evidence in India of the realisation that its maritime space is likely to fall so far behind the Chinese within the next few years that the industry’s very survival will be at stake. That realisation is the first step on a long road, where winning and losing is important, sure, but where accepting that one is not even a player in the game is harakiri.  


January 17, 2014

Aye, Robot.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Oskar Levander, Head of Marine Innovation Engineering at Rolls-Royce, said recently that the first unmanned cargo ship would likely be sailing out there within the next decade. “I think it will take more than 10 years before you have all the global rules in place, but you may have a local administration that is prepared to run [remote-controlled ships] sooner,” he said. 

The idea of drone ships- or crewless ships, autonomous ships or roboships, if you prefer- is nothing new. However, many would have us believe that technology has advanced to a stage where these are well possible, and what is really holding back the advent of roboships are international regulations governing seafaring that will take, as Levander says, ‘decades to unravel and renegotiate.’  Levander admits that oceangoing drone ships are a long way away, but feels that we will probably see drone ships sailing on fixed routes in European waters, or those of the US, within the next ten years.

It is not just Rolls Royce that is pushing the idea.  The European Munin project (Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks, cleverly named after the globetrotting raven of the Norse God Odin) is a consortium co-funded by the European Commission that recognises the future shortage of seafarers as one of the reasons for why drone ships are desirable, and is examining a ‘pilot to pilot’ autonomous ship. Their brochure also somewhat snidely refers to the usual shibboleths of human error being the cause of whatever percentage of marine accidents (while admitting that fatigue- which nobody has done anything about- is a big factor behind this) and implying that a drone ship will make accidents disappear.  

Elsewhere, media reports say that the UK engineering group, one of the world’s largest suppliers to the commercial shipbuilding industry, “has called for a public debate on the switch from crewed cargo vessels to autonomous ships as part of a wider drive by industry to use advanced automation technology.”

To me, all this roboship business is, at the moment, just smoke propelled by a segment of the industry that wants to make money. Money to fund its ‘research projects,’ which will result in the development of a whole new range of equipment that the IMO will no doubt be pressurised to make mandatory, so more money can be made there. For example, advanced navigational computer systems and sensor systems that will identify even small objects in the vicinity of the ship on the ‘deck’ side and advanced monitoring and surveillance systems in the engine room that will detect machinery issues long before humans can.  No doubt this will be mandated as compulsory on even crewed ships of the future. This is the same old game that has been played over the years; whether it has contributed to increased safety is often a question mark.

Which is not to say that drone ships are undesirable, although I take with a pinch of salt the assumption that they will be cheaper. The saving in crew costs and in lifesaving equipment outlays is likely to be more than somewhat offset by increased maintenance costs and costs for much more expensive temporary staff for repairs or in port. A drone ship will solve the issue of competent seafarer shortage immediately, of course. It will also make large parts of the shipmanagement industry redundant, a cost saving for shipowners. 

Drone ships may be desirable, but they are not, in the near future at least, inevitable. The advantages of having a human eyeball assessing a situation and taking immediate action a hundred times a day is something that will not be easy to replicate with computers and sensors for quite a few years, at least not reliably. And, it is not just maritime regulatory issues that will have to be ‘unravelled and re-negotiated’; the entire insurance and freight markets will have to be overhauled too, for a start, as will large parts of international maritime law and its practice. 

And so will have to be overhauled- and I say this with great glee- the mindset of an industry that scapegoats and criminalises seafarers as a matter of routine. The ‘error of servant’ defence will no longer apply on roboships, because there will be none. What will our shipmanagers, owners, insurers, Flag and Port States and potential ports of refuge do, then, after an accident? Who will they blame? How will they cover their backsides? 

As for drone ships sailing in traffic-dense European or American waters within ten years, well, I wouldn’t bet on that either.  I don’t think countries there are going to buy the idea of unmanned ships zipping up and down their coasts so easily.  


January 02, 2014

Bashing on with obsolescence

I have sometimes made the case that outdated senior ex-sailors  in regulatory bodies, or those that have no seafaring background, should be required to sail on modern merchant ships every once in a while. That too many who pontificate, resolve, enact and audit on matters that affect the lives of everybody at sea do so without a clue of what it all translates to on the ground. I believe this outdated disconnect, and the fact that administrators- not up to date seamen and seawomen- make most major regulatory decisions is the reason why the IMO and national regulatory bodies like the Indian Directorate General of Shipping are so spectacularly ineffective. 

I now add another category of ex-sailors that should be required to sail periodically- all those in the education and training space. 

Besides administrators with no seagoing experience at all, tens of former Captains and Chief Engineers are deciding on maritime training syllabi today who have not stepped on a gangway in more than a decade. Hundreds of these folk are teaching everything from seamanship to navigation to engineering at training establishments across India. From the same somewhat incestuous group come examiners who pass or fail, every year, thousands of pre-sea cadets and ratings and officers appearing for competency exams.  I have come across a few of these gentlemen who have not sailed for a quarter of a century. And administrators, who are the final arbiters in so many matters of maritime education and training, haven’t sailed at all.

Meanwhile, the whole world has changed at sea. A basic example: an outdated ex-Master cannot even begin to know what a seaman’s basic port duties are on, say, a Ro-Ro ship today. How do they manage three ‘open’ access points- a gangway and two ramps- in the ISPS age? How do they, with less than half the crew the ex-Master sailed with when he sailed last, manage the explosion of operational requirements- crew changes, stores, bunkers, cargo lashings, machinery maintenance etc. etc.- in a port stay that is measured in hours, not, as he was used to, in days or weeks?  How is that damn ramp secured, anyway? How does the ECDIS marry with other equipment? How does the GMDSS really work? How are port state control inspections conducted? And so on, and on. And on. 

This lack of current knowledge can be extended to all operational, regulatory and knowledge related matters. The huge and very rapid changes we are used to seeing today, from the types of ships out there to changes in seamanship, navigation, engineering, systems, communications, the way business is now done at sea – in fact, in everything- means that a person will start becoming dated in half a decade or less. An outdated person should not be regulating or teaching or examining anybody professionally. QED. 

The solution to this, I think, is to make it mandatory for this new category of mine (educators and training regulators) to sail as observers (at least) for, say, a month every four or five years.  This stint should be on a modern ship on an international voyage, and it should involve at least two or three port calls. Sailors are not stupid; former senior officers are perfectly capable of quickly understanding the changes and the many ways these impact lives at sea.  ‘Administrators’ are not stupid either and, although I obviously don’t expect that they will become professional sailors in a month, I am hoping that a periodic stint at sea will at least give them an appreciation of what a sailor’s life is all about, and help them to make more informed decisions. Perhaps tone down the arrogance too. 

Of course there will be resistance to such a  proposal.  This will cost money; who will pay? Insurance premia are likely to be high for older ‘supernumeries.’ Lack of cabin space or lifeboat capacity will exclude many ships. Critics will come up with a million other reasons why this is a bad idea.
Maybe it is, but do you have a better one? Besides, worked right, this is not as expensive as it first appears, and it is not that impractical either. Think about it; it can be done.

The reasoning behind ex-sailors’ induction in maritime training is that they have been there and done that. The problem is ‘that’ has changed- and changes enormously every few years, and ‘that’ is now unrecognisable. They may have been there, but they haven’t done that. Not anymore. 

And the administrators haven’t done anything at all at any time, so they should not be the final arbiters in the training space for anything- that is a recipe for the failure that we see every day in maritime training.