Warning Shot

August 2009


arctiWhatever else comes of the mystery surrounding the putative serial hijackings, loss and finding of the timber carrier MV Arctic Sea (most of which is set out here and the links therein), professional maritime security people ought to be concerned about what this ship’s misadventures say about (1) the ability of a 4000 ton ship to take itself off the grid and (2) our inability to find it.

Let’s see, with the AIS switched off and, perhaps, crew cell phones dumped overboard (preventing their use as GPS trackers), you seem to have -Poof!, an instant ghost ship! Radio silence creates a status that leaves those hunting for the vessel in the dark with a great big ocean to search.

Now, this may all prove to be a great insurance scam, but …for several years we have been hearing, giving and responding to warnings about the danger of a rogue ship wandering the seas. And now we seemingly have a case in point.

During his comments to the BBC (here), Major General Tom Wilkerson of the USNI refers to a couple of concerns, including the placement of something of value other than the ship’s normal cargo on the vessel, or, more ominously, something dangerous to others on the ship.

For example, on one extreme, there have been warnings of “SCUD” missiles being placed on small merchants and launching missile attacks (see here). A more likely scenario involves the use of a small ship as a carrier of massive amounts of explosives and other weapons of mass destruction and sailing the vessel into a densely populated port area and triggering the device. Further, another scenario is even less complicated. As every sailor knows, the capture of a ship near busy shipping lanes poses other dangers to vessels sailing nearby – as well stated by CDR Salamander in a post comment from a couple of years ago about meeting up with a “suicide ship” in restricted waters:

CDR Salamander wrote: “… If you are toddling around a 7kts and she turns prior to her 5,000yd CPA to port? Oh, lets be nice and say he is only going 20kts (sneaky fellow is he). Being simple men, lets round things down to a 20kt average combined closure speed when he turns prior to CPA (he then goes to flank and you respond by a turn to starboard and hit the juice….but you are on a LHD, not a nuke and it takes awhile to speed up). Using our handy “6 minute rule”, you have about 7.5 minutes to react there shipmate. Mmmmm. Its the mid-watch. It takes 45 seconds for Seaman Farmer and the OOD LTJG PilotWashout to realize what is going on, and 15 seconds for brain-mouth-helm to do anything (oh, and don’t forget to tell the Skipper-oh there he is, in his undies yelling his head off). Lets say you are in the Babara Mandral, um I mean Bab-El-Mandab Straits ….”

Roughly translated- if a ship unexpectedly and intentionally turns toward you in restricted waters, you have very little time to react and that time is diminished by a variety of human factors, including the time it takes to recognize the danger, communicate the danger and take actions to avoid the danger. This “time shrinking” is also dependent on your own ship’s ability to maneuver, accelerate or decelerate. A collision that follows could result in sinking, death or severe damage.

Okay, Salamander was writing, based on a real incident, about a very large ship doing something bad in restricted waters. Suppose, however, a ship the size of Arctic Sea was turned into a “Vessel Borne IED” (VBIED) and maneuvers itself against a cruse ship or a tanker in a shipping lane? What are you going to do?

The whole point being we have to get a better handle on tracking ships – perhaps even to the point of mandating the locator equivalent of a “dead man” switch which lights up when attempts are made to disable AIS or other systems.

Something to think about. We’ve had our warning shot across the bow.

UPDATE (17 Aug 09) Ship found, without hijackers or pirates . . .
UPDATE (18 Aug 09) Eight suspected pirates arrested by the Russian Navy.
UPDATE (18 Aug 09) But wait – there’s more !- according to the Finns.

Posted by Mark Tempest in Maritime Security, Piracy

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  • Chuck Hill

    OK that’s the bad news and I don’t want to minimize the potential for foul play, but the good news is that a ship is missing and the whole world seems to know. 50 years ago ships were routinely out of contact for two weeks and no one would have noticed.

    The type of “domain awareness” the Coast Guard is trying to achieve is worth doing.

    Meanwhile don’t forget that your “Vessel Borne IED” (VBIED) could be in a sailboat.

  • craig

    I don’t understand how we couldn’t find it. I thought we had satellites that monitor the oceans. Am I wrong? Shouldn’t the ship have been spotted multiple times as satellites passed over? Is the data there but just not analyzed in time … I guess I’ve been dramatically overestimating how powerful our satellite system is.

  • Cap’n Bill

    Seems to be reason to blow some hot air into the “Thousand Ship Navy” concept with some emphasis on Western coastline of Africa .The USCG has all the expertise that any scheme might require but they are running with a characteristic small checkbook. Now THAT would be a fine Account into which the president might place some “CHANGE”.

  • Chuck Hill

    Satellites are a precious resource and they are targeted at high levels. We can do virtually anything if it’s important enough, but we can’t do everything.

    No, we don’t have a good picture of where all the ships in the world are.

    We get some information from ships that are cooperating and want to be tracked.


    Boys and girls…

    This is one case where we can’t afford to be caught flat-footed, especially if the Arctic Sea is carrying WMDs.

    Now that the ship has apparently been spotted off the Cape Verde Islands, at the very least I would hope that the Navy has already made a few P-3 investigative overflights. An SSN tail might also be a good precaution.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    The “thousand ship navy” idea would give us little in the way of REAL awareness, and IMHO, is abdication of a task the USN and USCG need to have (along with national assets) the capabilities to do for ourselves.

    Other than a few staunch allies, we cannot and should not count on any other maritime force to assist us in such tasks. Between the USN and those allies I refer to, we are well south of a thousand ships, and already have excellent working and info sharing relationships.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    My, my, my. Those unidentified costs which reduce the effectiveness of cost savings strategies will crop up. Burned a lot of AVGAS last week I’ll wager.

    How many untasked P-3’s do we have in airworthy condition for contingency MPA missions once considered routine, flown from bases that no longer exist?

    Satellites do tend to be like searching the back yard lawn for a dropped engagement ring by looking down a soda straw. How many of those do we have up? You need a long stool to stand on to change the battery, too. We won’t have shuttle for how long?

    A tarp here, a paint color change there, paint the distinctive logo of a major shipping firm along the hull, photos don’t look quite the same…

    Details, details…

    Seem like we went through this with a passenger liner in the early sixties. Ancient history, nothing to see here, move along.

  • One thing about tracking cargo ships is that for the most part if you want to find one, you know where they are. And when they are in trouble, they are screaming for assistance.

    In this case, it appears that the ship deviated from the expected path and despite the relatively slow speed, the time that has elapsed was enough for the ship to get well and truly lost. Especially considering that Naval vessels are not exactly interested in merchant shipping as far as I can tell. They are normally just pawns on the ocean playing field. Now, all of a sudden, one has turned itself into a high value target and everyone is trying to figure out how to react.

    Take the Russian Navy which is sending a whole fleet to hunt for this vessel. Why? Seems like an overreaction to me, unless they have a vested interest in the vessel, crew or cargo.

  • Cap’n Bill

    I’m glad someone mentioned the Russian Navy. Some early snippets had it that the entire problem involved some Russian commercial deal that went bad. This may be factual. If so, it might explain why the Russians are suddendly involved in a big way. I am glad that the US didn’t get sucked into this hunt for lost souls.
    We had no skin in the game and could well stand on the sidelines and wait for the final log entry.

    I hope there are no unhappy folks here. We really do have to get used to not being the only guy on the street and not being responsible for everyone’s behavior, good or bad.

  • P-3s or any allied MPA for that matter, to track from where the ship was lost to Cape Verde …. you and what Navy from where? You might as well ask where our fleet of escort frigates are.

    Even if a large chunk of them weren’t in preservation waiting for a fix that won’t come without a Boeing plate …

    Let’s do the GIUK to the old Cold War Echo II cruise to West Africa, shall we?

    Track with P-3s? What P-3s?

    None in Iceland. Brunswick is closed and so is Bermuda. No one detached to Rota anymore to speak of. No one in the Azores. Help from our allies? Brit Nimrods are so few and far between as to be silly. The Dutch, who used to do a lot of North Atlantic stuff – they sold their aircraft to Germany. The French. Well, they’re French. If they find something they will let us know – perhaps.

    No. We need to be realistic and understand that in addition to the fact that we should not be, nor can we afford to be the world’s policeman, we also cannot be the world’s coast guard.

    You can pay Conglomeration X billions of dollars for a system of systems that they could call Sauron if they wanted to avoid fried air conceptual names such as “domain awareness,” and they will still not be able to keep track of every Group III out there all the time – if that Group III does not want to be tracked.

    Our satellites are good – but the ocean is big, crowded, and messy.

    For every nation’s merchant fleet that you could get to agree to embed global locator technology to their fleet, you will have two who will not. Even if you did, you don’t have to own the DVD of Master and Commander (using the decoy against Acheron is one of my favorite scenes) to know that it wouldn’t take much to dupe The Authority to think that a ship was one place and not in another. A Maritime Common Operational Picture will not stop a no kidding bad actor from using a Merchant as a weapon if he so wants.

    Imagine building a Red Cell out of every third guest blogger on USNIBlog during a free-range war game (with a guess leader of LtGen. Van Ripper of Millennium Challenge 2002 fame, natch) and you realize that the danger is much greater and harder to mitigate than most think.

    Technology and international agreements are a tool and an assist – but against a dedicated foe the key to success is the leader at the front – be that leader the OOD of a LSD bobb’n along off some fetid backwater, or the Coast Guardsman on duty off Thimble Shoals on a Christmas Eve.

    Be a tough target, as the neighborhood watch won’t see it all. Build the right leaders and watch standers with the right training …… and show some love to your SCIF and N2 staff …. and prepare for that which was not briefed.

    There is your key to success. That and persistent ISR tasked at the Tactical and Operational Level, responding to short and flexible Strategic guidance that comes without a 3,000NM range butt-phone.

  • AT1 B

    The Russians should know a thing or two about finding a missing ship. Rememeber they were always, always looking for NATO carrier battle groups through out the Cold War, and NATO was always good about trying to hide the CVBG. Doing everything from dodging into storms while shaking the “tattle-tales” to using decoy’s to attract the Bear and Badger Recon units.
    What about RORSAT’s some will ask? Okay what about RORSAT’s or any other satellite. All that can tell you is there is a ship wake out there, even the best of them are getting obliques at shadows (or radar returns from large groups) and even then those shadows are going to show the what ship it is nor what its colors are. The most it is going to tell is that it is “X” class cargo ship. You then narrow your search area from a couple million square miles down to 300 hundred square miles of ocen on a good day. Okay, so figure four hours for a good intelligence center to process and produce the raw into useable data, with a ship moving (hopefully) a constant speed or direction. The datum will need to be worked from the initial observation point. Add in a couple of hours to get MPA or even couple of surface units in the area and now your datum is so cold, you might as well shave it to make your martini’s with. Even worse the target will have migrated out of the initial observation spot (if the target is moving at a good economical speed like 12-16 knots). This is going to take saturation to find this ship and the sad fact is just like CDR Salamander said, we (the US) nor does anyone else have the Navy do something like this.

    It does kind of make me wish we had more heavily invested in UAV technology behind Global Hawk. Having even a couple fleets of these to cross around major shipping lanes narrowing down the field to search in.

    The other question I have is what could of prevented this ship from disappearing into a fjord, bay, river mouth in a decent low-light situation. Been repainted from its home office colors into something else? If I remember right from reading a book many years ago that the Soviet Admiral Gorshkov recommending doing something very similar to this as a way to gave opening day (or opening week) suprise against the NATO Fleet. Basically it would of given the Soviet Navy an upper hand by tying down NATO’s Naval units in postively ID’ing every cargo ship during a PACT/NATO conflict. While they were doing that the Soviet Navy’s raiders and submarines could have flood the North Atlantic to raid the REFORGER convoy’s.

  • Byron

    (slaps AT1 B’s hand) Please tell me you don’t remember the opening shots of Red Storm Rising, the mother of all Harpoon scenarios? A SeaBee ( a ship that is designed to carry whole barges inside of it, with a massive lift to bring barges to different decks, and was used to bring in all the equipment for a parachute division to capture and control Iceland) leaves one port, and at sea, is disguised to resemble a Lykes Steamship Co. vessel.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    “A Maritime Common Operational Picture will not stop a no kidding bad actor from using a Merchant as a weapon if he so wants.

    …the danger is much greater and harder to mitigate than most think.”

    Here’s an AMEN from the congregation. I would love to be in the Ripper’s Red Cell for that evolution. As the lawyer in The Caine Mutiny commented, “I’d much rather prosecute”.

    Sal’s other observation about being “the world’s coast guard” is also spot-on. That thousand ship navy MDA capability will be almost entirely US in short order if it proves difficult (it will), expensive (certainly), or controversial (without doubt). MDA capabilities of the USN and USCG need to be focused on protecting OUR interests, vessels, and facilities. Not diffused across those of a specious “global partnership” whose members expect much and contribute little.

  • Chuck Hill

    The crew is Russian, the owners are Finnish, the flag is Malta. Why are the Russians so concerned? Could it be that it is transporting a Soviet era nuclear device to client in South Asia.

    Great plot for Tom Clancy, but where do the pirates come in? If it’s just a cover story, it attracted a lot of attention that you would think would be unwelcome, unless it was the Russians who were trying to find it that started the piracy story.

  • The ‘Finnish’ owner is a Finnish corporation owned by Russians living in Finland.

    Russia never cares about other Russian’s unless it is to their benefit. Given that given the situation at the time, a lost ship, their reaction was clearly an overreaction, unless the Kremlin has some sort of direct interest in what was on the vessel at the time.

  • Cap’n Bill

    Would a cargo loaded in Finland be subject to the same level of scrutiny as would one loaded in a Russian port ? I don’t know. What say you, Fred ? Carrying timber to the Med surely doesn’t sound newsworthy.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Good questions!!

    Makes one wonder if it is the kind of timber that makes Geiger counters crackle, or perhaps aids in the terminal accuracy of TBMs, or even is the kind of timber that needs a biohazard warning.

  • AT1 B

    You know re-reading all the stories about this ship, something stinks in Denmark. This doesn’t sound like your typical pirate attack. A pirate attack would of raided and stolen anything highly valuable, the property stolen would of have been what they could have carried back with them to the RHIB. Not get onboard and damage communications equipment.
    I would almost lean towards a terror group like the Chechan’s seperatists, but still this doesn’t seem like thier style either. They like Al-Qeda go for big targets with large number of victims (see the Moscow Theather and the Belsan Hospital incidents a few years back). Rather this sounds very much like a job that a group like DevGRU, SAS, GSG-9, DGSE, or FSB’s Alpha Group, attempting to take down a terror cell or criminal enterprise.

    It just doesn’t add up right. Why steal a ship of 8k tonnage like the MV Artic Star? USD$1.2 million of timber wouldn’t be worthwhile to steal for ransom usage or even be worthwile for re-selling. It is a ten yr old ship that is over 8k ton gross displacement. I would have to look at the figures again, but even $1.5 Million ransom wouldn’t cover the prize costs of this ship if it was to be resold on the market.

    There is something else going on here behind the curtains around the Kremlin. We are missing some important clues someplace. I mean the Russians are shaking thier fists and making demands at the Georgians and the Ukrainians, again. They have probably figured out already the US’s political leadership is weak on foreign policy. They tested what our response would of been from putting a couple of thier submarines off our coast. The attempt to sell arms to various countries in South America. There are signs pointing some way, the question is where? Does the MV Artic Sea fit into this or is this just a concident? Also, we haven’t heard of it yet (at least in the news) but one would think the Russians would of tried flooding the North Atlantic with thier own MPA’s trying to find this ship. I would have also thought they might be a perfect exercise for thier Navy to do a SSC from thier CVBG.

    Just me but I think this was a raid by FSB against some “illegal” assets owned by a corrupt offical. They are holding the crew someplace and the ship in an attempt to figure out who the relative Mr. Big is. Putin and Med

    Oh and Byron, I hadn’t forgotten about Clancy’s RSR. I just finished up reading a piece of non-fiction that referenced the tactic and how Adm. Gorshkov talked about it in books as far back as the mid sixties.

  • Natty Bowditch

    The first comment has merit and common sense.

    Then we had allusions to 9/11 and Tom Clancy…

    Look, the notion of a VBIED (I’m sorry I had to type such foolishness) is unnecessary for a number of reasons. First, your supply of cargo ships is finite. Second, your chances of exposure are pretty high. Third, there are easier ways.

    Were I a bad guy, I’d sign aboard a ship I knew was going to my target–say, the Houston Channel. I’d ensure the ship was a tanker or chemical carrier. The rest would be easy.

  • Eagle1

    Well, Natty, whether you like the notion of a VBIED or not, snuggling a ship laden with explosives in it alongside another ship is an ancient concept – “fire ships” -“hell burners” and all that.

    See also here.

  • “Would a cargo loaded in Finland be subject to the same level of scrutiny as would one loaded in a Russian port ? I don’t know. What say you, Fred ?”

    Hard to say. Cargo loaded in Russia might be under more scrutiny for the wrong reasons, say pilferage or to ensure that the proper export duties (and facilitation fees) were paid. Cargo that is naturally valuable of course is treated as such. Other cargo not so much. I worked in the Port of Helsinki and given that much of the cargo traffic was intra-europe and of a bulk-type nature, there was not so much on the dock inspection, other than checking amounts and for damage.

  • Byron

    Not to mention, that Al-queda doesn’t care about how many, just how big and how dramatic. And Natty, in case you didn’t know it, Larry Bond and Chris Carlson, the inventors of the Harpoon Naval Simulation system, were both Naval officers who took open source tactics and capabilities and turned it into a simulation that’s lasted for near 25 years. Clancy got all the information to write “Hunt For Red October” and “Red Storm Rising” straight from Harpoon with a lot of help from Larry Bond. Was it realisitic, you ask? Enough for the Academy to include in the curriculum for years, as well as several NROTCs and the Citadel.

    And Natty, you thought 4 airliners flying into buildings were bad, there’s scenarios with LPG ships that’d curl your hair. Think suitcase nuke.

  • “Were I a bad guy, I’d sign aboard a ship I knew was going to my target–say, the Houston Channel. I’d ensure the ship was a tanker or chemical carrier. The rest would be easy.”

    Ummmm …. Natty. That is a type of “VBIED” (as you describe it) that you outlined in your;
    “Look, the notion of a VBIED (I’m sorry I had to type such foolishness) is unnecessary for a number of reasons. First, your supply of cargo ships is finite. Second, your chances of exposure are pretty high. Third, there are easier ways.”

    It reads like you just contradicted yourself. Would you like to revise and extend your remarks?

    In any event – have you ever dropped a dead-tree version of the “MERSHIP Guide” on your steel-toed foot? Not the fancy one by Jane’s, but the old-school big fat one the intel weenies will give you.

    That isn’t even a complete list either – many a tramp steamer is out in the nasty bits of the world that are on no one’s list.

    Sure, the list is finite as you say, but only in a mathematical sense.

    I would caution you not to poo-poo this ligit threat — it sound a bit like the pre-WWII attitude that the Japanese could not be good pilots because, after all, they are all near-sighted….

  • Cap’n Bill

    Thanks for the additional local Baltic flavor. The de-briefing must be taking a bit more time than expected. You’ll recall that a report was due sometime Monday. I’ve just checked the major print media and there is only a repeat of the original Russian announcement. Hope some contractor isn’t waiting for that lumber.
    Maybe there is no money for additional fuel.

  • Cap’n Bill

    Strange tales coming out of the Baltic. Lots of doubt as to the real cargo. No info as to orders for the ship. Will it go into an open port for refueling or might it sail where it could be be under wraps. So many opportunities for great fiction.