The near-simultaneous emergence of maritime terrorism and the revival of piracy have added a new dimension to the existing hazards that have traditionally confronted those who choose a seafaring life, and innocent fisherfolk have now been added to the list of victims.
On the evening of July 16, an Indian fisherman was killed and three Emirati nationals injured when US Navy personnel on board USNS Rappahannock, a replenishment ship of the US 5th Fleet, opened fire on a small motor vessel near Jebel Ali port off Dubai.
According to an official statement from the US Navy's Central Command, "An embarked security team aboard a US Navy vessel fired upon a small motor vessel after it disregarded warnings and rapidly approached the US ship."
The statement adds, "... the Navy vessel followed its force protection protocol by first attempting to warn away the approaching craft with a series of non-lethal procedures using voice, radio, and lights.
"After those failed, the Rappahannock escalated to lethal force, firing on the approaching vessel with a .50-caliber machine gun, killing an Indian fisherman on board and wounding three others."
The incident has, understandably, caused great indignation in the country, and especially in the state of Tamil Nadu to which the unfortunate fisherman belonged. India has asked the UAE authorities to open a criminal investigation into the incident and the Dubai police authorities are understood to be complying.
While it would be quite inappropriate to pass judgement of any sort on this unfortunate incident, it is necessary to examine a few aspects, merely to see whether any preliminary lessons can be drawn.
With a fishing-fleet of nearly 200,000 vessels, of all sizes, shapes and manner of propulsion, the traffic density off the Indian coast invariably remains high; and it is probably the same off Africa or the Arabian Peninsula. Fishing communities in this part of the world are a law unto themselves, and, as any warship daptain will vouch, this makes a coastal passage a nightmare experience, especially by night. Merchant ships are fortunate, because they sail, mostly, in deeper waters far from the coast.
And yet, on Feb 15 this year, two other Indian fishermen were shot dead by marines on board the Italian-registered merchantman MV Enrica Lexie. The oil tanker, on passage from Singapore to Egypt, was reportedly between 14 and 22 miles from the Kerala coast (outside territorial waters but within the contiguous zone) when it encountered the fishing vessel. Mistaking it for a pirate skiff, two marines, borne by the ship as a "vessel protection detachment", opened lethal fire, killing two of the fishermen. The Italian ship was asked to enter Kochi port where the two marines were placed under
arrest and await trial for murder.
For a warship captain, it would be inconceivable that a band of outlaws, no matter how well armed, should threaten or attempt to board his ship, and he would act in accordance with his navy's 'Force Protection' doctrine and rules of engagement (RoE) given to him by his government. In October 2000, the RoE given to the destroyer USS Cole did not allow security sentries to open fire on any craft or boat, unless known to be a threat, without prior permission from the Captain. While at anchor in Aden harbour, a boat approached the ship at high speed and exploded alongside, blowing a huge gash in the hull and killing 17 sailors.
As the Rappahannock incident clearly shows, the latest RoE framed by the US Navy (as well as other navies) have been relaxed in terms of the discretion that they give to the man on the spot. It has to be this way, because given the current threat environment, a moment's hesitation could result in loss of a warship and many lives.
In the case of merchantmen, since there are (normally) no combatants on board, the ship's master, having taken all possible preventive and evasive measures, has no choice but to permit boarding and submit to the demands of the pirates/terrorists. It is only recently that merchant ships have been allowed, by flag states, to carry privately contracted armed security personnel (PCASP) in high-risk areas.
The guidance issued by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) with regard to PCASP states that a ship's master will exercise command, and will retain the overriding authority (and responsibility?) on board. This IMO guidance does not provide any RoE, nor offers any other directions about if and when to use lethal force. Moreover, it deals only with civilian contracted personnel and not with the presence of government military personnel on board merchant ships.
Given the unfortunate experience of MV Enrica Lexie, the decision of the Italian government to place military personnel on board merchant ships can be termed as unwise. No matter what the outcome of the trial of the two Italian marines, it would be most imprudent for any government to put its armed forces personnel in such an invidious situation ever again.
Given the precedent of the Enrica Lexie, the Rappahannock case, too, has the potential to assume complex overtones. The ship bears the prefix 'USNS' (United States Naval Ship) rather than 'USS' (United States Ship) because it is a non-commissioned auxiliary support vessel owned by the US Navy and operated by the Military Sealift Command. Such ships are crewed by civilians rather than US Navy personnel. Should the Indian government take the same view of this incident as it did of the Enrica Lexie, it could, in theory, ask the UAE government to prosecute the US Navy personnel or extradite them to India.
Fishing communities of this region are likely to be up in arms against the risk posed to their kith and kin from "trigger-happy" armed personnel carried by ships for self-protection. This is, perhaps, an opportune moment for concerned states to come together and evolve procedures for ensuring protection of shipping without endangering safety of fisherfolk.
(Admiral Arun Prakash is former chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee and Chief of Naval Staff. He is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and was till recently chairman, National Maritime Foundation. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)