Forget Hollywood’s stereotypes of swashbuckling, frightening-but-fun pirates. In real life, modern pirates stage ruthless and often deadly attacks on ships around the world.
According to the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau (IMB), there were 38 incidents of maritime piracy around the globe in 1Q 2021 alone. Thirty-three vessels were boarded by pirates in dangerous waters such as West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea, Somalia’s Gulf of Aden, and the Singapore Straits, among others. Two other vessels were unsuccessfully attacked, two more were fired upon and one ship was hijacked. Worse yet, 40 crew members were taken hostage for ransoms and one was killed during this time period.
Fighting piracy and other threats to ships and other maritime assets is the mission of Trident Group America. Founded by a group of retired U. S. Navy SEALs in 2000, Trident provides professional armed security personnel and threat assessment/management on board commercial ships around the world. (Note: SEAL is short for SEa, Air, and Land, which are the three theaters SEALs operate in.)
Tom Rothrauff is president of Trident Group America and a retired Navy SEAL himself. Transport Security International (TSI) spoke with Rothrauff about the genesis of Trident Group America and the challenges of providing maritime security in some of the world’s most dangerous waters. Here is that conversation.
TSI: What inspired the creation of Trident Group America?
Rothrauff: It came about during my final time with the U.S. Navy during a “Special Access Program” where we toured merchant ships and passenger liners. Every one of the captains, owners and managers of these ships would come up to us afterwards and ask us how they were doing, because they thought it was a security assessment/review of their security programs. The fact that they wanted to know about the state of their shipboard security meant that there was a need for such a service. That’s where the inspiration for Trident Group America came from.
TSI: In the mainstream media, piracy has always played up as the major threat to shipping. But is it the largest threat? What other threats do ship owners/operators need to deal with these days?
Rothrauff: Piracy on Africa’s east coast is not a major threat at the time, although it still exists. Instead, the major issues with maritime security right now are global conflicts within regions and countries, and the spillover from those conflicts. So we have to deal with war-type munitions floating around and unmanned surface vessels that have such munitions tied to them.
When we go up through the Straits of Hormuz, we have to deal with the Iranians harassing merchant shipping by boarding them using boats and helicopters. And then there’s the west coast of Africa that is still very, very intense for piracy – mostly kidnapping, but very brutal piracy nonetheless.
TSI: What are the motivations of these hostile players?
Rothrauff: On the east coast of Africa, there’s international strife between countries and we’re just caught in the middle of that. As well, poor countries with people that have nothing are still going to the sea and trying to take from merchant shipping because it’s basically a floating ATM to them.
On Africa’s west coast, it used to be all about the oil coming out of the Delta out of Nigeria. There were groups that would come out to disrupt that flow because the government was not paying its people the money being earned by taking oil from the ground. However, the pirates in that area soon found out that oil — whether you make it yourself or you steal it — has a finite value on the market. So they decided to turn to the east coast model of kidnapping seafarers and demanding ransoms, which was more profitable.
That’s the main motivation for these pirates right now. As well, there’s a number of terrorist organizations on the African continent that are starting to flock to the coast, because they see the value of revenues earned from kidnapping and that sort of thing.
TSI: How do you help your maritime clients combat these security threats?
Rothrauff: We do everything from protection on board vessels to putting together security plans for oil rigs, platforms and floating production vessels. We also help governments to secure their ports to make sure that merchant shipping can anchor without fear of being boarded and having their crews kidnapped.
We provide trained security personnel to the ships and leave the crews to their duties. The shipping companies give us their security headache and we gladly take that headache.
Our company is also very heavily into training these days. There’s a big cross section across the private and public sectors that are coming to us for training because we have been around for such a long time, and because we have certifications from the Coast Guard and other United States agencies.
TSI: How does your training as Navy SEALs inform your approach to maritime security?
Rothrauff: Being SEALs, we understand the maritime environment inside and out. That’s where we’re born and raised, and that’s where we operate. So when I put SEALs on the water to protect vessels and to consult with governments and ports around the world, they respect the fact that we understand the difference between maritime and land-based security.
Our advantage is that we are intimately involved with maritime space, from the operational lifestyle of being in the water to understanding what the threats are and knowing how to work against those threats.
Our input into the merchant shipping also covers Best Management Practices for maritime security, such as guidelines by the International Maritime Organization that helps ships get prepared for whatever kind of incursions they might encounter, including pirates climbing up the anchor chain or rudder stem to get into the ship, stealing things and then leaving. The IMO guidelines also make potential attackers aware that the ships they are targeting have taken anti-piracy steps to protect themselves.
Trident’s onboard security personnel takes this protective stance a step further by providing actual support against pirate attacks, including having programs and processes in place to confront them when they occur. But that’s about as far as I can go to talk about it, for security reasons.
TSI: What is the biggest mistake that maritime owners and operators make when it comes to keeping their ships safe?
Rothrauff: The biggest mistake occurs when security runs afoul of safety on board vessels and people’s desire to save money. For instance, when piracy first started on the east coast of Africa, it started pretty much in the Gulf of Aden. Now the Gulf of Aden is a very narrow navigable area, which means you have to have somebody at the helm of the ship at all times or else you have to shut the ship down. The problem with shutting the ship down is that it provides pirates with a stationary platform for them to climb aboard. The anti-piracy solution is thus to keep the ship moving. When piracy shifted out of the Gulf of Aden and into the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, that’s an area of wide-open navigation. So people felt comfortable shutting their ships down. The trouble is that pirates in these areas became adept at attacking in wide open waters, which is why we had to fight the companies and captains to convince them to keep their ships moving no matter what. Thankfully, this attitude is finally starting to change.
TSI: Would changes in ship design make ships more secure from pirates?
Rothrauff: They might, except for the fact that pirates keep adapting to different physical defenses that are put in their way. It’s pretty obvious that no matter what you do with a ship, that unless you make it into a gigantic fully-enclosed Tylenol capsule, that they’re going to find a way to get on board. So I think they’re depending more on the “alertness awareness” process when they start to see possible pirate action groups and that sort of thing. So education and action are really the key factors for shipping companies protecting themselves from pirates, versus changing the design of vessels.
TSI: What is Trident Group America able to provide to your shipping clients, as a result of improving their maritime security?
Rothrauff: We give their crew members peace of mind to be able to sail anywhere in the world. There are also a lot of ancillary benefits to having a security group on board a ship when they’re in foreign waters and at foreign ports. For instance, we do a lot of work with local law enforcement and the ships’ own security teams, including improving the quality of their pre-departure stowaway searches. None of these benefits were conceived when we first started Trident 22 years ago. They’ve emerged since then. This is why our clients like having our teams onboard because we offer much more value than just keeping pirates off the ship.
TSI: What are your plans going forward for the company?
Rothrauff: Our growth stems from keeping our eyes and ears open to what’s happening in the market, anticipating developments and getting in on the ground floor with solutions as soon as new security challenges arise. For instance, we’ve noticed that many African governments are just dying for support from the Western world to help them better naval and coast guard operations. So we’re focused on putting our trained security personnel on their vessels to provide these kinds of results today. We’re also doing a lot of security consulting with such clients, and helping them select the proper tactical gear and operational approaches/procedures to achieve the level of maritime security they’re seeking. Other than that, Trident Group America is going to keep doing what we do to keep our clients and their maritime assets safe. That has worked for all of us since we started business in 2000.