Blog Analysismaritime piracy

Dutch marines pioneer the concept of aVPD

Installation of barbed wire allowing passive protection of the ship (credit: Dutch Navy)

(BRUSSELS2, exclusive) This is probably a little-known fact. But it is an onboard military team (EPE in French, VPD in English) which is currently ensuring the protection of the World Food Program (WFP) ships supplying Somalia. Indispensable aid: around 1,7 million people in this country depend on international food aid. A detailed concept presented in Brussels during a seminar on piracy in which B2 participated.

Supporting WFP boats is the primary and original mission of the EU's anti-piracy operation. Without this action, it seems unlikely that this operation would have seen the light of day. But it's not an easy task every day, hearing European officers. Some WFP boats are old, sluggish boats. And their support therefore takes much more time than on a modern ship. PAM programming is not the most precise either. The unloading or loading of the food ship is often subject to different port requirements, more or less unpredictable. It is then difficult to stick to the planned schedule; the military must then wait, which has consequences for other missions.

The concept of autonomous VPAs (aVPD) is therefore a "huge relief" for the Eunavfor mission. That " takes a big thorn out of our side – confirms Captain Gelly (from Eunavfor) –, this allows us to release at least one warship, or even more, between fetching a ship, accompanying it, and then recovering it ". In fact, almost a third of the European mission's fleet is thus freed and can be used for other actions such as observation patrols along the Somali coast or the “race” for pirates.

The concept of Autonomous VPD

An aVPD should be considered as a “ military entity in its own right – unlike a VPD dependent on a warship, an organic extension of this ship.” It requires the agreement of the flag State, the shipowner, the tacit agreement and direct agreement with the captain, who is solely responsible on board. " We have not defined a standard even for the size of the VPD. It is a policy of free contribution. Each member country offers what it wants. We then work with the PAM to fit out the boat” explains CV Gelly. 

This concept is not entirely new, however, since it has been used – successfully by the French – on board fishing vessels. And is also used by the Dutch, more recently, to protect certain sensitive merchant ships, as well as by the Italians (with the disappointment we are experiencing with the death of two fishermen and the dispute with India). On the other hand, within a multinational operation, this is a first.

The establishment of VPD required intense diplomatic and legal preparation. The European Union has, in fact, had to enter into agreements with the flag states of WFP vessels. Eunavfor has thus signed six agreements today, first with Liberia, St Vincent & Grenadines, Sierra Leone, then with the Marshall Islands, Panama, Antigua & Barbuda who have accepted that European VPD teams board the ships flying their flag.

Resident marines on the Caroline Scan

On the Caroline Scan, a modern ship chartered by the World Food Program. Let's specify “modern” because apparently this is not the case for all ships, for some, sailing is apparently a “miracle”. The 18 Dutch marines had to find their place, which is not easy on a ship, around a hundred meters long but above all intended to bring as much cargo as possible. Accommodations have been set up in containers on the deck, containers with air conditioning. The Dutch team is rather larger than other countries. She has all the equipment to be able to respond to fire, including a heavy machine gun. “ “Staff must be capable at all times of being able to deal with an attack” specifies a Dutch officer. It is also equipped with a medical team – doctor, nurse – and the necessary equipment (oxygen, resuscitation, etc.) to guarantee all the care to the teams and have some autonomy.

Rules of engagement and firing

The VPD remain subject to military discipline and precise rules of fire engagement. Rules which differ slightly from the simple “self-defense” to which private guards are subject. The military can act, according to a gradation of means, in order to prevent an attack and not only if a first shot hits them (self-defense). There is a gradation of deterrence: first with warning messages broadcast by radio and deterrent fire. The objective is really to “ deter pirates from attacking the ship ". " The use of force is based on principles of proportionality and subsidiarity: force should only be used if there is a threat, and no other means available. The use of force is limited. Pirates cannot be prosecuted in this way. This does not mean that force cannot be used only when there is an attack and fire by pirates. Self-defense can be triggered as soon as there is an attack,” testifies a Dutch officer. In the event of an attack, there is a division of tasks on board between the captain, responsible for the operation of the ship, and the commander of the VPD, for security.

The delicate question of weapons

The question of carrying weapons on board remains a delicate point. The Dutch have an ammunition reserve in Malta (*) where certain equipment is stored. Passing through Suez requires some formalities. “ We must disembark the weapons before crossing and collect them on exit – the Egyptian authorities transport them on land – this requires additional diplomatic contacts and the payment of a tax. This transfer is obviously not free. " It is not extremely expensive per unit. But there is a multiplier effect to the number “says our officer.

Frozen fees

Part of the costs is normally covered by the common budget (Athena mechanism): housing, the cost of satellite communications (even if it is, in practice, difficult to isolate these expenses) and transfers. This is currently theoretical, because the budget line of 1,8 million euros provided for in the community budget is frozen. Two countries – Germany… and the Netherlands – particularly campaigned for this freeze. (Irony, refrain :-). A future meeting of the Athena committee is expected to discuss the possibility of “defrosting” the budget line.

Only one offer

Only one Member State has, for the moment, made an offer for an autonomous VPD, but others could follow: Italy for example. And at Northwood, contributions are expected “ interesting » for the second half of 2012 and especially in 2013. The Netherlands is also using the autonomous VPD technique to accompany merchant ships flying the flag of the Kingdom. “ We currently have 4 VPD teams simultaneously, which transit for approximately 3 weeks. And we plan to use 60 VPD teams per year. But we are working to improve the system “says our Dutch interlocutor. " If we can transport the team, from one ship to another we do it, they stay there for a few days... The complications are often significant when we bring the materials by air. »

(*) One might wonder if there would not be some savings and possible synergies, in particular by establishing this stock in Djibouti in the French base or at the Atalanta FHQ, or even in Réunion or Mayotte (department French)

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).