Questions over the floating armouries – Floating armoury controversy – Part II
Posted on November 9th, 2016

Continued from yesterday Courtesy The Island

If the world of maritime security was murky, the murkiest part of it was the floating armouries. In this article The Island staffer C. A. Chandraprema examines the controversy surrounding the Galle floating armoury of Avant Garde Maritime Services.

By 2012, the number of firearms of foreign maritime security companies coming into the Galle naval armoury for storage had increased exponentially. What started with just 12 firearms as a temporary measure to help in the fight against piracy soon became a flood with well over one thousand foreign owned weapons lying in the Galle naval armoury at any given time. The navy was at one point making around Rs. 80 million a month from storage fees. In October 2012, a report by the UK based Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI) observed that the SL government has for some time been concerned about the increased movement of large quantities of foreign owned arms and ammunition through Galle.


There was the possibility of some of these weapons finding their way into the hands of the underworld as some foreign private maritime security companies never claimed their weapons after depositing them in the naval armoury and a stock of non-moving items had rapidly built up. Even though Sri Lanka was obliged to facilitate the measures taken to combat piracy in terms of the UN Security Council resolutions and the IMO Circulars, and the foreign maritime security companies and their sea marshals were all duly registered in their home countries, the weapons they used were not always legal and some lacked ‘end user certificates’ which indicate the country that is authorised to use the firearms. This was discussed in the Sri Lankan Security Council and the Defence Ministry was instructed to look for alternative ways of storing these firearms without disrupting the international anti-piracy effort.

It was as a solution to the build-up of foreign owned weapons in the Galle navy camp that Avant Garde at the request of Rakna Lanka, prepared a proposal to set up a floating armoury outside Galle as a joint venture so that these weapons were taken out of Sri Lanka into a privately administered armoury without the Sri Lankan navy having to store such weapons. The navy would provide protection for this government approved but privately administered floating armoury, and see to it that foreign owned unregulated floating armouries were not allowed in SL territorial waters. Various foreign parties were at that time trying to set up floating armouries outside the territorial waters of Sri Lanka to cash in on the weapons storage business. On one occasion, the Sri Lankan navy had come across an unregulated floating armoury and had ordered it to sea dump its weapons and leave Sri Lankan waters. A formal request had also come in from Iran to station one of their warships close to Sri Lanka to function as a floating armoury.

Around October 2012, Avant Garde set up MV Mahanuwara a floating armoury outside Galle in collaboration with the navy and Rakna Lanka. When a ship requires to disembark their sea marshals while leaving the high risk zone, the local agent of the maritime company hires a boat and with representatives from the navy and Rakna Lanka picks up the sea marshals in mid sea and takes them to the floating armoury where they deposit their weapons and then proceed to Galle and from there on to Katunayake to fly back to their countries. When embarking from Galle, the same process takes place in reverse. Avant Garde, the Navy and Rakna Lanka all shared the profits from the operation. Avant Garde charged USD 3,500 per transfer from its Galle floating armoury – this covered the cost of storing a ‘set’ of weapons which would be up to four assault rifles and the accompanying body armour and helmets etc. Of the total revenue, 17% was paid to the navy and another 18% was paid to Rakna Lanka as royalties. However the government did not spend any money on setting up the operation. The Galle floating armoury was given permission to operate from Sri Lankan territorial waters and to come into the Galle harbour when necessary.

Britain takes the lead again

To a question put to him by the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption whether he had given Avant Garde Maritime Services an opportunity to enrich themselves by authorising them to store the weapons that had earlier been stored by the navy, former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa replied that if he had wanted to enrich a private company, all that he needed to do would have been to simply ban the weapons of foreign maritime security companies from being stored in the Galle naval armoury so that any private party could have set up a floating armoury off Galle and reaped the full income from the storage operation without sharing anything with the navy or Rakna Lanka. Furthermore he explained that the reason why Avant Garde had been chosen to run the Galle floating armoury was that they were already operating two floating armouries in the Red sea and the Gulf of Oman, which were being used by Rakna Lanka. Furthermore Avant Garde was the only Sri Lankan security company in the country with that kind of expertise.

Having privately contracted sea marshals on ships plying the high risk area of the Indian Ocean had become the accepted practice by 2012. However there was no such consensus on the use of ‘floating armouries’ by these private maritime security companies. The International Maritime Organisation at the 95th session of the IMO Maritime Security Committee held in June 2015 observed that “whilst more merchant ships use privately contracted armed security personnel, many costal states in the region are not prepared to provide armoury, magazine and storage facilities for their weapons in their port areas. Consequently a number of floating armouries were set up by private companies providing a service around the high risk areas where weapons, ammunition and security related equipment could be stored on vessels outside territorial waters of coastal states. The Maritime Security Committee 95 … could not agree on how to approach this issue…”

According to the Council of the European Commission, the same situation prevailed at the European Firearms Experts (EFE) meeting held in April 2015 in Helsinki, where the participants had been unable to come to a conclusion but had observed that ‘the use of floating armouries will go up for practical reasons’. In this situation of indecision, the main force backing the use of floating armouries was once again the British government which was always prepared to look after the interests of the global maritime security industry which was dominated by British operators. Paul Gibson the Director of the British security industry body the ‘Security in Complex Environments Group’ (SCEG) told the Inter-Governmental Working Group on Private Military Security Companies of the Human Rights Council on 28 April 2015:

“Floating armouries are a feature of maritime security operations in the Indian Ocean and the industry represented by SCEG were determined to have appropriate licenses authorising the use of these maritime platforms for the storage of weapons…without these licenses British Companies had a stark choice either to cease trading or run the very serious risk of being in breach of UK trade laws… After several months of engagement… the Department for Business Innovation and Skills announced that it would issue UK trade licences authorising the use of floating armouries for the storage of controlled equipment including firearms.”

What everybody wanted was somebody to take responsibility for these floating armouries. For instance, on 19 August 2014 the Indian government made representations to the 94th sessions of the Maritime Security Committee of the IMO stating that on 12 October 2013 a floating armoury by the name of ‘Seaman Guard Ohio’ was intercepted within Indian territorial waters with 35 assault rifles and 5,680 rounds of ammunition. They complained that terrorist attacks had been launched in India with weapons brought in by sea particularly in Mumbai on 12 March 1991 and 26 November 2011 and that as of mid-2012, approximately 18 floating armouries were operating on the high seas. India considered the presence of these unregulated floating armouries to be a matter of serious concern and requested that the details of floating armouries that transit the exclusive economic zone of coastal states be mandatorily shared with the coastal state authorities so that they would be fully informed about merchant ships that carry weapons in their waters.

Request to regulate, not ban floating armouries

It should be noted that India did not call for the banning of the floating armouries but requested the IMO to develop guidelines for regulating the operation of these floating armouries. Thus even India seemed to be thinking on the same lines as the British, wanting recognition and regulation. In this regard, Sri Lanka along with the British government was right on the cutting edge with regard to the development of regulated and supervised floating armouries. On 7 July 2013, the British House of Commons Committee on Arms Export Controls was formally informed by the Business Minister Michael Fallon, that the government will soon begin issuing UK trade licences authorising the use of floating armouries for the storage of firearms on a case by case basis after assessing a range of criteria. The Minister informed the British parliament that his government will be granting approval initially to a floating armoury called the MV Mahanuwara, which is operated by a company called Avant Garde Maritime Services of Sri Lanka, operated under the authorisation and the protection of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence. Thus a Sri Lankan floating armoury became the first to be approved by the British government.

Among the criteria applied by the British government, were details of the legislation and regulations the vessel is subject to, including details of any inspections of the floating armoury. In this regard, the fact that MV Mahanuawara functioned as a joint venture between Avant Garde Maritime Services and the fully government owned Rakna Lanka under the protection and supervision of the Sri Lanka navy was obviously the reason why the British government decided to license this floating armoury first. No other floating armoury had such credentials and this tripartite link between a sophisticated private security company, the government’s own security company and the Sri Lanka navy’s authority over the operation represented the most cutting edge public-private partnership in maritime security at that time.

The benefits of having government approval and backing for a floating armoury was demonstrated quite early on in October 2012 when the UAE government detained the ‘Sinbad’, a floating armoury belonging to Avant Garde Maritime Services operating off the Gulf of Oman, which had strayed into their waters. Once this floating armoury was proved to be a joint venture with a government owned enterprise in Sri Lanka, and storing mostly Sri Lankan government owned weapons, the ship was released in about a week after the checks were completed. Nobody was arrested and the UAE authorities only questioned the men on board. One could say that what the Indians were also looking for was that kind of guarantee with somebody taking responsibility for the weapons in the floating armouries. According to the report of the Business, Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees presented to the British Parliament in October 2014, all three of the floating armouries operated by Avant Garde in Galle, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Oman, were approved by the UK government to be used to store the weapons of British private maritime security companies.

Streamlining the Galle floating armoury operation

There were several agreements between Avant Garde and Rakna Lanka. One of these was the agreement to transport weapons between the Galle harbour and the Katunayake airport. This was for instances where the weapons of private maritime companies would end up in far off destinations and had to be brought back to Sri Lanka by air to be used for another deployment. Transporting weapons by air was a difficult and expensive process and would be resorted to only under compelling circumstances. Being able to carry out the transfer of weapons from the Katunayake airport to the Galle harbour and vice versa streamlined the operation of the Galle floating armoury project.

There was also another agreement for the training of foreign sea marshals at the Katukurunda firing range – another income generating project which provided a service to foreign private maritime security companies by providing their sea marshals with the refresher training that was needed to retain their licences. Often, the weapons used for firing practice belonged to the security company concerned, since many foreign private security companies used weapons that were very different from the ones used in Sri Lanka. In such instances the weapons belonging to the foreign security company were sent from the Galle harbour to Katukurunda under navy escort and brought back in the same manner after the training. The trainees were given a certificate signed by the CEO of Rakna Lanka, the Navy area commander, and an Additional Secretary of the Ministry of Defence. These courses were organised when a private maritime security company made a request through their agent in Sri Lanka.

There was also an agreement between Avant Garde and Rakna Lanka to have a bonded warehouse at the Colombo harbour to store the weapons of the sea marshals in vessels that call at the Colombo port. So long as the vessel remained in the Colombo harbour, the weapons of its sea marshals were stored in the bonded warehouse. When the ship was leaving the weapons would be returned to the sea marshals and a fee charged for the storage. The services offered to the international maritime security industry in Sri Lanka were both comprehensive and cutting edge. Nowhere in the world were such well regulated and closely supervised services provided to the maritime security industry with a streamlined system to hire out sea marshals and firearms for on board maritime security and a system of looking after the men deployed and collecting the weapons issued throughout the high risk area in the Indian Ocean.

India upholds the Sri Lanka model

At the international maritime conference called the Galle Dialogue hosted by Sri Lanka in November 2013, the Chief of Naval Staff of the Indian Navy, Admiral D. K. Joshi praised Sri Lanka for carrying out the business of having private guards on board ships and operating floating armouries in ‘an entirely regulated fashion’ and regretted that others were not doing it in the same way. He acknowledged that floating armouries were providing an essential service for the private maritime industry but said that these should be regulated. In October 2015, Alok Kumar, the head of a diversified Indian shipping services company in an address to the Indian defence policy think tank ‘Forum for Integrated National Security’ (FINS) suggested that the Indian government allow weapons of private maritime security companies to be stored in land based armouries in ports like Tuticorin and permit floating armouries to be set up by the private sector under the supervision of the navy, coast guard and defence authorities following the examples of Djibouti and Sri Lanka.

Atul Kulkarni, an Advisor to the Indian Ministry of Shipping, in another address to the Forum for Integrated National Security on 12 July 2015 stated that the government of India should have guidelines and policies for floating armouries and they need to have maritime security personnel drawn from among men retiring from the navy and other armed services. There appeared to be an unacknowledged consensus throughout the Indian government and private sectors that what they needed was a public-private maritime security service modelled on that of the Avant Garde-Rakna Lanka-Navy operation in Sri Lanka.

The ‘Avant Garde’, a floating armoury belonging to Avant Garde Maritime Services which had been in the Red Sea and was returning to Sri Lanka with a load of 800 Rakna Lanka weapons along with Rakna Lanka guards was impounded and the Ukrainian captain of this floating armoury was arrested and remanded even though this floating armoury was approved by the Sri Lankan government and even had Defence Ministry permission to enter the Galle harbour. This is in sharp contrast to the treatment that the other Sri Lankan owned floating armoury got in the UAE in October 2012. Having started with seed capital of just Rs. five million, Rakna Lanka was able to grow into a successful government owned business undertaking with over 3,400 employees and a turnover of nearly Rs. 2.3 billion and profits of over Rs. 1.1 billion by 2013/14 mainly because of its maritime security arm. It now lies in ruins.


One Response to “Questions over the floating armouries – Floating armoury controversy – Part II”

  1. NAK Says:

    Pacha sira,Batalanda murderer,Pacha Ranawaka and Dantha Senaratne must be made to pay for this dastardly act of destruction of a valuable Sri Lankan company.

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