Forbes Reports In mid-October, the U.S. embassy in Trinidad and Tobago became so concerned about a potential environmental catastrophe posed by a listing Venezuelan oil tanker that it issued a formal statement of warning. The tanker, a storage and offloading vessel named the Nabarima, had been listing badly for weeks by that time, threatening to dump its 1.3-million barrel cargo of crude oil into Venezuelan waters and impacting surrounding nations and islands.
As of this writing on December 5, the Venezuelan government and national oil company PDVSA had still not acted to resolve the potential disaster despite rising international pressure.
In late November, the MT Agrari, a Maltese-flagged, Greek-managed oil tanker traversing the Red Sea near Shuqaiq, Saudi Arabia, was damaged when an underwater mine exploded and breached its hull. Media reports blamed the attack on Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who have been engaged in a long-running conflict with the Saudi Kingdom. That incident came just a day after Houthi rebels also attacked a Saudi oil facility using a Quds 2 cruise missile, and a little over a year after the Iran-backed rebels had launched multiple missile attacks on a Saudi refinery and production facilities.
For Americans, these and other incidents of oil tankers and facilities being damaged or coming under attack seem like someone else’s problems, incidents that take place half a world away and have little if any impact in the United States. Indeed, while some experts predicted that last year’s attack on the Saudi facilities would cause oil prices to spike, markets in fact reacted only modestly and for just a few days before settling back down.
But what if incidents like these were happening in the Gulf of Mexico or at the myriad refineries that line the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast? Hundreds of oil tankers carrying loads ranging from 100,000 barrels to as much as 2 million barrels of crude or refined products like gasoline and diesel traverse that body of water every day with little or no security to protect them, other than private security guards aboard the ships themselves. As I discussed last month, the hundreds of production and drilling platforms in the Gulf are also able to employ private security, but are unprotected from any attacks by seaborn vessels.
America has witnessed first-hand in recent years the major environmental and economic impacts of a large oil spill (the Deepwater Horizon event in 2010) and of disruptions to the Gulf Coast refinery sector (the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey). The U.S. has been fortunate to avoid any terrorist attacks on major oil assets to this point, but the fact is that these key assets and infrastructure are vulnerable to water-borne and airborne assault.
“Think about it: You can load up $300 million worth of art on a truck in Miami, transport it across the country on our highways and use as many armored vehicles and personnel as you want to for security, and nobody will say a word about it,” George Hamilton, an industrialist based in Texas, told me in an interview recently. “But if you put it on a ship to be transported to the West Coast through the Panama Canal, you cannot use any kind of seaborne security to go along with it.”
Hamilton, founder, owner and operator of Hamilton Aerospace, had read the recent piece I’d written on this topic and contacted me to discuss the issue. He has given the matter a great deal of thought in recent years, and believes he has arrived at a viable solution. But it’s a solution that will require buy-in from the Pentagon and federal legislation to enable its implementation.
His concept, which he calls the Hamilton 96 Escort/Patrol Boat, is similar in design to the World War II-era PT boat, but with a longer range and modern armaments. It’s called the Hamilton 96 due to its planned 96-foot length, which compares to the 58-foot length of the standard PT boat.
Current law prevents armed, non-military vessels from operating in U.S. waters, where the U.S. Coast Guard maintains dominion. Hamilton envisions his vessel as a private force multiplier similar to other force multipliers the U.S. has commissioned in every conflict since Teddy Roosevelt led the Rough Riders in the Spanish American War. “My concept is to put a force multiplier in place, with the necessary hardware and the men that are highly trained to meet Coast Guard standards,” he said.
Of course, getting to that result would require obtaining the approval of the Coast Guard and convincing a divided congress to enact enabling legislation. Both would be very big lifts, but Hamilton has already begun working both processes. He has also been busy lining up contractors to supply armaments for the boats.
“When I designed this boat, I wanted it small and fast, and I wanted it heavily armed,” he told me. “Just on the gun side of it, this boat would have eight 30-millimeter guns capable of firing a 30 mm projectile at the rate of 200 rounds per minute per gun.” The boat is also designed to house two stations containing four 50 caliber guns. “I also added the capability of having an armed helicopter aboard the vessel. There would also be an anti-drone gun. I saw a demonstration by IXI a couple of years ago of a system they call the Drone Killer. Fabrique Nationale has come out with a system it calls the Sea Defender. The entire thing is designed around recognizing the problem and having the hardware at your disposal to eliminate it.”
Hamilton envisions his Hamilton 96 boats as vessels that could conceivably help facilitate the Navy’s efforts at fleet modernization, especially after the Navy decided to mothball its fleet of four littoral combat ships recently. “The Navy cancelled these littoral combat ships last week,” he told me. “They don’t work, they never did work, and they cost about $600 million each to build.” By contrast, the Hamilton 96 is designed to carry a price tag of no more than $40 million per ship, fully armed and outfitted. “The propulsion system kept failing and if you’re gonna fight the Chinese in the South Pacific, another boat would have to tow them out to the battle. So, they cancelled it. The contractors all got paid, and what did the taxpayers get for those billions of dollars in defense investments? Nothing but more debt.”
I asked Hamilton if the littoral ships were similar in concept to what he has in mind. “No. They’re 400-500 feet long. They were designed as a fast-moving craft, but the money involved would get you a destroyer. It’s just amazing how much of a tax load Americans have to carry for politicians’ mistakes. Anytime government starts a project, private industry could have done it 10 times faster at a tenth of the cost.”
Regardless of the viability of Hamilton’s vision, the history of congress when it comes to developing policies around a concept like his is consistent and undeniable: Congress almost always waits until a crisis or disaster has taken place before taking any real action. It is an almost wholly responsive entity.
“I have asked elected officials, ‘what are you gonna do if this comes our way?’” Hamilton said. “Their unanimous response so far has been ‘we pray to God it doesn’t.’ But just hoping is not a plan.”
Given that the U.S. to date has yet to sustain a significant terrorist attack on major oil and gas infrastructure, and with a new congress and presidential administration on the horizon, Hamilton may need to find some force multipliers of his own to reach his goal.
ARX recommend that when you are in a HRA to harden your vessel properly using BMP 5 guidance. The installation of Primary Anti Piracy Barriers are a first recommendations.