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An Army In The Middle Of The OCEAN: The Changing Face of Naval Ship Definitions

Figure 1: Malaysian Navy ship MV Bunga Mas Lima was a civilian container ship. In 2011, special forces troops from this ship boarded and took control of a pirate-hijacked ship using helicopters and fast-moving boats. The topic that remained outside discussion is that such a ship has the capability to execute the strategy of taking control of an enemy ship. This indeed makes this ship a warship! Figure 1: Malaysian Navy ship MV Bunga Mas Lima was a civilian container ship. In 2011, special forces troops from this ship boarded and took control of a pirate-hijacked ship using helicopters and fast-moving boats. The topic that remained outside discussion is that such a ship has the capability to execute the strategy of taking control of an enemy ship. This indeed makes this ship a warship!

22 January 2011. A Malaysian ship ‘Bunga Laurel’ carrying chemicals attracts pirates off the shores of Somalia. The ship was being covered by a Malaysian Navy ship ‘MV Bunga Mas Lima’. In fact, the ‘Bunga Mas Lima’ was once a ‘civilian’ container ship, which was part of ‘Operation Fajr’, the Malaysian anti-piracy patrol mission off Somalia. She was carrying members of Malaysia Military. The military members were facilitated to board the pirate-affected ship, using helicopters and fast patrol boats. After boarding the ship, the soldiers neutralized the pirates on the ship and rescued 23 crew. The ship was converted in 2009 to make it useful for military operations. The 133m and 9,000 tons ship had two cranes on deck; one of which was removed to allow a helicopter deck and a hangar to be built. Several small boats could be carried on the cleaned-up deck-space. Accommodation spaces were also provided for some special force members. Between 2011 and 2014, a total of three Malaysian Navy ships operated off Somalia. Bunga Mas Lima evacuated Malaysian students studying in Egypt during the Arab Spring unrest of 2011. In 2014, the ship was given the task of protecting offshore oil rigs off the Malaysian province of Sabah. This same thought of protecting sea resources was used to convert more ships. These ships are being called ‘Mobile Sea Base’. ‘Tun Azizan’ was a cargo ship, which was converted to accommodate 99 people for long-time deployments. This ship too is able to conduct security operations like the Bunga Mas Lima.
The idea of converting civilian ships to serve military purpose is not new. But the discussion that is now being brought forward is the capture of a ship in the middle of the sea by deploying troops from another ship.
This act is being considered so ‘normal’ that where this thought of transfer of troops from ship to ship actually came from is not even being asked. But this is an important topic, because this leads to a discussion of what activities turns a ship into a warship. A discussion regarding history of warships can help understand the topic.

The First Punic War between Rome and Carthage was fought from 264 B.C. to 241 B.C. As the two fighting states were separated by the Mediterranean Sea, naval warfare carrier extra significance during this conflict. And quite logically, the war was dominated by naval engagements. Up to that period, the Romans were mostly a land power; whereas, Carthage was a naval power. This difference was rooted in the basic elements on the two states. While the Romans were part of the European mainland, they were busier with defending their land borders; which obviously made them more proficient in land warfare. On the other hand, the Carthaginians were traders; being dependent on sea trade. To protect their trade routes, Carthage had to develop a strong navy. To counter the Carthaginian Navy, the Romans gave more emphasis on capturing opponent’s ships through boarding. The Romans used to carry a lot of soldiers in each ship; so that they can seize enemy ships by overpowering them. If they failed to capture a ship, they tried to burn it down or to immobilize it. And as the Romans were good land warriors, they virtually created a smallish land battle on board enemy ships! This means that even though this was a naval engagement, the idea of the fights actually depended on lessons taken from land battles. This type of naval battles continued for a long time. Even after the introduction of cannons on board sailing warships, boarding operations were common. Later on, the idea of economic blockade solidified the practice of capturing enemy ships – even civilian cargo ships carrying goods for the enemy. Exactly this type of war is being practiced today, though very few are concerned about it.

The Visit, Board, Search & Seizure (VBSS) operations have become quite normal today. Soldiers (especially Special Forces) are going close to another ship, board it, searching through, or getting total control of the ship. The Malaysian warship Bunga Mas Lima’s most crew are civilian. That means a “civilian” ship may have the capability to capture another ship by deploying soldiers. Again, in the deep sea, VBSS missions would look exactly like the example given above; but in areas near the coastline or in a river delta, small boats would replace big warships. During the 1960s, the Americans built a lot of small boats during the Vietnam War to destroy guerilla formations and to keep South Vietnam’s Saigon Seaport open. US Coast Guard took part in an economic blockade against the Communist forces in Vietnam. Later, in 1990, while Iraq was under economic blockade, similar policies were followed there. To force an enemy nation to starve to death is an ancient tactic. Yet, during the 21st century, these small boats used to enforce an economic blockade are not being considered as warships. On the other hand, a lot of people would hesitate to call the Malaysian Navy ships off Somalia as warships; rather they would call these – auxiliary ships; even though these ships have the capability of capturing an enemy ship in the middle of the ocean. But it needs to be understood that capturing a cargo ship and capturing an aircraft carrier are not the same. So, which ship can capture how big a ship – this is not even a discussion topic here.
Capturing an enemy warship through the use of soldiers is a thousand of years old tactic. If such activities are part of a bigger war, then obviously these acts would be considered as acts of war. Yet, without a big war, such acts have become so “normal” that people may not consider these as acts of war. But for thousands of years, boarding or capturing of enemy’s ships had been a major cause for war, and had also been a part and parcel of war.
Today, without even a declaration of war, a lot of ships are being used as tools of war; because people have lost of their perception of acts of war that had been common with humans since antiquity. Accepting a continuing war as ‘normal’ and deciding not to talk against it is the best example of this change of perception. The very definition of war has been changed. The best way for a warring nation to continue a war without being confronted by general people is to change the definition of war. This way, people would think that they are passing ‘peace-time’ even during a continuing war.  
In conclusion, it can be said that because of the changed definition of warfare, people are struggling to define ships as warships. Why would a ship need to be a 10,000 ton ship armed with ultra-modern AEGIS radar and vertical-launch missiles to be called a warship? How many nations have the capability even to build a ship like that? Then what about other nations with smaller economies? Would only the rich nations have the capability and the “right” to build warships? Rejecting confusing definitions can potentially show a glimpse of possibilities for other less-than-rich nations. The ships with capabilities to capture another ship in the middle of ocean through troop deployment are warships. And ships that patrol a hostile state’s coasts to enforce an economic blockade against people of that littoral state are also warships.