9 August, 2019
Interview: pirate hunter Richard Walker
Back based in Devonport, Richard Walker has plenty of stories to recount of his deployment with multinational task forces in some of the world’s most important shipping lanes. He talks to Helen Vause.
Thirty years in the Navy has taken Devonport-based Captain Richard Walker to many places around the world and given him many different experiences, but last year he spent seven months on one of the most unusual deployments of his career.
Based in Bahrain as a deputy commander of task forces set up under a multinational naval partnership, he helped promote security and support legitimate commerce across some 3.2 million square miles of international waters, including some of the world’s busiest and most important shipping lanes.
The deployment earned him a Distinguished Service Decoration for services to the New Zealand Defence Force in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. But back at home with his wife and two children, it has also provided him with a store of colourful tales to tell, not least of the drug-traffickers and pirates who ply those same waters.
Back in a headquarters role with the New Zealand Defence Force, he insists it’s all part of what was to be expected.
It’s a life that mixes service with adventure, he says, with modest understatement.
Drugs estimated to be worth billions are carried by the traditional vessels plying waters covered by the counter-terrorist and counter-piracy task forces in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the western half of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman.
If they’re not carrying narcotics they may have consignments of arms, migrants or other troubling cargo. In some of these parts, piracy has been rife, so it’s not surprising that securing freedom of navigation has become a focus. The task force with a focus on maritime security was under US Navy control until the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then re-established as a multinational coalition, with the 33 participating nations supplying staff on a rotating basis.
New Zealand’s part in these task forces makes a meaningful contribution towards maintaining international law and order, says Walker.
Drugs come from Afghanistan and across these waters to connect to many overland routes and markets and onto the streets.
Walker says an estimated 30 percent of the narcotics coming out of Afghanistan is carried by sea. Their total street value could be tens of billions of dollars.
There are hundreds of dhows (traditional wooden sailing vessels) to monitor, of various sizes, often with no name and seemingly no owner listed anywhere, flying the strangest flags, and some of them carrying drugs for whoever may have hired them, says Walker.
Working out what they’re up to, and figuring out strategies to deal with it most effectively, occupies the manpower and intelligence of the counter-terrorist taskforce.
As deputy commander, Walker took a key role.
From a desk in Bahrain, he worked with intelligence staff to best direct resources including ships and aircraft to wherever a dhow was with cargo that might need investigation.
“Smuggling is not a new thing of course. The skippers of these dhows will know what they’ve got on board. They’re in it for the payment they’ll get for a successful delivery, but they’re certainly not the source. They’re a link in the transport network,” says Walker.
When the task force closes in to board a suspect vessel, anything can happen, but usually, he says, the skippers will co-operate with a peaceful boarding. That’s not to say finding any narcotics will be easy for the search party.
“A search can take hours and our guys may have found nothing. The trouble is, as we get cleverer, the smugglers too get cleverer with the ways and places they can conceal what we are looking for,” Walker says.
“It was very satisfying when our units often found over 3000kg of hash, or 250kg of heroin. Not only do these finds impact the terrorist organisations but they also keep significant volumes of narcotics off the streets.”
When there is a big narcotics find, disposal of it usually happens on the spot. With the inscrutable skippers and crew standing by, the navy team will don protective gear, open the drug packaging and flush millions of dollars worth of narcotics into the ocean through a bottomless bin.
The dhow gets a receipt for the cargo that has been seized. What happens next can be far more complex, says Walker, depending on which of the participating navy nations is involved and who they are dealing with.
Many of the smugglers apprehended come from countries with capital punishment, but because they are not the the key focus of the operations, it’s often a ‘catch and release’ scenario.
Part-way through the posting in Bahrain, Walker was required to turn his attention to the task force suppressing piracy, taking charge of Operation HAKA, which pulled together personnel from Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Denmark, Korea, Japan, Kuwait and Oman.
Modern-day piracy had grown alarmingly off the coast of Somalia, where high-speed boats were ambushing commercial vessels and executing heavily-armed robberies. In recent years it’s been reduced but a real threat remains.
In his term there were just two attacks, both of them unsuccessful.
The experience was memorable for Walker and a great opportunity to make his mark.
“The willingness of other nationals to accept a Kiwi as their deputy commander is testament to the training and professionalism of our people and the very understated Kiwi approach. We are known throughout the world for our professional, yet relaxed approach and our cultural sensitivity, and for our ability to bring a team of people together in a positive way.”
It’s been a pretty good life in the Navy, he reflects. He came straight in from high school in Southland, never dreaming he might be part of such an unusual deployment one day, or of the recognition it would bring him.