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The Dark Fleet: A Brief Glimpse into the Shadowy World of Illicit Shipping

In the vast expanse of the world's oceans, a shadowy network of vessels lurks, engaging in deceptive shipping practices to transport sanctioned cargo, particularly Russian oil, evading international sanctions. These clandestine operations are carried out by what is known as the Dark Fleet and Gray Fleet, two entities that have appeared as significant players in the global shipping industry, raising concerns and risks for maritime trade.

Going Dark

The Dark Fleet, characterized by its involvement in dark activities such as disabling AIS transmitters and using deceptive shipping practices like GNSS manipulation, ID tampering, and location spoofing, operates with weak ownership structures and frequently changes flags of convenience. This fleet, which primarily consists of oil/chemical tankers, has been identified to transport crude oil, chemicals, and other wet cargo. The size of the Dark Fleet has fluctuated in response to regulations and geopolitical events, notably expanding following the Russian oil ban and price caps.

A Gray Fleet for the Gray Zone

The Gray Fleet has emerged as a newer phenomenon in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions. This fleet operates by obscuring vessel origins and ownership to create the appearance of legality, primarily transporting Russian oil to countries that have not banned trade with Russia. The Gray Fleet, mainly composed of crude oil tankers, presents challenges in determining legality and sanctions compliance, hence earning its name due to the ambiguity surrounding its operations.

A Growing Concern

The Dark and Gray Fleets, comprising a total of over 2,000 vessels transporting wet cargo globally, collectively represent 18% of the maritime shipping industry. Among them, the Dark Fleet consists of approximately 1,100 vessels, while the Gray Fleet encompasses more than 900 ships. These fleets are characterized by vessels that frequently display unconventional behaviors, including operating in restricted zones, evading standard port calls, and participating in dubious rendezvous activities at sea.

One notable aspect of these fleets is the prevalence of older vessels that are often inadequately maintained. This lack of proper upkeep raises concerns about the safety and environmental risks associated with these ships. The aging infrastructure of these vessels heightens the likelihood of accidents and potential oil spills, posing a significant threat to marine ecosystems and coastal regions.

Implications for Strategy and Policy

The impact of these fleets on the shipping industry and the security environment is profound. The limited availability of tankers for legitimate cargo due to the diversion of vessels for illicit activities results in higher costs and capacity constraints for suppliers. Moreover, the ownership and political connections of these fleets remain shrouded in mystery, raising concerns about potential support for illicit activities. The increased risk of accidents and spills posed by aging vessels lacking proper maintenance further compounds the risks associated with these operations.

The deceptive shipping practices and sanctions evasion by the Dark and Gray Fleets have significant strategic and policy implications for the global shipping industry.  The presence of these fleets undermines maritime security by increasing the risk of accidents and environmental disasters due to the use of older, poorly maintained vessels. The diversion of tankers for illicit activities reduces the availability of vessels for legitimate trade, leading to higher insurance costs and potential supply chain disruptions.  

The involvement of the Dark and Gray Fleets in maritime Irregular Warfare (IW) activities serves to intensify geopolitical tensions, especially in the context of interactions between sanctioning nations and countries that persist in trading with sanctioned states such as Russia, North Korea, or the Houthi movement in Yemen. These fleets, known for their suspicious behaviors and non-compliance with international regulations, play a significant role in exacerbating existing geopolitical conflicts and challenges.

The Dark Fleet and Great Power Competition

The clandestine activities of the Dark and Gray Fleets significantly impact great power competition by undermining economic sanctions, complicating maritime security, and fostering new geopolitical alliances. By facilitating the continued flow of sanctioned resources, these fleets enable targeted states to sustain their economies and military capabilities, weakening the efficacy of sanctions imposed by powers such as the United States and the European Union. This increased maritime chaos allows great powers to justify a heightened naval presence in strategic areas, thereby projecting power and securing vital sea lanes. Additionally, the economic instability caused by the diversion of vessels to illicit activities disrupts global supply chains, leading to increased shipping costs and delays. This disruption can be strategically manipulated by dominant naval powers to exert economic pressure on rivals. Consequently, the Dark and Gray Fleets contribute to a more volatile and contested global strategic environment, challenging the existing power structures and necessitating coordinated international efforts to mitigate their influence.


As the global shipping industry grapples with the challenges posed by the Dark and Gray Fleets, there is a pressing need for a fresh strategic approach, and enhanced monitoring and detection mechanisms to identify vessels engaged in questionable practices. Utilizing advanced technologies such as AI solutions to scan official records, monitor AIS transmissions, and track vessel movements can aid in identifying and mitigating the risks associated with these shadowy operations. However, a larger question remains about which strategic approach that the international community should take to disrupt and defeat this rising threat to open flow of commerce and international norms writ large. 



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