A New 'Submarine' Threat?

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The increased use of semi-submersibles to bring drugs into the United States has raised the specter of similar craft being employed to transport terrorists, explosives, and elicit funds into the country. But the likelihood of terrorists going that route is extremely unlikely.

Writing in The Washington Post (6 June), William Booth and Juan Forero said, "U.S. law enforcement officials say that more than a third of the cocaine smuggled into the United States from Colombia travels in submersibles." These craft, manned by a crew of four or five, and carrying up to ten tons of cocaine, are being produced in the jungles of Colombia. They transit with their decks awash or just below the surface, employing snorkel-like tubes for air for the crew and the diesel engines.  Habitability is spartan, with simple bunks and stocks of food being provided. There are no sanitary facilities.

Employing GPS for navigation, the craft sail northward-up to 3,000 miles-to rendezvous points off of the Central American coast to transfer their cargo to fishing craft or pleasure boats, which will bring the drugs into the United States. Radios are provided, but are used infrequently and then for brief, coded transmissions. There are reports that unmanned, radio-controlled craft of this type are under development for use in cocaine smuggling.

Up to 100 of these craft may have departed Colombian waters in 2008; about ten percent of the known or suspected semi-submersibles were intercepted that year. Some of their successes may have been due to being escorted by counter-surveillance vessels-fishing boats that sail with them to provide warning of the approach of U.S. or other search ships or aircraft. Upon warning the semi-submersible will stop its engine and drift noiselessly until the danger is past.

The construction of the semi-submersibles -- which are built in ones or twos at specific sites -- are changed after use to avoid detection and are relatively expensive to build. Estimates are about one to two million dollars for construction of a semi-submersible and to pay the crew.

Writing in the Naval Institute Proceedings (October 2008), Navy Captain Wade F. Wilkenson observed:

Experts conservatively estimate that each [semi-submersible] costs roughly $1 to $2 million to build, equip, and crew, so a ten-metric ton [craft],   fully loaded, is a $20 million investment. Deploy five vessels at a combined total lay out of $100 million, successfully deliver one, and you double your investment. Having all five successfully reach their destination nets a nine-fold return on investment.     

Yet, despite the success of these craft in smuggling drugs into the United States, there is little likelihood that they will be used for terrorist activities. Terrorist organizations do not appear to have the funds to construct such craft. Faced with the increasing probability of detection or even accidental loss in rough seas, would such organizations be willing to risk carrying funds or operatives in semi-submersibles?

And, people or explosives that are sent by semi-submersible must first be transported to Colombia or another starting point in South America. Also, arrangements must be made to procure the semi-submersible and man it, and then to arrange transfer to another craft for the run into the United States, and possibly arranging for an escort vessel for the semi-submersible. All of these actions would involve contacts with non-terrorist individuals, increasing the likelihood of a "leak" and possibly even blackmail in an effort to obtain more money from the terrorists for the arrangements even after a contract was made.

Rather, the availability of explosives in the United States, the porous U.S. maritime borders and the lengthy border with Canada, and the potential for terrorist sympathizers within the United States all argue against the use of semi-submersibles. Meanwhile, the extensive cocaine traffic using semi-submersibles argues for stronger efforts by the U.S. and allied governments to detect and stop such craft.

-- Norman Polmar

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