It’s May 1944. An American submarine just sank several Japanese ships, and is now under a blistering counterattack. As a seemingly-endless barrage of depth charges explodes around the boat, one of the American submariners asks how much a depth charge costs. A crewmate guesses they cost about $600 each.
“Damn, we’re going to bankrupt these sonovabitches.”
And that’s about right. Except today we’re not bankrupting our adversaries. Our adversaries are bankrupting us.
Used effectively in a military context, submarines are a huge multiplier. State of the art military submarines can cost an unbelievable amount of money, but they’re so effective that the costs of defending against them easily become far greater than the cost of the boat. Defending surface shipping from an attack submarine requires greater expense than a hunter-killer sub costs the attacker to build. Even after developing countermeasures, you might not stop them all. So, in addition to the costs of defending against them, you’ll still probably have some losses from successful attacks. Similarly, even after several decades and at least a quarter trillion dollars in investment, missile defense systems still can’t satisfactorily defend against a single ballistic missile submarine. (Let alone the cheaper and easier workarounds our esteemed friends are apparently developing, or already have…
Submarines are complicated, expensive, and Spartan, but they can still cause a lot more trouble than anybody really wants to deal with. Now, enter the “narco-sub.” If your most recent education on drug trafficking methods was from Scarface, my first recommendation is to watch better crime movies. My second recommendation is to learn what’s happened since, because this one is important. Narco-submarines are a natural result of huge illicit market incentives, expensive (and institutionalized) interdiction methods, and the democratization of production promised by the 4th Industrial Revolution.
Most people have a vague notion that international drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) have become masters of illegal logistics, but many people don’t understand the scope of their capabilities. The Sinaloa Cartel alone operates more planes than AeroMexico, and some cartels operate full-sized passenger jets. Cartels erect their own encrypted communications networks. They build “narco tanks” to transport drugs and battle the government. They spoof GPS systems to confuse our drones while smuggling product with theirs. They build ingenious tunnels under border defenses, and are now using industrial drilling equipment to improve these methods. They basically run the prisons they’re sentenced to. They’ve worked with Hezbollah to launder money. They corrupt our (and everyone else’s) police, and pose as private security firms. They easily traffic in weapons, and some are now making their own with digital CNC.
And this is a very incomplete list.
Basically, Ian Fleming had James Bond battling the over-the-top SPECTRE in the Cold War era because in those pre-Nixon days few could see that the Drug War was incubating the real thing. After decades to enrich themselves and develop their methods to a science, international trafficking organizations now have capabilities that any terrorist group would envy. If the drug traffickers wanted to try some real terrorism, they’d make a super-league of al-Qaeda, Red Army Faction, Tupac Amaru, Hamas, and Daesh look like amateur hour at the political violence open-mic.
Or maybe not. I mean, the cartels are only motivated by money. Sure, some people will kill for money, but it’s the religious extremists that are truly dangerous, right? Only serious terrorists and religious fanatics are motivated enough to use crazy tactics like indiscriminate multi-stage IED attacks,[i] and killing students, and airliner bombings, and mass executions and cutting peoples’ heads off and, um…nevermind. I must have been thinking of something else.
Cops, judges, elected officials, border guards, military personnel, veterans, businesspeople, lawyers, media, trades people, private security staff, merchant marines, accountants, and lots of others who understandably prefer plata to plomo, have all been caught on cartel payroll. The cartels have more money than terrorists and a lot more recruiting appeal, but even with all these advantages they can’t just sit still. They will always need to produce and deliver their products to keep the money rolling in, and they must always adapt to new enforcement initiatives trying to stymie their operations.
This is a challenge, but nothing the traffickers can’t handle. Terrorist groups like Daesh are good at scaring people with their extremist antics, and they do have some (worthless) territory, but they can’t keep the oil wells running or the lights on. Their fanaticism makes them dangerous, but it also makes them shitty managers with little long-term prospect. The cartels are different: they are nothing more or less than the world’s most efficiently-brutal businesspeople, and business is (always) good. From LA to Montreal, London to Naples to Moscow and back, the cartels have never failed to deliver enough yeyo for the 1st world’s addicts, Wall Streeters, and party kids to stay nice and lit.
With a business model that requires the regular production and delivery of narcotics in huge volume, the cartels have used every logistical tool available through the years. They already have plenty of boats. The stereotypical 1970s-80s maritime smuggling run involved “fast boats.” These are small (usually fiberglass) performance craft that are often customized with upgraded engines and other enhancements for speed and payload. A typical fast boat can carry 500-2000 kilos, and can outrun most Coast Guard vessels. Fast boats dominated the smuggling game in the Caribbean until the 1980s, but law enforcers increased air patrolling, improved their intelligence, surveillance, and imaging systems, and used helicopters to track or disable them when spotted. This degraded the success rate of fast boats on approach to the United States or other well-policed destinations. Fast boats are (obviously) fast, but they are shorter-ranged and only moderately stealthy. They are essentially racing craft that leave signatures for detection from the air: under good conditions they can be detected by radar, they leave heat plumes, large wakes, noise, and unless camouflaged, are visually identifiable.
The cartels still use fast boats in applications they are well-suited for, such as moving product in coastal areas with fewer patrols, or picking up product from “slow boats” near the delivery zone. Fast boats are relatively cheap, so they can also be sent in larger numbers if attrition is an issue, but this is a sub-optimal solution when there are alternatives that avoid loss of product. One alternative is to combine fast boats with swarms of nondescript slow boats, sometimes called “Pangas.” These craft are small and slow. Most can only hold 100-200 kilos. However, they are very cheap and they look like legitimate small craft from afar. By using swarms of Pangas (sometimes hundreds at a time), traffickers guarantee that a few will be stopped, but the “vast majority”[ii] will get through.
Of course, all of this combines with shipments sent in maritime shipping containers on legitimate cargo ships, and payloads carried by fishing vessels , freighters, and other larger slow boats. While traffickers do move product through the legitimate container shipping system, these shipments pass through customs and run risk of detection, requiring artful concealment or corruption of customs and port workers. The safest way is to ensure that the product never has to pass through inspections or customs in the first place, so fast boats are still employed to pick up loads from ocean-going slow boats and bring them to their destinations more clandestinely.
But Coast Guards and law enforcement agencies have gotten better at hunting the fast boats. When this degraded the formerly-convenient Caribbean fast boat approach to the United States, the cartels began a multi-decade research and development process to select alternatives. One of the earliest and best workarounds is the “narco-torpedo.” A simple version is the “Static Narco Container,” or “Parasitic Device,” which is a container bolted or magnetically affixed to the underside of a freighter or fishing vessel by cartel divers. Some versions can be jettisoned quickly if the crew suspects they will be boarded, and they can also be placed on unsuspecting legitimate ships and then tracked to their destination and recovered by divers at the destination. These containers have transported payloads from South America to Mexico, the United States, Europe,[iii] and probably everywhere else…
Static containers are a cheap and easy solution, but they do suffer some drawbacks. Unless they’re the fancy kind, they probably can’t be jettisoned easily. They can be discovered on thorough inspection. If discovered, the entire payload is lost, and crews most likely arrested. Perhaps most importantly, they are relatively small. The more sophisticated “narco-torpedo” addresses these drawbacks. Narco-torpedoes are tethered and towed underneath larger vessels, but remain 20-30 meters below surface. The torpedoes can be quickly released if authorities approach to inspect the vessel, but the payload is not lost. The torpedo is designed to resurface after a few hours and discharge beacons so a backup craft can recover the payload. These narco-torpedoes are “designed to be difficult to detect,” and are “cheaper to build than semi-submersibles.”[iv] The bigger ones can carry about as much as a large fast boat.
Narco-torpedoes were certainly a step up in the maritime smuggling game when they (apparently) premiered in the 1990s, but they’re still not perfect for every scenario. They can carry more than static containers, but most don’t carry as much as a fully-laden fast boat. Nor are they towed by fast boats, they require larger and slower craft. These large craft are more likely to be inspected, so the clandestinity of the torpedo’s design, and the delay and hassle associated with jettisoning and recovering it, are all part of the production and operational costs. They’re a clever improvement and are still used. Yet, the cartels knew they could take it to another level if they had independent clandestine vehicles that could carry larger payloads while remaining far less detectable.
In the early 2000s, drug enforcers kept hearing rumors about near-mythical submarines that could transport larger loads completely undetected. The drug enforcers knew this was plausible: they’d caught a handful of submarines in the experimental and construction phases since the early 1990s,[v] and they’d gathered intelligence indicating that cartels were hiring Russian naval engineers to assist them with submarine designs.[vi] These investments in submarine development continued as a high-value cartel program even after the Cali and Medellin cartels were disrupted. The more fragmented organizations that grew up in their wake still prioritized submarines, and they still had more than enough resources to try.
During this experimental stage, a number of designs were attempted. The first narco-submarine was seized near the San Andres Islands in Colombia in 1993. The San Andres was a primitive semi-submersible fiberglass and wood craft incapable of full dives. However, its profile was low, with only the cockpit and exhaust vents above waterline, and it could control its running depth. It was 7 meters long, had a crew of 2, and could carry 2 tons (or 1800 kilos), about the payload of a large fast boat. It would have been harder to detect than a fast boat, but it was slow at 10 mph or less, and not a breakthrough in stealth. Byron Ramirez wrote that its detection at sea would be “highly possible.”[vii] A year later, authorities captured the Tayrona Sub during construction near Santa Marta, Colombia. The Tayrona was essentially a powered semi-submersible torpedo. It was 10 meters long, primitively ballasted with lead weights, it was slow, and its range was only 200 nautical miles. The intel people believed the sub was designed to be towed longer distances behind a larger craft. The submarine would be released on contact with law enforcers, or whenever the host craft had gotten close enough to the destination that the sub could quietly take the payload to shore.
In 1994, Colombian authorities seized another sub under construction in Cartegena. The Cartegena reflected a more ambitious design: it had a proper cylindrical steel hull instead of the fiberglass used on the previous vessels. This indicates that the makers intended to operate the craft as a true submarine. However, the ballasting system was still based on weights, rather than more sophisticated ballast tanks. This sub was 11 meters long, and could carry 1.5 tons.
Authorities disrupted construction of a breakthrough design in 2000. The Facatativa Sub was clearly designed with Russian assistance,[viii] and reflected a leap forward in ambition. This sub was a whopping 30 meters long. It had a shrouded screw, and a more sophisticated double hulled and air-ballasted design, making it capable of full dives to 330 feet. It could carry a crew of 12, with a near-unbelievable payload of 150-200 tons.[ix] Its range was 2000 nautical miles. Analysts estimated the craft would have cost about $10 million to complete, and it would have been equipped with depth sonar, satellite comms, GPS navigation, and radar. This design was no throwaway. A high-tech $10 million narco-submarine like this one would’ve been used more than once, but carrying a payload with street value potentially reaching the billions, it would only have to succeed once to finance an entire fleet of new and improved subs based on the design. Tracking a fleet of these would require proper Naval anti-submarine forces.
There was another interesting factor: the Facatativa was designed to be shipped to its launch location in unfinished condition, and then outfitted with its electronics, motors, props, and optics near its launch site. This wouldn’t be surprising, except that the Facatativa hulls were fabricated in the outskirts of Bogota. Bogota is in the mountains 8000 feet above sea level, and hundreds of miles from the Caribbean or Pacific coasts. When discussing possible countermeasures to today’s narco-sub infestation, people sometimes point out that the majority of today’s narco-subs appear to be built in the heavily jungled and poorly-policed areas along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. The subs are then floated along rivers and estuaries the relatively short distance from their construction sites to the sea. Because most of these subs are built in remote and mostly-lawless jungles, one solution is to crack down on these under-governed spaces and establish firmer state control in these areas, presumably shutting down cartel sub-making.
However, even if the cartels don’t degrade these attempts through corruption and subterfuge, the Facatativa sub suggests that the cartels are willing and able to construct even the largest sub components in urban workshops. They would then clandestinely ship the components as far as necessary to launch sites. The cartels may not need these remote and lawless jungles to develop their submarines, but they’re convenient. If the jungle becomes inconvenient, the cartels could probably pivot to urban construction and smuggle the subs wherever they need to be launched. Cracking down on the coastal jungles may raise cartel sub-building costs and logistical challenges, but couldn’t totally shut down the narco-subs. After all, we are talking about the most sophisticated illicit trafficking syndicates in the history of the world. If they’re building these in the city, you can bet they’ve got plans for getting them to their launch sites.
This handful of early encounters (primarily catching the boats in construction), reflected a series of different design strategies. Some were fully submersible and some were semi-submersible. Some were short-ranged and best suited for clandestine off-loads close to shore, and some were more seaworthy and longer-ranged. Some were fiberglass, some were steel, and they ranged in cost of production. Regardless, none were being found in the water. For several years, narco-subs seemed a novelty that the cartels might not be seriously pursuing anymore. Yet, intelligence and rumors (which are sometimes almost the same thing) kept suggesting that the cartels were still building submarines, they just weren’t being detected.
The cartels hadn’t given up. They were moving on from experimentation and now developing more consistent styles of prototype, reflecting a learning process to find the most cost-effective mix of stealthy designs. In the mid-aughts, narco-subs started turning up in greater numbers than ever seen before. Designs were less experimental, and reflected emergence of the practical “low profile vessel (LPV).” LPVs are not fully submersible, but are designed to operate almost entirely beneath waterline. The engineering requirements for fully-submersible subs like the Facatativa are much greater. Full submersibles need more complex ballasting to enable control of depth, and the gold standard for drug running would involve steel double-hulls with air ballasting similar in concept to industrially-manufactured military subs and civilian submersibles.
The cartels do produce and use these more advanced submarines, but the flurry of encounters following 2005 reflected equal or greater development toward simpler LPVs as a cost-effective option. This period saw design advancements to these simpler and less-expensive craft, making them considerably stealthier. With these stealth features, the LPVs became attractive to build alongside (presumably) smaller numbers of more advanced submersibles. The LPVs would run greater risk of detection than full subs, but with design enhancements they would be economically successful, with only a relatively small percentage interdicted.
One advancement was placing thin layers of lead, Kevlar, or other radar-absorbent materials on the boats’ upper surfaces, and rounding exposed surfaces, reducing radar signatures from the air. Another was locating exhaust pipes and heat exchangers underneath the craft. This cools and disperses the exhaust in the water, reducing thermal signatures. Improved (often dual) diesel engines, screws, and fuel systems provide for higher speeds and longer ranges, even with larger payloads. Hydrodynamic designs improve fuel efficiency and decrease wake. Diesel-electric power plants allow for quieter running when the electric system drives the screws, and the sub can run the diesels to recharge the batteries while surfaced or using a snorkel at shallow depth, just like diesel-electric military subs.
Paint jobs are customized to the waters the craft will operate in, making visual detection more difficult. Some non-submersible LPVs have rear hydroplanes, allowing operators to control running depth and the size of the vessel’s profile above waterline. At least a couple seized craft had “cathodic protection” which prevents corrosion. This kind of feature indicates that the craft is meant for longer-term use. Crew accommodations have been improved: some craft now have heads, air conditioning, washing sinks, and even small galleys. More advanced submarines may require metal hulls, double hulls, heavy duty valves, air ballasting systems, and other more sophisticated components. These designs are stealthiest of all, but hardest to build.
Since LPVs are basically low-riding boats instead of true submarines, they can be built more cheaply while still enjoying acceptable stealth. LPVs are typically fiberglass-hulled, sometimes built from discarded fast boat molds. Byron Ramirez points out that “In terms of how they accessed discarded molds, when legitimate boat manufacturers claim to have destroyed their molds after they were used, one can only guess.”[x] As with the Facatativa case, which suggests the cartels have logistical capability to build these craft far inland if necessary, we are talking about some of the world’s most capable illicit multi-national corporations. If they can’t bribe or steal from fast boat manufacturers to get their molds, they can probably just open whole front companies to purchase or build some molds quasi-legitimately. Nowadays, the stealthy narco vessels that are encountered seem to reflect increasing standardization of these designs. Individual craft may not be fully standardized, but they reflect consistent packages of desirable features.
The Guajira LPV was seized off the Caribbean coast of Colombia in 2007. It was 20 meters long, with a rounded hull for larger payload of 10 tons. It also had twin engines and screws, and a large capacity fuel tank which analysts believed would enable an autonomous range of 3500 nautical miles (Images found here and here, in Ramirez & Bunker p. 71
Vessel 23, (aka the Kevlar Coated Super-Sub) was captured in 2010 under construction in Ecuador, in a joint operation between the United States, Colombia, and Ecuador. It was 30 meters long, constructed of fiberglass and coated with Kevlar. It had diesel-electric drive and twin screws (Images found here and here, in Ramirez & Bunker p.89, 90)
Ramirez points out a couple interesting areas of speculation given the seizures so far, saying “…it is most likely that drug smugglers have employed a mixed strategy of using both LPVs and submarines concurrently and the LPVs may have been less effective in avoiding detection, thus explaining why they may have been captured in greater numbers.”[xi] He’s probably right. Almost all of the stealthy narco-craft that have been captured in the water so far have been LPVs, not true submarines. The real submarines are only captured during construction, not in the water. However, it’s also probable that the LPVs are captured more often because there are a lot more of them. LPVs are easier and cheaper to make, and probably require less crew training as well. Though they are less stealthy and some are subsequently captured, most get through.
There is also the issue of range, and the interesting locations of LPV seizures. Unsurprisingly, LPVs are being captured along the Pacific coast west and north of Ecuador and Colombia. This reflects the typical runs from cocaine-producing regions of South America (Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, etc…) north to Central America, Mexico, and the United States. However, some have now been interdicted in the water (or seized during construction) along the Caribbean coast. Ramirez suggests that that the Guajira LPV was destined for Caribbean or Atlantic running, with a range of 3500 nautical miles. This kind of range on the Atlantic side could indicate an attempt by the Colombian traffickers to bypass the Mexican cartels and deliver directly to the lucrative US market. Or, perhaps the Colombians are increasing their capabilities in anticipation of an American security breakthrough at the land borders, thereby degrading the ability of the Mexican cartels to deliver Colombian products to the US.
These are plausible explanations. The rise of the Mexican cartels came largely as a result of stepped-up enforcement efforts to shut down the Caribbean approach. Before this crackdown in the 1980s, the Colombians were running their product directly to the United States through the Caribbean without much help. They almost certainly still do some direct runs in smaller volumes, but the Caribbean crackdown shut down most of the 1970s “Cocaine Cowboys” and fomented an unholy alliance between the Colombian and Mexican cartels. Since then, the Colombians have been delivering more of their stuff to Mexico, and the Mexican organizations have their own bag of tricks to bring the Colombian product into the United States from there.
Naturally, the Colombian groups keep looking for ways to cut the Mexicans out and keep more of the money for themselves. Meanwhile, the Mexican organizations look for ways to increase and diversify local narcotic production so they can better compete with the Colombians as primary producers, instead of just transporters and distributors. If the Colombians make breakthroughs in stealthy and long-ranged maritime transport, they will once again own not only production, but also delivery to the extremely lucrative North American market. There’s no proof (yet), but the cartels may already have this capability. As US Coast Guard Cmdr. Mark Fedor stated, “These vessels are seaworthy enough that I have no doubt in my mind that if they had enough fuel, they could easily sail into a port in the United States.”
There may be another possibility. Maybe the Colombians are more ambitious than that. They would benefit hugely by strengthening direct lines to the US, but they may also be seeking longer ranges on the Atlantic side because they’re shooting for Europe. The Colombian cartels have been increasingly involved in West Africa. It’s a good arrangement: West African countries are (generally) poorly policed and easy to corrupt. Recent decades have seen increased Colombian activity in the region, selling locally and using the area as a transshipment point to the very lucrative European market. It’s about 2000 miles to West Africa from eastern Brazil, 4000 miles from Colombia to West Africa, and 5000 miles from Colombia to Portugal or Spain. With a refueling stop in Suriname, French Guiana, or Brazil, the cartels already have stealth craft capable of the West Africa trip. Local operators in Brazil may be incentivized to develop their own submarines and go into mutually-beneficial business with the Colombians, much as the designers of the Spanish Vigo narco-sub did. Direct runs from Colombia to Europe without a stop-off are a tall order, but it’s a safe bet that the Colombian makers are working on it. One assessment from the US Office of Naval Intelligence found that there are fully submersible narco-subs capable of traveling 6800 nautical miles without support.[xii] That’s trans-oceanic capability. Japan is about 5000 nautical miles from the US west coast.
The popularization of stealthy LPVs and full submarines capable of carrying significant payloads oceanic distances, could revolutionize illegal shipping on a global scale. The Hollywood image of huge container shipments of contraband does still have some truth, but advancements to port security and customs increase the risk that these large container shipments will be detected. This has caused illegal traffickers to reorganize into an “Ant Trade” of smaller and more widely distributed traffickers sending smaller and better-concealed shipments through customs. This organic and dispersed trade is harder to disrupt because it involves many more players and transactions, but these transactions are also smaller-scale to avoid the improved inspection techniques that many countries are adopting.
If you’re the primary producer of a high-volume commodity like cocaine, the more you can vertically integrate the delivery chain, the better. You don’t just want to send many small shipments through a bunch of intermediaries who each get a cut. You’d prefer to send large shipments direct to local distributors, preferably without transiting customs at all. If the Colombian cartels prove to be the dominant players in the long-range submarine and stealth boat game, it could give them unprecedented access to markets all over the world with fewer middlemen. Ultimately, it could enable the complete circumvention of customs, port security, and the entire legal shipping system for many illicit commodities. It’s difficult to conceptualize the amount of money such a development would represent, or the amount of money it would cost to stop it.
Likewise, the boat makers themselves could end up on top, with successful narco-sub designs being emulated by a variety of well-financed criminal syndicates (and probably more than a few creative small-timers) around the world. If the Russian Mafia can help the Colombians develop these profitable new craft, they can make their own. Drugs are probably the most profitable illegal commodities to ship by weight, but there’s also no reason they have to stay exclusively “narco” subs. Stealth craft can be customized to carry other kinds of portable contraband: weapons, people, hard currency, and so forth. Drug cartels may wish to protect their technologic advantage and avoid the backlash that would result from providing these craft to terrorists, but there’s no doubt terrorists would love these things. This caused Admiral Charles Michel of US Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-South) to describe narco-subs as “a dangerous drug conveyance that could potentially be adapted for transporting other more serious security threats to the United States.”[xiii]
Submarine builders could seek finance from any number of criminal syndicates with commodities to move, or open independent shops and become fee-for-service illegal transport specialists. Apparently, some of the more expensive narco-submarine projects in Colombia have involved pools of investors from different (sometimes even rival) trafficking groups, collaborating on different construction projects and shipments. This distributes the risk of these big ticket initiatives. As successful designs are increasingly emulated, syndicates with successful submariners may become major players in all kinds of illicit trafficking around the world.
That would be a big deal, but the classic remedies are neither easy nor cheap. Currently, the methods used to detect these craft reflect the methods which have proved successful in detecting fast boats. That means Naval and Coast Guard ships combined with aviation resources to scan for these things from the air, and fast boats to catch up and board narco-subs when detected. Ship-borne radar isn’t finding them, you need aircraft with high-quality look-down radar and FLIR/thermal imaging systems if you want to catch the LPVs from the air. However, it’s not clear that the full submarines will be detected this way at all, except perhaps by happenstance when surfaced or using a scope. Detecting the real subs in the water requires sonar, and this probably means real Naval anti-submarine resources. These resources are geared toward finding (and killing) military craft the size of a WalMart. Granted, the narco-subs can’t possibly have the super-advanced technologies that make Naval submarines so stealthy (and awesome), but they’re small, and the cartels will undoubtedly try to develop methods to make them quieter over time.
One attempted remedy has been legal. Almost all of these narco-subs have scuttle valves. In the mid-2000s, when authorities started catching LPVs in the water, their crews would sink them (and the evidence) in minutes. Now the drug interdiction people are legally obligated to save the trafficking crew while their boat goes under. Sometimes divers can recover the evidence, sometimes they can’t. The United States and Colombia responded with legislation making it a criminal offense to operate any un-flagged and unregistered submersible or semi-submersible at all. This makes it unnecessary to recover any narcotics to bring drug trafficking charges. If the US Navy catches you on an un-flagged submarine anywhere in the world, don’t expect them to buy your story about independently-financed Kraken research. Under the assumption that former Naval officers can build and operate these craft most effectively, the Colombian law provides harsher penalties if the offender has been affiliated with the Colombian Navy.
At the moment, the narco-subs look pretty unstoppable while in transit, and the LPVs aren’t invincible but they’re successful enough. The economics alone are pretty decisive: the most expensive narco-submarine anybody has seen so far cost about $10 million. That’s a lot of money to play around with model boats, but that sub would have transported payloads worth hundreds of millions, if not over a billion dollars on the street. Payloads for smaller craft have ranged into the $100-$400 million dollar range, but the cartels have made pretty good submarines for $2 million, and LPVs for less. A decent number of these things can get stopped, and the cartels will still make plenty of money.
How many are we actually stopping? Most estimates, including the DEA’s,[xiv] put the interdiction rate at 20-25%, but it’s hard to evaluate. Nobody really knows how many of these craft are being produced, how many are in operation, or whether there are some very stealthy subs already making big runs without being detected. We’ve captured enough LPVs in the water, and enough real subs under construction, that it’s almost certain there are a lot more in use. Despite all these fancy surveillance resources, most of the busts have relied on specific intelligence about construction projects or specific craft traveling specific routes. We can’t possibly surveil enough ocean at any given time to discover all the LPVs in the water, let alone the subs under the surface. The Navy and Coast Guard people need intelligence on where to look in order to actually catch them. This only gets harder when we consider the possibility that subs might eventually get popularized for illicit trafficking all over the world.
According to one analysis:
“…given good intelligence of a drug event and a patrol box of a certain length and width, a surface vessel operating alone has only a 5% probability of detecting (PD) that event. A surface vessel with an embarked helicopter increases the PD to 30%, and by adding a Maritime Patrol Aircraft to the mix, the PD goes up to 70%. Analysis by the Colombian Navy shows that adding one of their submarines to the mix raises the PD to 90%.[xv]
So, if we’ve got specific intel on where to look, and we throw everything but the kitchen sink (including military attack submarines) at it, we can at least find the LPVs a majority of the time. But this doesn’t tell us much about overall success rates, because we don’t know how many more narco-craft are in operation. Drug War critic Jacob Sullum put it this way:
“So drug warriors miss 75 percent of the shipments they know about, plus 100 percent of the shipments they don’t know about. Depending on the relative sizes of those two categories, the actual interception rate may be infinitesimal. Add to this abysmal failure the fact that illegal drugs acquire most of their value after they arrive in this country, and it is not surprising that interdiction efforts have no observable impact on drug consumption.”
So far, the only real suggestions are to improve intelligence sharing, give more resources to SOUTHCOM so they can do more aerial surveillance, and give more stuff to the Colombian military because, well, I guess that’s what we always do. We probably can’t spend our way to success on narco-subs because these stealthy craft reflect a larger and deeper trend: the 4th Industrial Revolution is making it easier to produce things. Impressive capabilities keep diffusing to smaller and smaller players for lower and lower cost. The technologic situation used to be pretty unambiguous: only militaries had submarines, and only massive projects involving dozens or hundreds of major industrial contractors could manufacture them. A few private companies made small civilian submersibles for research purposes, but that was it. Now the game is changing.
Like other illegal items that the 4th Industrial Revolution is bringing into wider reach, the materials, equipment, and technology to make narco-subs are available through a variety of legitimate channels. Trying to figure out who is making narco-subs by tracing the supply chain is no easy task. Naturally, when LPVs and narco-subs are captured, the intel people do try to exploit any clues they can find. Then, they’ll try to trace the sub back to its origins and shut down the makers. Some narco-subs use heavy duty industrial valves that are not commonly purchased except by ship builders and major industrial firms. It may be possible to trace some of these purchases. Diesel engines, electronics, and perhaps a few other narco-sub components are made with serial numbers, and sometimes these can be traced. But let’s remember who we’re dealing with. Anybody capable of making a sophisticated narco-sub is capable of thoroughly obliterating any traceable serial numbers on the sub’s major components. They’re also capable of acquiring most of the components without an actionable paper trail or purchase record.
Keeping an eye on people with the skills to build and operate these things is another suggestion, but the march of technology puts time on the traffickers’ side. It’s always harder to develop, prototype, and test something than it is to simply replicate a design that’s been proven. The cartels needed Russian help to come up with some of their early models, but now they’re refining and replicating successful designs independently. Experienced Naval submariners might be needed to design and pilot narco-subs at first, but once there are good designs with user friendly controls, the skill requirements decrease. An experienced fisherman can probably pilot a sub after some training, and boat builders, machinists, welders, and other tradespeople can replicate them in ad hoc workshops. This only gets easier for traffickers as knowledge of successful designs continues to spread.
And this doesn’t account for the next steps in civilian technology that the traffickers could turn to their advantage. The first relates to civilian submersibles. There is an increasing variety of civilian submersibles on the market, or planned for market in the near future. Some of these civilian subs are just really damn cool, and some are borderline Dr. Evil. Check it out:
As of 2007, there were at least 100 of these privately-owned luxury subs operating around the world. The custom craft costing in the tens of millions have unbelievable capabilities. They’re able to dive thousands of feet, cross our puny Earth oceans without refuel, and stay submerged in mind-distorting luxury for weeks at a time. Our benevolent oligarchs are buying these things with great secrecy, usually requiring comprehensive non-disclosure agreements. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen definitely has one, and nobody’s allowed to talk about it. Russian oil oligarch and Chelsea Football Club Owner Roman Abramovich has one. When asked about where he goes with it, he said “If you can find my submarine, it’s yours.”
These super-luxury subs aren’t designed for military levels of stealth, but they’re absolutely impossible to find without military submarines or anti-submarine resources. The introduction of increasing numbers of civilian craft to deep sea environments that were previously the exclusive domain of the military, has occasionally caused confusion. Government agencies sometimes inspect these luxury super-subs to ensure they carry no torpedoes, since, um, they could be a problem if they did. The owners and operators are supposed to keep various governments informed as to their activities, but they often don’t. As US Submarines, Inc., Vice President of Marketing Jean-Claude Carme told a Bloomberg reporter, “Everyone down there is a wealthy eccentric, they’re all intensely secretive.” When military submarines run into these things, sometimes they assume the worst. Apparently, side sonar scanners on these luxury subs can be easily mistaken for torpedo tubes.
These civilian technologies can be considerably more expensive than any narco-sub, but they’re high-tech, impressively capable, obscenely comfortable, and safe. Some have specific capabilities and price tags that could make them attractive to cartels for certain applications. Strip all the luxury crap out of the cheaper ones and replace it with fuel tanks and cargo space, and you’ve got the nicest narco-sub in the world. Smaller civilian submersibles might be clandestinely carried by narco-trafficking slow boats in international waters, then used to clandestinely ferry loads to shore. With the right paperwork, they might even be able to make it all look legal. Subs with airlocks might be useful for certain applications. Can cartels get a hold of these without raising red flags? It might not be easy, but it can probably be done. Most importantly, the cartels can reverse engineer the top-quality civilian designs. They may only need to get their hands on a small number of luxury civilian submersibles to use that knowledge to greatly improve their narco-subs.
Lastly, there is automation. We know the cartels have already developed crewed craft capable of traveling thousands of miles without support, and they can carry loads up to 10 tons (if not more in some cases). Now, imagine the benefits of turning these craft into completely automated undersea drones. Without crew space or life support, narco-subs can be faster, longer-ranged, deeper diving, and carry larger payloads. There is also less risk, and nobody to snitch if the drone is stopped. Automated systems might even scuttle or sabotage the vessel if the hold is opened by an unauthorized user, destroying key evidence to tracing its origin. Setting up these fully-automated drones requires different skill-sets encompassing hardware customization, software development, and tie-ins with communications and navigation systems, but this may already be possible with existing technology.
If autonomous undersea narco-drones become viable, traffickers can program lots of drones to follow predetermined paths, loiter, and surface where a receiving crew will be ready to pick up the load. If they have long enough range, and the traffickers know where Naval and Coast Guard resources are concentrated, they can even program the drones to follow complex routes that avoid interdiction resources. The receiving crew could refuel the drone and send it back. It’s got all the romance of sending a message in a bottle, except the bottle is a self-guiding-planet-crossing-mega-torpedo, and the message is heroin.
Are we going to stop these things? No. No we’re not. We can improve interdiction and intelligence techniques to catch some of them, but technology brings the traffickers continuous advancements to capability at much lower cost than what taxpayers must pony up to fight them with the typical Naval and Coast Guard resources. As stealthy narco-craft improve, combating them will get more expensive even as interdiction techniques get better. As with so many aspects of the 4th Industrial Revolution, the democratization of submarine production doesn’t tell us to double down on the most expensive interdiction methods. Instead, it tells us that the best solution to clever trafficking innovations is to create societies where fewer people want to buy what the traffickers are selling.
[ii] Mark Morris, “Postscript,” in Narco-Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels used for Drug Smuggling Purposes,” edited by Byron Ramirez and Robert J. Bunker (Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort. Leavenworth, 2014): 47, http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/Collaboration/Interagency/Narco-Submarines.pdf.
[iii] Byron Ramirez and Robert J. Bunker, eds., Narco-Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels used for Drug Smuggling Purposes (Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort. Leavenworth, 2014): 9-10, http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/Collaboration/Interagency/Narco-Submarines.pdf.
[iv] Ibid, 36.
[v] Ibid, 31.
[vi] Ibid, 33.
[vii] Ibid, 29.
[viii] In some reporting officials suggested collaboration between Colombian cartels, the Russian Mafia, and former KGB/FSB officers, including technology, training, intelligence, and counterintelligence sharing. However, it is also notable that at least one American citizen appears to have been involved in the Facatativa build.
[ix] Byron Ramirez and Robert J. Bunker, eds., Narco-Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels used for Drug Smuggling Purposes (Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort. Leavenworth, 2014): 34, http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/Collaboration/Interagency/Narco-Submarines.pdf; “210 Miles From Pacific Ocean, Drug Smugglers Try to Build Sub,” New York Times, September 8, 2000, http://www.nytimes.com/2000/09/08/world/210-miles-from-pacific-ocean-drug-smugglers-try-to-build-sub.html
[x] Byron Ramirez and Robert J. Bunker, eds., Narco-Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels used for Drug Smuggling Purposes (Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort. Leavenworth, 2014): 30, http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/Collaboration/Interagency/Narco-Submarines.pdf
[xii] Ibid, 146.
[xiv] Byron Ramirez and Robert J. Bunker, eds., Narco-Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels used for Drug Smuggling Purposes (Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort. Leavenworth, 2014): 44, http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/Collaboration/Interagency/Narco-Submarines.pdf
[xv] Mark Morris, “Postscript,” in Narco-Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels used for Drug Smuggling Purposes,” edited by Byron Ramirez and Robert J. Bunker (Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort. Leavenworth, 2014): 47, http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/Collaboration/Interagency/Narco-Submarines.pdf.