January 6, 2010: In early 2009, as the Sri Lankan Army moved into territory held, for years, by the rebel LTTE (Tamil separatists), they found some surprises. One, on the northeast coast, was a submarine shipyard. Well, not exactly submarines, but close. These semi-submersible boats run mostly submerged, and are excellent at evading detection. This design was first developed by Colombian drug gangs a decade ago, and these craft are carrying most of the cocaine being moved north to the United States. Several years of effort by the U.S. Navy to improve detection methods, have not had much success. Thus the semi-submersibles are a growing problem, and it is known that criminal gangs will sell their technology to other groups. If Islamic terrorists got their hands on these subs, they would have a useful way to move people and goods, as well as for making attacks.
The Sri Lankan troops found four semi-submersibles in various states of completion. The LTTE subs were smaller than the Colombian ones, and most were apparently intended as suicide bomb boats. Recently, a semi-submersible was found in Spain, where it was to be used for smuggling drugs, from ships far offshore. The technology is definitely spreading.
In the last four years, U.S., and other navy and coast guard ships off the coast between Mexico and Colombia, have detected over 150 of these subs. Between 2000 and 2007, only 23 of these boats were spotted. But last year, over 70 were detected or captured. The numbers are up these year as well. Many of the captures are the result of intelligence information at the source, not air and naval patrols out there just looking for them. These boats are hard to spot (by aircraft or ships), which is why they are being used more often.
It's estimated that about 75 of these subs are being built in northwest Colombia each year, and sent on one way trips north. Each of these boats carries a four man crew and about seven tons of cocaine (worth nearly $200 million on the street). The loss of each boat and its cargo cost the Colombian drug cartels over $10 million in costs (of building the boat and producing the drugs). The crews are often Colombian fishermen forced to make the long voyage, because their families were being held hostage. Running these boats is considered very dangerous work, and the crews are paid well if they succeed, whether they volunteered for the work or not. Because of the risks (about ten percent are believed lost at sea), the boats are nicknamed "coffins." The crews are told to pull the plug (literally) and sink the boat (and its cargo) if spotted and about to be boarded. Even with the boarding party on the way, jumping off a sinking boat, usually at night, is dangerous. Laws have been changed so that the crews escaping from their sinking boats, can still be charged with drug smuggling (despite the loss of the evidence). The drug gangs are looking into automating the boats, so that no crew is needed at all.
These semi-submersible "submarines" have been operating off the northwest (Pacific) coast of South America for at least a decade. More than a third of the of the 800 tons of cocaine coming out of Colombia each year leaves via the Pacific coast subs, that move the drugs north. Despite increased efforts, it's believed that less than ten percent of these subs have been caught. The drug gangs still use other smuggling methods (aircraft, hidden in ship or aircraft cargo), but apparently the subs can move the most cocaine at once, with the lowest risk.
A typical Colombian "semi-submersibles" is a 60 foot long and 12 feet wide, fiberglass boats, powered by a diesel engine, with a very low freeboard, and a small "conning tower", providing the crew (usually of four), and engine, with fresh air, and permitting the crew to navigate the boat. A boat of this type is the only practical kind of submarine for drug smuggling. A real submarine, capable of carrying five tons of cocaine, would cost a lot more, and require a highly trained crew. Moreover, a conventional sub actually spends most of its time running on the surface anyway, or just beneath it using a snorkel device to obtain air for the diesel engine crew. So the drug subs get the most benefit of a real submarine (which cost about $300 million these days) at a fraction of the cost.
Local boat builders created and refined the current design. Some foreign experts have been seen in the area, apparently to help the boat builders with some technical problem. These subs cost over $700,000 to construct, and carry up to ten tons of cocaine. The boat builders are getting rich, constructing the boats in well hidden locations up the rivers that empty into the Pacific.
At one point it was thought that as many as half of the subs were captured or lost at sea. But this is apparently not the case. That's because most of these subs are built for a one way trip. This keeps down the cost of construction, and the cost of hiring a crew (who fly home). That one voyage will usually be for about a thousand kilometers, with the boat moving at a speed of 15-25 kilometers an hour. The average trip will take about two weeks, because the boats have learned to go very slowly during the day, to avoid leaving a wake that U.S. airborne sensors can detect.
In the past, some subs making long range trips were caught while being towed by a larger ship. Apparently the plan was to tow a semi-submersible, loaded with a ten ton cocaine cargo, long distances, and then be cut it loose for the final approach to the shore of California or some area in Europe or on the east coast of North America. While the subs are most frequently used from the Pacific coast of Colombia, they are showing up elsewhere as well.
These subs are not stealthy enough to avoid detection all the time, and the U.S. has been trying to tweak search radars, and other types of sensors, to more reliably detect the drug subs. The technology has already spread, with one of these boats found being built in Spain four years ago, by a local drug gang, to bring cocaine ashore from a seagoing ship far out at sea in international waters. GPS makes these kinds of operations possible.
Increased maritime patrols, and infiltration of drug gangs in Colombia, has led to a significant increase in captures of these boats. On land, Colombian soldiers and police are doing a lot of damage to cocaine production, and making boat production more difficult. All this is having an impact, with cocaine prices going up, and quality going down. Drug testing and surveys indicates that cocaine use in the United States has declined 10-20 percent as a result.
But the stealthy boats are a concern to counter-terror officials. Bombs and terrorists can be transported in these vessels, and the technology for building them can be, and perhaps already has, spread to terrorist groups. The basic principles are available on the Internet, and any skilled boat builders can construct them. The technology is improving as well. Recently captured boats had a system installed that cooled the engine exhaust, making it more difficult for infrared (heat) sensors to sport it. Thus the U.S. Navy is putting a lot of effort into improving its sensors and search techniques, for finding these boats.