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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Maritime Security: The Drug Sub Threat

For some time at this blog, we've been concerned about drug-running self-propelled semi-submersible boats (see here, here, here, here).

Today's DOD Bloggers' Roundtable concerned the current state of drug-running self-propelled semi-submersible interdiction. The speaker was Commander Cameron Naron, Deputy Chief, Coast Guard Office of Law Enforcement. You can listen to the discussion here.

CDR Naron started off discussion recent successful interdictions of Colombian drug cartel SPSSs recently in the news. Mexico and the U.S.Navy-Coast Guard team efforts here and here. As CDR Naron noted, these captures largely are due to the efforts of U.S. Maritime Patrol aircraft working in conjunction with surface units.

The Colombian effort to use these SPSSs appears to be more successful than not. CDR Naron reports it is estimated that only perhaps 1/2 or 1/3 of the semi-submersibles are caught as they run up the eastern Pacific ocean from Colombia. It also appears that this smuggling program has proved successful enough that SPSSs are a large and growing problem, with newer boats becoming increasingly sophisticated with full communication suites and able to carry crew of 4- 6 with food and fuel enough for a 5,000 mile trip.

Both house of Congress have now passed legislation that will clarify the law concerning these unregistered (therefore "stateless") vessels and impose up to a 15 year sentence for the crews who embark in them. See here for some background on the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act:
The law would criminalize the operation of submersible or semisubmersible watercraft without identifiable nationality in international waters -- regardless of cargo. It also includes protections for researchers and explorers conducting legitimate business.

Smugglers historically have used fishing vessels and go-fast boats to transport cocaine. "This is the new method," said John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The growing use of these vessels has created a sense of urgency among federal agencies. In the first three quarters of 2008, the Coast Guard recorded 62 "events" regarding SPSS vessels. In the previous six and a half years, there were fewer than 30 such encounters.
In a recent encounter the "master" of the boat attempted to throw the Coast Guard boarding team into the sea by manuvering sharply.

The legislation is headed to the President for his signature.

The U.S. is not the only country seeing such boats. Spain has recovered what appears to be one crude vessel.

Aviation Week has a nice piece on the Maritime Patrol Aircraft activities looking for these drug runners here:

U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection maritime patrol aircraft are the key to the initial successes the government is having in interdicting self-propelled, semi-submersible craft trying to smuggle tons of cocaine into the U.S.

In the past week, Navy P-3 Orions working with Coast Guard teams have spotted two of the self-propelled, semi-submersible (SPSS) craft trying to make their way from Colombia up to the west coast of the U.S. in the Pacific ocean. Intelligence helped them know where to look.

Rear Adm. Ted N. Branch says the Navy P-3 Orions used in the interdictions have radar and forward looking infrared sensors that can detect these low profile SPSS craft on the ocean.

The Coast Guard says it has interdicted roughly 71 metric tons of drugs worth about $2.1 billion being carried via SPSS since November 2006.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Air and Marine office also operates 16 P-3s on this drug interdiction mission in joint operations with the Coast Guard and Navy in the Caribbean and the Pacific, says John R. Stanton, executive director of national air security operations for CBP. The service also has several de Havilland Dash 8-200s and a few Piper Cheyennes equipped for maritime surveillance.

In addition, Stanton says, CBP and the Coast Guard are considering the use of maritime surveillance radar aboard the Predator unmanned aircraft to search for drug smuggling vessels. CBP currently operates four MQ-9 Predators for border patrol and is acquiring two more. The Coast Guard may also acquire Predators. Stanton says one radar made by Elbit has been flown on a Predator. He expects a CPB and Coast Guard radar procurement effort to start next fiscal year with a request for information.

A couple of years ago, on the capture of one crude vessel, American amateur sub builders mocked the crudity of the drug boat's design.

I am concerned that a successful amateur sub builder might be convinced by large drug dollars to "assist" the engineering of more sophisticated drug boats.

On the other hand, the SPSSs offer a cheap, relatively safe vehicles for long range transport at low risk of detection. With the minor modifications that have been made, they prove up the wisdom of "good enough" engineering.

From a maritime security concern, these boats look like they might be very tempting for terrorist operations.

Some thoughts along those lines appear in my previous posts.

However, given bin Laden's "destroy the American economy" approach, one might worry about attack on offshore oil platforms, as the author of the piece noted in this post did.

It's worth remembering the New York "artist" whose submarine was nabbed near the Queen Mary 2 about a year ago. If an idiot in a wood boat can get that close to a potential target, dedicated terrorists in a SPSS could pose a serious threat under the right circumstances.

One more thing to keep your eyes open for.

UPDATE: Transcript available here. Highlights:
CMDR. NARON:...First I'd like to tell you a little bit about what a typical SPSS is.

These are stateless vessels, typically less than 100 feet in length of steel construction, typically with four to five crew members on board and usually carrying up to 10 metric tons of illicit cargo for distances up to 5,000 miles. Drug trafficking organizations design SPSSs to sink themselves when they've detected law enforcement, thereby making contraband recovery usually impossible.

These vessels are typically built in the FARC-controlled jungles of Colombia. And the use of these vessels has grown in recent years as a means to counter effective drug interdiction efforts. Drug trafficking organizations continue to adapt these vessels and their transit means to our law enforcement successes. These SPSSs were once perceived as a very impractical and risky smuggling tool, but now have proven successful as an innovative and highly mobile asymmetrical method of conveyance.
Q Well, this is Eagle 1 again. Let me ask -- I notice that not only the U.S. is experiencing these problems with these SPSSs, but there appear to have been a couple of instances off Spain. Are you seeing a larger international effort in this area? Are you aware of those instances?

CMDR. NARON: Well, we do share the information with other countries.

I am not aware of the cases off of Spain, but that doesn't surprise me.

There is significant drug trafficking to Europe these days, and we are engaged in helping to counter that through Joint Interagency Task Force South.

One significant thing that we've seen, up until September of 2007, there were 23 SPSS events that we estimated in that 6-1/2-year -- in a 6-1/2-year period leading up to September of 2007, but those numbers ballooned in fiscal year '08. In the first three quarters of this fiscal year, we went from, as I said, 23 total
estimated events in the past 6-1/2 years to 62 total events in only the first three quarters of this fiscal year. And we attribute that to the effectiveness of other enforcement efforts that have been in effect for a long time, and the drug trafficking organizations finding that this is something that they need to
go to in order to move their cargoes.

Also, of the cases that we've actually interdicted or interrupted, I would say when we come across an SPSS that sinks itself before we're able to do anything with it -- just lost my train of thought, here. Oh, I would say those cases that we are actually aware of are estimated really to be only the tip of the iceberg. We have estimates that there are two to three of these -- of these that make their -- make their trips every week.

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