Narcosubs: Little Fish, Big Sea

19.02.11

Categorie: Americas, Naval, Steve Weintz |
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Narcosub

Narcosub. AP photo.

by STEVE WEINTZ

Minisubs were famously deployed in World War II, most prolifically by the Japanese, and their mixed record has played against their widespread use, despite the inherent coolness and advantages of the platform. Work continues on various vehicles for Special Forces, but smugglers continue to lead the way — at least overtly.

Anyone following the Colombian cartels’ merchant shippers can’t help but be struck by their astounding ingenuity and determination. The success of the self-propelled, semi-submersible narcosubs led them to become an outright-banned vessel type. Congress recently made the owning and operation of semi-subs illegal in American waters, as part of drug-interdiction legislation.

Now this underground shipbuilding industry has advanced to true submersibles. Built in the jungles and swamps along the Pacific coasts of Colombia and northern Ecuador, these vessels are cheaply-made long-range diesel subs, capable of delivering an eight-to-10-ton payload thousands of miles, while fully submerged using snorkels and batteries. Crew accommodations are likely atrocious, as they are in all such smugglers’ craft, but then the cartels aren’t overly concerned with crew safety or morale.

Narcosubs are worth studying for a number of reasons, including reverse-engineering their economies of production. However, as Craig Hooper’s recent article points out, small subs are an unexpected but effective delivery platform for WMDs. Admiral Stephen Metruck from the U.S. Coast Guard’s 11th District, has indicated concern about the merger of two areas of his concern: port security and drug interdiction.

This might seem like a video-game scenario, until you notice that the President of Iran just had a swell visit to Ecuador during his South American tour. Although Ecuador is a long-time U.S. ally (and uses the U.S. dollar as its currency), it’s also an OPEC nation with a grudge against ugly-gringo business and a left-leaning administration cozying up to Venezuela. If it’s widely believed that ex-USSR naval architects are overseeing the narcosub developments, what’s to prevent Iranian agencies from establishing offices in say, Esmeraldas or Tumaco?

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5 Responses to “Narcosubs: Little Fish, Big Sea”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by War is Boring and David Axe, Aman Chauhan. Aman Chauhan said: Narcosubs: Little Fish, Big Sea http://ff.im/-yps9b [...]

  2. visitor says:

    Your “analysis” of possible future threats posed by the narco-subs boils down to parroting “Iran! Venezuela! Leftists! Gringo Haters!” Honestly, I like this blog, but for the love of God please stop trying to be so folksy and inject a little bit of actual thought into your analysis. Your last paragraph is just sad, and in no way resembles informed commentary.

  3. Rasmus says:

    Your last post on Europe was embarrassing and misleading. This post is down right crazy. Maybe you should get a historian to read your posts before they get uploaded.

  4. Steve Weintz says:

    The Coast Guard 11th District extends out from the CONUS coast to the Galapagos and includes all the Pacific coast of Central America. Interception rates of narcosubs are low and USCG’s ASW capability is limited. The Eastern Pacific is not the highest priority for the USN right now. The Department of Homeland Security admits that port and harbor security are one of its greatest concerns.

    I don’t think any of the ex-Eastern Bloc sub engineers have been apprehended, and the subs grow more sophisticated every year, without seeming letup in improvement or funding. If they can now produce a quiet, long-range diesel sub for $2 million apiece in a swamp, that suggests that in a few years their products will be far more stealthy, using current technology.

    Other American allies, especially ones whose grip on power is threatened, have turned to other friends in fits of pique. And as a fellow OPEC member, Iran is perfectly within its rights to expand its presence there. All aspects of Iranian-Ecuadorean relations will be on the up-and-up, I’m sure, but it’s a lead-pipe cinch that the security services will be in touch, too. Having been to Ecuador, I know they can hold a grudge; they still plan for war with Peru to get some jungle back.

    Little thought has been given to how an Iranian nuke would be delivered. It’s pretty certain that fighter-bomber sorties leaving Iranian airspace would face serious challenges, and missile warheads are crown jewels not willingly shared, even amongst allies. Thus, overland transport, or better, sea transport (such as the currently worrying Iranian transport Kharg awaiting passage through the Suez Canal) would provide a stealthier and more capacious delivery platform. Craig Hooper’s article on North Korean waterborne nukes outlines the general tactic very effectively. The biggest difference with the narcosubs is that they launch and approach from a totally unexpected direction — “the American Lake” of the Eastern Pacific.

    And if narcosub nukes are just too much to swallow, consider what a ten-ton warhead could do to a warship. Outlandish idea, perhaps, but who would have believed that people would hijack airliners and crash them into buildings?

  5. visitor says:

    Steve: thanks for following up with more information, but your basic premise remains the same: Iran is a Scary country, Iran is in South America where Scary drug cartels also operate, thus Iran and the drug cartels will obviously inevitably team up to nuke us. This is exactly the kind of myopic, reactionary “analysis” that I would expect from Fox News, but this site is usually better. Iran is obviously NOT strengthening ties with Central and South American countries in order to infiltrate a nuclear device into the United States. First of all, even if there are presumably contacts between the militaries of Ecuador and Iran, for example, how does this lead to Iran establishing a relationship with the drug cartels who are building and operating the narcosubs? Just because diplomats and businessmen from Iran happen to be physically present in Ecuador in no way implies that those diplomats will inevitably work together with drug cartels who also operate out of Ecuadoran territory.

    Second of all, you should refer to a “theoretical Iranian nuke,” because according to most estimates, including that of our own government, Iran is not trying to build a nuclear weapon. And even if they were, which they’re not, what possible benefit would they gain from detonating a nuke in the US? And what benefit would the drug cartels gain by allowing Iran to use their equipment and lucrative supply line in order to detonate a nuke? The answer to both questions is “none.” And you also neglect to mention that Iran already has 13 subs.

    Narcosubs are newsworthy and definitely an interesting development that deserves more reporting and study, however I remain unconvinced that any mention of “Iran” belongs anywhere in an article about them. Call me when you can produce a single iota of evidence that Iran has any interest at all in developing contacts with a drug cartel in order to deliver a nuclear device to the US. Until then, please stop producing posts based on unsubstantiated rumor and the fact that Ecuadorans hold grudges, which is somehow related to Iran due to your personal experience.

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