Drug Subs: David and Goliath on the High Seas

During a period of five days last September the U.S. Coast Guard seized more than 14 tons of cocaine with a street value of approximately $400 million in two separate major maritime drug busts. The drugs were being transported by Colombian cocaine cartels in mini submarines.

It was David and Goliath on the high seas, with David being the bad guy in this story -- the Colombian narcotraffickers who produce and supply the world with cocaine. In today's version of the classic tale, the David character transports up to ten tons of cocaine in mini submarines: approximately 50 feet long, made of steel and fiberglass, with a crew of four -- able to make it from Ecuador to San Diego in a straight shot without having to stop for food or fuel. The Goliath character, the U.S. Coast Guard, patrols millions upon millions of square miles in a behemoth of a ship, 378 feet long, carrying a crew of 170, at least one HH-65 Dolphin helicopter, a few cannons, and some other weapons, too.

It is asymmetric warfare at its zenith: a battle between two enemies whose relative military might differs radically. And like the war on terror, the war on drugs brings with it the fear that Goliath can't win with military might alone.

In its press releases, the Coast Guard called September's dual drug sub busts "historic" and "impressive." In reality, they were but a drop in the ocean. In an interview with Pajamas Media, Coast Guard Cutter Midgett (i.e., Goliath) ombudsman Angela Keane confirmed that for as skillful as the back-to-back busts were, they are tempered by the fact that a third mini sub loaded with drugs got away as well. "There are always more vessels out there," Keane said.

"The bad guys are moving faster than we're moving," Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Joint Interagency Task Force South, the group of federal agencies at the heart of U.S. interdiction efforts. "I worry a little bit about how we as a government are able to focus on this mission," Mullen said.

The Coast Guard calls them self-propelled semi-submersibles, or SPSSs. Technically they're not submarines: these drug smuggling vessels can't fully submerge. The bulk of the craft is underwater, with only its windshield and conning tower poking out above the surface of the sea. Camouflaged by blue or black paint, the vessels barely create a wave, making them almost impossible to detect. Once perceived as an impractical means of transportation, drug subs are now the favored means among the Colombian cartels. According to the Coast Guard, SPSS drug smuggling now accounts for 32 percent of all maritime cocaine flow; 355 metric tons of cocaine have been confiscated in the first nine months of 2008 alone.

Coastguard Commander Cameron Naron, deputy chief of the Coast Guard Office of Law Enforcement, recently told the Department of Defense bloggers' roundtable that these drug subs are built in the "FARC-controlled jungles of Colombia" and have rapidly become a dangerous and "highly effective asymmetrical vehicle of conveyance." As the war on drugs and the war on terror begin to increasingly overlap, the question facing the Coast Guard is: what exactly will mini subs convey next?

U.S. senator and Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden has been leading Senate efforts to address that nightmare scenario. On September 25, the Senate passed provisions of Senator Biden's Drug Trafficking Interdiction Assistance Act of 2008 (S.3551), "criminalizing the use of unregistered, stateless, submersible, or semi-submersible vessels in international waters." If signed by the president, anyone using one will be subject to a mandatory 15-year criminal offense and a million-dollar fine.

In a press release Biden stated: "If smugglers can pack tons of illegal drugs into these stealthy vessels, terrorists could carry weapons of mass destruction or other threats into our country the same way. This bill will help shut down this new mode of trafficking and keep more drugs off American streets -- plain and simple."

Help? Maybe. Shut down? Doubtful. Plain and simple: unlikely. Finding mini subs in the ocean is like searching for a needle in a haystack. And the fight between David and Goliath is as old as the hills.