New Narco Submarine Challenge in Atlantic Ocean

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Narco Submarines are a commonly associated with the Pacific and Carribean. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have interdicted many loaded with tons of drugs destined, ultimately, for North America. Then last November the first documented ‘transatlantic’ narco-submarine reached European shores. It is unlikely that it was the first however, only the first to get caught. European navies, police, customs, and coast guard units lack experience of narco submarines. Consequently they may be ill-prepared to counter them. And it may be a U.S. problem too.

European law enforcement units are used to cocaine being smuggled in shipping containers, or in hidden compartments aboard vessels. And parasitic narco-torpedoes, which are containers attached to the underside of merchant vessels. But they have not, until now, had to seriously consider narco subs.

Narco-submarines are purpose-built drug smuggling vessels which evade capture by being extremely hard to see. Most are not true submarines because they cannot fully submerge. But the term ‘narco submarine’ is useful in describing these deliberately stealthy craft.

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Narco Submarines are a major focus of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard efforts in the Eastern Pacific and Caribbean. Nearly 200 have been interdicted there since 2005 by U.S. forces and their international partners. The latest example, found by the Colombian Navy in an artisan boat yard hacked out of the jungle, is significant in two ways. Firstly it was very large, comparable to the most impressive ones found to date. This reinforces the existing evidence that they can be built for extremely long range missions. And secondly, based on analysis of design features, I am confident that it was designed by the same ‘master boat builder’ who built the transatlantic one. So the connection between the American narco submarine phenomenon and Europe is undeniable.

To counter narco submarines European forces may need to invest in new equipment, new training and patrol routines. A lot can be learned from the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) efforts in Latin America. There a range of intelligence platforms cue Navy destroyers and Coast Guard cutters to interdict the narco submarine. They are then boarded. However the nature of the Atlantic will likely change some aspects.

I spoke to a consultant from ACK3, a Spanish company specializing in defense, intelligence and security consulting which advises European and Latin American military and law enforcement units. They point out that the sea conditions in the Atlantic will often make boarding more challenging. The single reported example of a transatlantic narco submarine was sailing in November, a winter month in the North Atlantic. The law enforcement units involved will need training and tools to access the crew compartment quickly and safely.

ACK3 suggests that the crews may be more likely to scuttle the narco submarine when faced with European law enforcement. Currently in SOUTHCOM’s area of operations it is illegal to even crew a narco submarine so there is no real advantage in sinking the boat. But in Europe it could mean walking free due to lack of evidence that there were narcotics aboard. This means that finding a way to stop the vessel from being deliberately sank may become more important.

Tracking devices or continuous surveillance by drones and aircraft may also be used instead. This may be safer and could lead to a bigger bust down the road.

An additional challenge is that the transatlantic narco submarines may not be destined to land on European shores directly. Instead they may rendezvous with other boats or ships which then deliver the payload. For example, they may sail from Brazil to Cape Verde Islands or the Azores and transfer the cargo to a ship destined for Europe. If that vessel was coming from a low-risk port, for example in Canada, it may get less customs attention when it arrives. No one would suspect that it met a narco-sub along the way. By comparison another ship sailing from Latin America may already be on a list to be inspected before it even arrives.

And if a narco submarine can reach the Azores and trans-ship the illicit cargo to another ship, then another possibility opens up. Maybe they could load it onto a ship sailing from Europe to the United States?

Forbes: Aerospace & Defense source|articles

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