Documento creado: 1de julio de 2008
Air & Space Power Journal - Español  Segundo  Trimestre 2008

Semi-submersibles: An Emerging Threat in the Americas

By Admiral James Stavridis, USN

Semi-submersibles capable of carrying up to 10 tons of cocaine

Semi-submersibles capable of carrying up to 10 tons of cocaine are used by Colombian drug traffickers to smuggle drugs into the United States. These vessels are often hard to detect, as they leave almost no radar profile while gliding just below the ocean surface.

So often, we think of the western hemisphere as a place of relative peace, a part of the world without extreme threats approaching our shores directly. Unfortunately, this beautiful and diverse home we share together – the Americas – is now the sole producer in the world of a new and dangerous threat technology: semi-submersible vessels that can carry drugs, terrorists, or weapons of mass destruction to our shores.

Let us begin with drugs: virtually all of the world’s ‎cocaine comes from coca leaf cultivated ‎in Colombia, ‎Peru, ‎and Bolivia. Last year, international and interagency partners stopped approximately 300 metric tons of cocaine at sea -- an amount equivalent to 90 hits of cocaine for every high school student in the United States—all 18 million of them. Yet, despite extraordinary efforts to stem the flow of cocaine from the region, traffickers still managed to deliver hundreds of metric tons to global markets via maritime means. This $250 billion business causes thousands of deaths in the US, creates significant economic distortions, and threatens fragile democracies to the south of us.

One key mission of U.S. Southern Command is to help our law enforcement partners interdict large shipments of drugs – primarily cocaine – in the transit zone between the Andean ridge of South America and our country. Most of this moves at least a major part of its long journey by sea. Traditionally, illicit traffickers have hidden large shipments of drugs in commercial maritime cargo and fishing vessels. When law enforcement placed a squeeze on those modes, traffickers simply shifted to hundreds of “go fast” boats to support movement of their valuable cargo, often successfully intermingling with local traffic during peak recreational boating times.

Now there is a new approach – and it is a smart, effective innovation. The latest turn of the wheel seems to be low profile, relatively small (60-80 feet); semi-submerged “submarines” that skim just below the surface and carry tons of cocaine. After seeing just a few in 2006, we are now finding dozens both at sea and under construction.

A semi-submersible readied for transporting drugs
This photo shows a semi-submersible readied for transporting drugs. The approximately 20 meter long and 5 meter wide submarine could transport up to 10 tons of cocaine with an approximate street value
of $US700 million.

In ever-increasing numbers, these stealthy, pod-like vessels depart expeditionary shipyards nested deep in the dense jungles and estuaries of the Andes region of Latin America. Carefully ballasted and well camouflaged, they ride so low in the water that they are nearly impossible to detect visually or by radar at any range greater than 3,000 yards. Loaded to capacity with tons of drugs they plod steadily and generally unobserved at less than ten knots toward designated drop-off points, depositing their payloads of sorrow and death–translating into thousands of deaths in the USA-- for further transit to global consumer markets.
Overall, drug abuse and drug-related crime kill nearly ‎twenty thousand people in the U.S. every year. This is a “clear and present” danger that is costing the lives of our citizens, distorting our economy, and undermining our neighbors to the south. Naturally, there is a large “demand” side problem to address – treatment for addicts, social programs, and other significant human costs. However, the transit side of the equation is of concern not simply for the cocaine problem.
There is more to fear… and it is the obvious nexus between drugs, crime, and terrorism.

Gangs and smugglers use their enormous profits to secure and preserve positions of power by whatever means necessary, resulting in mass homicides, corruption, and subversion of rule of law. We also know that drug traffickers use illegal drug money to assist rogue states and ‎international ‎terrorist organizations that are determined to build and use ‎weapons of ‎mass ‎destruction, such as the FARC narco-terrorists in Colombia. In this sense, growing global demand for drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and ‎marijuana directly links the world drug trade to international terrorism.

Semi-submersible, low-profile vessels transport drugs for profit, and they do so effectively. It does not take a great leap to imagine what danger awaits us if drug traffickers choose to link trafficking routes and methods with another -- perhaps even more profitable -- payload. In simple terms, if drug cartels can ship up to ten tons of cocaine in a semi-submersible, they can clearly ship or “rent space” to a terrorist organization for a weapon of mass destruction or a high-profile terrorist.

A semi-submersible being boarded by authorities

A semi-submersible being boarded by authorities. Many law enforcement officials are increasingly concerned with the threat these vessels pose to our national security as they render our shorelines vulnerable.

Given the emergence of this new threat technology, we need to develop more effective counters. These will include long dwell sensors capable of “seeing” such craft, better intelligence that provides cueing, maritime domain awareness that links our systems together, more seamless interagency and international cooperation, and perhaps some new technologies that are hard to envision at this moment – but must be explored.

Innovation is not a one-way street…it is not even a cul-de-sac. Sometimes, we cannot foresee the immediate payoff of investment in technology innovation and dedicated detection and interdiction assets. Criminals are never going to wait for law enforcement to catch up. They are always extending the boundaries of imagination, and likewise, we must strive to push forward technology and invest in systems designed specifically to counter the semi-submersible. We need to be able to rapidly detect and interdict this new type of threat, both for its current effects via the drug trade, and – more troublingly – for its potential as a weapon in the hands of terrorists.


Admiral James Stavridis USN Admiral James Stavridis USN, commands the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, Florida and is the Joint Commander for all US forces in the Caribbean, Central and South American region. A Surface Warfare Officer, the Admiral commanded Destroyer USS Barry (DDG-52) from 1993-1995, completing deployments to Haiti, Bosnia, and the Arabian Gulf. USS Barry won the Battenberg Cup as the top ship in the Atlantic Fleet under his command. In 1998, he commanded Destroyer Squadron 21 and deployed to the Arabian Gulf. From 2002-2004, Admiral Stavridis commanded the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group, conducting combat operations in the Arabian Gulf in support of both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Ashore, the Admiral has served as a strategic and long-range planner on the staffs of the Chief of Naval Operations and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He has also served as the Executive Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy and the Senior Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense. He is author or co-author of several books on naval ship handling and leadership, including Command at Sea and Destroyer Captain. Admiral Stavridis is a 1976 distinguished graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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