Authorities in Ecuador say they have captured the first true submarine designed and built to smuggle drugs. "Semi-submersible" vessels have long been built for the narcotics trade, but it appears that the drug runners have now upped their game to make vessels able to travel completely underwater.
"It is the first fully functional, completely submersible submarine for transoceanic voyages that we have ever found," Jay Bergman, Andean regional director for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) told AP.
According to reports the sub captured at the weekend measured 33m long, would have carried a crew of five or six, and was equipped with twin screw diesel-electric propulsion, a periscope and "air conditioning". It could have carried up to 10 tonnes of cargo, according to an initial DEA assessment.
The sub was reportedly found at a secret jungle "shipyard" facility hidden up an Ecuadorian river not far from the Colombian border. The shipyard complex had accommodation for up to 50 people, but only one was found by the Ecuadorian police and troops who arrived there at the weekend following a DEA tip.
"This is in a new maritime drug-trafficking class of its own," said Bergman.
Drug smugglers wishing to move cargoes through intensively patrolled and monitored Central American waters began using semi-submersibles years ago. A semi-submersible vessel is typically propelled by ordinary marine engines, but floats almost entirely under the surface. Only air intakes and some means for the crew to navigate need to project above the wave. However low-tech drug subs, lacking the exhaust diffusers sometimes used by military vessels to lessen infrared signature, usually have an exhaust stack too.
A semi-sub is much harder to see visually than a normal boat, and considerably harder to pick up on radar - especially a radar mounted in a surface vessel or shore installation, as opposed to one in an aircraft. But even if a semi-sub diffuses its engines' hot exhaust through the sea rather than simply blowing it into the air it still has a noticeable infrared signature. More significantly, once the authorities have detected it, it has no means of escape.
A proper diesel-electric submarine like the one discovered at the weekend has the option of shutting down its engines and submerging fully to run on batteries. The sub is then completely invisible on radar and infrared: interdiction forces can then only locate it by using sonar, which is shorter-ranging, far less reliable, and very expensive to use on a large scale.
A modern military diesel-electric boat can travel some hundreds of miles on battery power, though with the disadvantage of moving at a crawl - it will travel less than a hundred miles in a day like this. Higher speeds are possible, but they slash range to a small fraction of the maximum.
The chances are that the Ecuadorian drug-sub had no such long-ranging fully submerged capabilities: it is probably only capable of shorter journeys entirely underwater, and intended to work in semi-submerged or surfaced mode much of the time, like a World War II German U-boat. In especially heavily watched waters, or if approached by law-enforcement units, the sub would dive and go slow on batteries, confident that it could no longer be followed.
In many ways the use of genuine subs to move drugs may have been seen as inevitable. The technology is far from difficult - such submarines came into military use well before World War I (in fact press photos show a distinct resemblance between the captured Ecuadorian boat and the Royal Navy's first submarine, Holland I).
There are hints that other proper subs are already in service with the drug lords. Colombian navy commander Admiral Hernando Will told AP that his patrols had seized 22 old style semi-submersibles last year, but this year so far only one.
The drug barons may find, however, that they need to raise their game further still in future. Most Western navies still maintain significant anti-submarine forces, which have been lacking any real employment ever since the Soviet sub fleet largely vanished from the world stage twenty years ago. Subhunting frigates and helicopters are already used routinely on anti-drugs patrols in the vicinity of central America; the specialists who operate them would love nothing more than a chance to tackle opposition a bit more tricky than go-fast speedboats. ®