US security officials are reportedly worried that a new generation of drug-smuggling submarines - able, unlike their predecessor semi-submersibles, to travel completely submerged beneath the waves - might be used to carry out terrorist operations.
The "terrorists" quote comes from a new report by the Houston Chronicle on the only known true narco-submarine, which was captured last July by Ecuadorean security forces cooperating with US drug-enforcement agents.
After its seizure by the Ecuadoreans at a remote jungle "shipyard" complex, the narco-sub was taken to the port of Guayaquil, where it has now been examined by "naval experts from multiple countries", according to the report.
"It is everything it is supposed to be. It is a bona fide long-range, fully submersible craft," Jay Bergman, US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) chief for the Andes region, told the Chronicle.
"It wasn't the Love Boat," added the straight-talking fed.
The Texan paper also quotes Laurence McCabe, a professor at the US Naval War College, as stating that the appearance of true submarines in criminal hands is causing much concern in military and security circles.
"The US military is taking this threat very seriously and thinking through all the implications of this sort of platform," said McCabe, adding that such subs could easily carry terrorists instead of drugs.
Apart from this insight, the Chronicle report offers some new information on the sub itself. Apparently it had twin diesel engines for normal operation with exhausts and air intakes above the surface, much as in the case of the semi-submersibles long used in the Central and South American drugs trade.
However, the nameless craft also has a "diesel-electric power system", according to the DEA, which includes 100 "suitcase-sized" batteries installed beneath the deck of the main compartment housing crew, controls, engines and auxiliary machinery. The cargo hold forward is apparently capable of holding up to seven tonnes of narcotics.
A commercial fish-finding sonar is apparently installed, allowing the crew some warning of obstacles ahead even when fully submerged. A periscope is also fitted.
According to the Chronicle, McCabe also offered some figures on likely submerged performance:
He also said it likely would have been able to travel about 20 knots per hour [sic1] for up to an hour, but would have to slow to about 5 knots for more extended underwater travel. The faster it travels underwater, the more battery power it needs. The more it uses batteries, the closer it has to come to the surface to recharge them.
That would actually be excellent performance for a full size naval diesel-electric submarine built in a modern shipyard: an vessel improvised in a jungle backwater would be extremely unlikely to be capable of more than five knots flat out submerged, and would not be able to travel any large distance at all before running its batteries flat.