Submarines: The Fiberglass Wonder


February 15, 2011: Months of careful examination have confirmed that a drug gang did, indeed, build a real submarine near the Ecuador-Colombia border last year. It was last July that Ecuadoran police found a real diesel-electric submarine sitting in a river, near the Colombian border, almost ready to move out into the Pacific ocean, apparently to move cocaine from Colombia to points north. The 23.5 meter/73 foot long, three meter/nine feet in diameter boat was capable of submerging. The locally built boat had a periscope, conning tower and was air conditioned. It had a commercial fish sonar mounted up front, so that it could navigate safely while underwater. There was a toilet on board, but no galley (kitchen) or bunks. Submarine experts believed that a five man crew could work shifts to take care of navigation and steering the boat. The boat could submerge to about 16 meters (50 feet). At that depth, the batteries and oxygen on board allowed the sub to travel up 38 kilometers in one hour, or at a speed of 9 kilometers an hour for 5-6 hours. This would be sufficient to escape any coastal patrol boats that spotted the sub while it moved along on the surface (its normal travel mode.) The boat could also submerge to avoid very bad weather. The sub carried sufficient diesel fuel to make a trip from Ecuador to Mexico. There was a cargo space that could hold up to seven tons of cocaine. The sub was built using fiberglass panels fitted over a wooden frame. It was designed by someone who knew how to build boats, and may have worked for one of several firms that now produce "recreational submarines."

The sub was captured where it was being assembled, and a nearby camp for the builders, appeared to house about fifty people. This was the first such sub to be completed, but not the first to be attempted. A decade ago, Russian naval architects and engineers were discovered among those designing and building a similar, but larger, boat. However, that effort did not last, as the Russian designs were too complex and expensive. It was found easier to build semi-submersible craft. But more and more of these are being found.
In the last few days, another fiberglass sub was found across the border in a Colombian river. This one was slightly larger, and already in the water. This one was ready to go, and it was only because of a timely tip that it was found. No one was arrested, but there was plenty of evidence seized. The Colombians are eager to catch whoever is building these subs. 

Both of these subs were not military grade. They could travel submerged, but not dive deep. Both were built using the same fiberglass material used for the semi-submersible craft. It probably cost several million dollars to build each of these subs, and the first one was weeks away from completion and sea trials. These drug subs are similar to the small subs being built since the 1970s for offshore oil operations and underwater tourism.

Meanwhile, the semisubmersibles continue to operate. A year ago, the Colombian Navy found and destroyed the first semi-submersible drug smuggling boat of the year. That one was found near the Ecuador border, and was nearly 17 meters (55 feet) long and capable of carrying at least eight tons of cocaine. Troops also found a workshop and a camp (for at least 30 people) that apparently supported construction of the boat. In the last eighteen years, since this type of smuggling "submarine" was first encountered, the Colombian military has captured 54 of them.

A typical Colombian "semi-submersibles" is a 20 meter/63 foot long and 4 meter/12.5 foot wide, fiberglass boat, powered by a diesel engine, with a very low freeboard, and a small "conning tower", providing the crew (usually of four), and engine, with fresh air, and permitting the crew to navigate the boat. A boat of this type is the only practical kind of submarine for drug smuggling. A real submarine, capable of carrying 5-10 tons of cocaine, would cost a lot more, and require a better trained crew. Moreover, a conventional sub actually spends most of its time running on the surface anyway, or just beneath it using a snorkel device to obtain air for the diesel engine crew. So the drug subs get the most benefit of a real submarine (which cost about $300 million these days) at a fraction of the cost. Actually, there are commercial subs available, for under $10 million (industrial or "recreational" subs), but the construction and sale of these are regulated. Drug gangs hate paperwork.

Local boat builders created and refined the current semi-submersible design. Some foreign experts have been seen in the area, apparently to help the boat builders with some technical problem. These subs cost over $700,000 to construct, and carry up to ten tons of cocaine. The boat builders are getting rich, constructing the boats in well hidden locations up the rivers that empty into the Pacific.

At one point it was thought that as many as half of the subs were captured or lost at sea. But this is apparently not the case. That's because most of these subs are built for a one way trip. This keeps down the cost of construction, and the cost of hiring a crew (who fly home). That one voyage will usually be for about a thousand kilometers, with the boat moving at a speed of 15-25 kilometers an hour. The average trip will take about two weeks, because the boats have learned to go very slowly during the day, to avoid leaving a wake that U.S. airborne sensors can detect.

In the past, some subs making long range trips were caught while being towed by a larger ship. Apparently the plan was to tow a semi-submersible, loaded with a ten ton cocaine cargo, long distances, and then be cut it loose for the final approach to the shore of California or some area in Europe or on the east coast of North America. While the subs are most frequently used from the Pacific coast of Colombia, they are showing up elsewhere as well (in Spain and Sri Lanka).

These subs are not stealthy enough to avoid detection all the time, and the U.S. has been trying to tweak search radars, and other types of sensors, to more reliably detect the drug subs. Even when moving with most of the craft under water, the sub is still pumping out a lot of heat from the engine exhaust. The builders have added features to dissipate a lot of this heat, but there is still a "heat signature" down there, and the U.S. has heat sensors that can detect it. Apparently, the drug gangs see the American search effort getting more and more effective, thus making real subs a necessity. The one that was recently captured may not be the only one under construction. Building these subs requires a lot more effort, and more specialized materials. That makes the construction harder to hide.

These stealthy boats are a concern to counter-terror officials. Bombs and terrorists can be transported in these vessels, and the technology for building them can be, and perhaps already has, spread to terrorist groups. The basic principles are available on the Internet, and any skilled boat builders can construct them. The captured sub was not armed, but if terrorists got their hands on this technology, you could fill the boat with tons of explosives, instead of cocaine, and make spectacular attacks on coastal targets.




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