Naval Air Hunts Narco Subs

A Hunting We Will Go: Naval Air Tracks Drug Smugglers

By Josh Phillips

Under the cover of night, an 80-foot semi-submersible vessel cruises the Caribbean Sea with approximately $150 million in cocaine. This “drug sub” was developed in, and launched from, the jungles of Colombia to avoid conventional radar while shipping its cargo to the United States. It will sail slowly but quietly through the night, avoiding detection until it reaches its off-loading point.

A 30-foot power boat with multiple 250-horsepower engines rides low in the water as it muscles along the Florida coast line. Its only passenger is a sole pilot, in order to make room for 2,000 gallons of fuel and 3,000 pounds of cocaine destined for Miami and points north.

Pastel lit backdrops and lavish scenery were the well-known face of southern Florida, particularly Miami, in the 1980s. Miami was once the media-glamorized epicenter of the cocaine scene, as dealers and suppliers packed South Beach with exotic vehicles, suitcases full of money, and a “party now, pay later” attitude.

Thirty years later, the drug-fueled bacchanalia that symbolized the area in the ’80s has largely disappeared. However, sleek boats, grizzled drug runners, and now even pseudo-submarines are still a cause of concern in these southern waters. South American drug lords continue to use the Caribbean as a passageway to the United States, seeking to flood the market and streets with untold amounts of white powder and other illicit cargoes.

“More than 80 percent of the cocaine destined for U.S. markets is transported via sea lanes, primarily using littoral routes through Central America, “ said Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of U.S Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). “Working with our partner nations, we intend to disrupt their operations by limiting their ability to use Central America as a transit zone.”

Beginning in January 2012 and adopting the moniker of Operation Martillo (Spanish for “Hammer”), 14 countries including the United States, United Kingdom, France, Spain, Guatemala, and Honduras are targeting drug trafficking routes in coastal waters from the United States to Central America. Operation Martillo utilizes military and law enforcement vessels, aircraft, and personnel to stem the flow of illicit cargoes, including drugs, weapons, and chemicals, into the United States, and to strangle the drug funds going to and from Central American cartels.

U.S. military participation is currently led by Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) South, a component of SOUTHCOM composed of multiple federal and partner nation agencies and military forces. According to Jody Draves, a JIATF South spokesperson, the task force’s mission is to conduct detection and monitoring operations and to share information to facilitate law enforcement interdictions of illicit trafficking and other narco-terrorist threats.

According to 2011 SOUTHCOM statistics, international and interagency efforts coordinated through JIATF South “resulted in the disruption of approximately 119 metric tons of cocaine, with a wholesale value of $2.35 billion, before it could reach destinations in the United States.” This effort also enabled the capture of $21 million in cash and approximately $16-million worth of black market goods destined for traffickers in Central and South America.

Since Operation Martillo began in January through August 2012, approximately 105,018 kilograms of cocaine valued at $2.1 billion and 15,920 pounds of marijuana valued at more than $15 million have been disrupted through interdiction, according to Draves. Along with the captured narcotics, a total of 225 arrests have also been made, with 40 suspected drug vessels seized.

Central and South American drug cartels are now shipping drugs in sophisticated submersible and semi-submersible craft, such as this vessel intercepted off Colombia’s Pacific coast in 2009 (the crew is preparing to abandon ship just before being boarded by the Coast Guard). Operation Martillo continues to detain similar craft. (U.S. Navy photo)

The Department of Defense is the lead federal agency for Operation Martillo to detect and monitor aerial and maritime transit of illegal drugs into the United States, while actual interdictions are led and conducted by embarked U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement dets. or partner nation drug and law enforcement agencies. The current success of Operation Martillo can in large part be attributed to the use of naval aviation aircraft in spotting, tracking, and intercepting these vessels and their cargoes.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Donis Waters, an MH-65 platform manager at the Office of Aviation Forces, said the Coast Guard’s Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON) deploys MH-65D Dolphin helicopters aboard cutters on patrol in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific to combat the smugglers.

“The aircraft sortie in support of the cutters to provide airborne surveillance and when needed, an armed interdiction capability,” he said. “Certain vessels [are] equipped with multiple engines for speed [and to] move illicit cargo, primarily cocaine, to the United States. As these vessels are detected, HITRON helicopters launch to intercept these drug boats at sea.”

Go-fast boats are usually small vessels with planing hulls and numerous outboard engines designed to reach high speed without affecting its cargo carrying capacity. The predecessor of the go-fast was once a favorite among rum smugglers during prohibition, but now it is the sea-based workhorse for delivering cocaine into the United States. It is one of the primary vessels the MH-65 Dolphin is tasked to stop.

The Dolphin is part of the old guard of Coast Guard aircraft, first being introduced in 1984, with the MH-65D variant introduced in 2011. Expected to remain in service through 2027, the Coast Guard is upgrading the helicopters with modern enhancements claimed to extend mission capabilities and improve their reliability and maintainability. The Coast Guard says this conversion and sustainment project adds digital technology, including GPS and inertial navigation, flight control, weather radar, and cockpit instruments.

The HITRON‘s MH-65D helicopters are armed with a 7.62-mm machine gun and a .50-caliber rifle to disable engines on noncompliant go-fast vessels and provide fire support for boarding teams. Upon detection, and with authorization from the Coast Guard, HITRON air crews signal the go-fasts to stop. If a vessel ignores the order to stop after warning shots are fired in front of the vessel, the aircraft or Coast Guard personnel fire their high-caliber arms into the engines of the drug trafficker’s boat to disable it, facilitating arrest and seizure by the cutter’s boarding team.

“The skill of the pilots and marksman enable the Coast Guard to place rounds into the go-fasts propulsion system with precision, ultimately terminating the smugglers ability to transit day or night,” said Waters.

So far, the results of this naval aviation-led maritime task force have been effective, and the sheer amount of drugs and their estimated value are staggering.
Colombia’s navy, in coalition with U.S. Navy and Coast Guard personnel aboard USS Nicholas (FFG 47), seized a cocaine shipment of 4,910 pounds worth a reported $367 million on 4 June from a go-fast boat approximately 80 miles off the Colombian coast. Since the beginning of their deployment in January, Nicholas and its embarked law enforcement det. have seized approximately 10,148 pounds of cocaine, with a total estimated street value of more than $759 million.

On 31 May, Coast Guard Cutter Valiant and its crew interdicted a go-fast vessel carrying approximately 2,700 pounds of cocaine, with a wholesale value of $32.5 million while on patrol in the Caribbean. The go-fast vessel, which was reportedly outfitted for smuggling and spotted with suspicious bales on deck, ignored repeated orders from the Coast Guard to stop and operated erratically to evade capture before the crew threw the bales into the water. The vessel was eventually disabled by Valiant’s embarked helicopter crews, which employed disabling shots to the go-fast’s outboard engines. A total of 43 cocaine bales were recovered and confiscated by authorities.

Beginning in the 1990s, Coast Guard officials began hearing of a new potential threat from the South American drug lords: semi-submersibles. These radar-evading vessels were being developed and shipped out of the jungles of Colombia to complement the go-fast fleet.

“In the 1980’s, these vessels appeared as towed cylinders,” said Draves. “In the early 1990s, efforts began to develop a self-propelled submersible vessel. In 2010, the first fully submersible vessel [FSV] was seized on land and the first reported FSV was under way.”

Compared to the size and speed of a conventional military submarine, the semi-submersibles are not particular large or fast: they are typically 80 feet long and travel at an approximate top speed of six knots. Each vessel can contain up to five crewmembers and carry up to 10 metric tons. According to JIATF statistics, the range of these vessels varies, but the average can travel approximately 2,500 nautical miles without refueling. As the main features of these semi-submerible “narco-subs” lie below the waterline, it is a perfect vehicle to avoid radar and law enforcement activities. Even when spotted, a unique design to these subs makes recovering the cargo difficult, if not impossible. The semi-subs can be easily scuttled by their crews once an interdiction appears unavoidable, sending their cargo to the bottom of the sea and out of the reach of law enforcement officials, making prosecution of the smugglers difficult.

“By their design they present a very low profile, and they tend to blend into the surrounding seascape,” said Waters. “Given the huge expanse of the open ocean, it is not hard to hide when you are in a boat that floats just below the surface.”

Sailors from USS Elrod (FFG 55) pick up bales of narcotics during a seizure on 21 April 2012 in the Caribbean. (Photo by Spc. Andy Barrera)

In April, USCGC Pea Island (WPB 1347) and USCGC Decisive (WMEC 629), in cooperation with the Honduran navy, tracked a semi-sub suspected of smuggling cocaine in the western Caribbean. The Coast Guard reported that the sub was successfully interdicted, resulting in four suspected smugglers being detained. Instead of having their bales entered as case evidence against them, however, the drug sub was purposely sunk in thousands of feet of water, carrying its cargo to the bottom of the sea.

Although the Caribbean has long been a notorious hotspot for drug smuggling, the Pacific coastline is also a popular route for South American drug lords looking to deliver their cargoes.

On 20 August, U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento received the U.S. Interdiction Coordinator Fixed Wing Aviation Award for superior performance in the interdiction of illicit drugs during 2011. According to the Coast Guard, air crews operating Sacramento-based Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules aircraft provided surveillance and tracking of drug trafficking vessels off the coasts of California and western Central America. In 2011, Air Station Sacramento crews flew nearly 2,000 hours on counternarcotics patrol, resulting in the seizure of more than two tons of marijuana, approximately 4.5-tons of cocaine, and the apprehension of 28 smugglers.

The Hercules has proven to be an effective tool on both coasts, spotting the suspected drug-carrying vessels from high above, while coordinating their locations to Navy vessels, Coast Guard Cutters, and other law enforcement agencies at sea.

“All our federal and international partners play important roles in stemming the flow of illegal drugs, but the counter-narcotics work of our Sacramento-based long-range aircraft is an important mission that rarely receives much public attention,” said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Karl Schultz, commander of the 11th Coast Guard District. “With few long-range surface assets available for patrols in the eastern Pacific, the role of our aviators in spotting and tracking smuggling vessels is more important than ever.”

Too much money is to be made from the flow of narcotics into the United States, all but ensuring that the Coast Guard and Navy will have their hands full in combating these traffickers for years to come. With the current successes of Operation Martillo so far, however, it is more than apparent that naval aviation is up to the task.