Category Archives: South America

Analysis related to USSOUTHCOM

The Significance of U.S. and Chinese Hospital Ship Deployments to Latin America

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) has become a regular visitor of Latin American and Caribbean waters as it often carries out humanitarian operations in those regions. Mostly recently, it was deployed to Puerto Rico to assist those affected by Hurricane Maria. Furthermore, there is now an extra-regional hospital ship which is also traveling to these areas, namely China’s Peace Ark (866 Daishan Dao), a Type 920 hospital ship that is operated by the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Given that the governments these two platforms belong to are experiencing growing national security tensions it is necessary to discuss their activities and put this medical diplomacy in its proper geopolitical context.

This commentary is a continuation of an essay that the author drafted for CIMSEC titled “The uses of the U.S. Navy’s Fourth Fleet;” and draws from an analysis by CAPT John C. Devlin (ret.) and CDR John J. Devlin titled “Aligning HA/DR Mission Parameters with U.S. Navy Maritime Strategy.”

USNS Comfort

We will not supply an exhaustive list of Comfort’s operations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, but will rather provide some highlights. Most recently, as previously mentioned, Comfort was deployed to Puerto Rico to assist those in need after Hurricane Maria hit the island. The vessel also traveled to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake to assist with the relief and support efforts as part of Operation Unified Response.

Additionally, Comfort has been deployed to the region as part of initiatives like the Partnership for the Americas and Operation Continuing Promise. Countries that were visited during these voyages include Colombia, Dominica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, Peru, among others.

USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) (U.S. Navy photo)

It is worth noting that Comfort is a large vessel, with a length of 894 feet and a beam of 105 feet, the same as its sister ship, USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) – the two are converted San Clemente-class super tankers. According to the U.S. Navy,  each platform “contain[s] 12 fully-equipped operating rooms, a 1,000 bed hospital facility, digital radiological services, a medical laboratory, a pharmacy, an optometry lab, a CAT-scan and two oxygen producing plants,” along with helicopter decks. Hence, the vessel is able to provide for vast numbers of patients simultaneously with different services. For example, according to the magazine Dialogo, some 19,000 patients were treated by Comfort personnel when the vessel docked in Belize and Guatemala as part of Continuing Promise 2015.

Peace Ark

As for Peace Ark, the Chinese vessel is newer than Comfort, as the former was commissioned in 2008 while the latter was commissioned in 1987 – a two decade difference. The newer vessel reportedly measures 583 feet in length and displaces 10,000 tons fully loaded, and fields a Z-9 helicopter. It also has 300 beds for patients, eight operating rooms and 20 intensive care units. When deployed, its crew is made up of up to 328 plus 100 medical personnel.

In a 2014 article by USNI News, Peace Ark’s Senior Captain Sun Tao declared, “other than internal organ transplant …or any kind of heart disease treatment, [Peace Ark] can pretty much do any kind of treatment.” The article goes on to note that “This includes, perhaps not surprisingly, traditional Chinese medicine. A room onboard Peace Ark is specifically reserved for the ancient therapies of cupping, massage, and acupuncture.” 

Medical workers treat mock wounded people during an exercise aboard the Chinese navy hospital ship Peace Ark Sept. 15, 2010. The ship on Wednesday arrived in the Gulf of Aden to provide medical service for the Chinese escort fleet, as its first overseas medical mission. (Xinhua/Zha Chunming)

Because the Chinese vessel has also been deployed throughout Asia and Africa in the last decade, Peace Ark has traveled significantly fewer times than Comfort to Latin America and the Caribbean. Its first tour was “Harmonious Mission 2011, a 105 day trip in which the platform visited Costa Rica, Cuba, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago. The platform returned to the region in 2015, visiting countries like Barbados, Mexico, and Peru.

Significance

At a local level, the arrivals of these vessels are a welcomed development as they provide medical services that local populations may not be able to obtain otherwise from their local governments. Thus, it probably matters very little to the inhabitants of these areas whether a hospital ship flies either a U.S. or Chinese flag, as long as they provide health services that are needed. Indeed, articles published by Latin American and Caribbean media outlets that reported visits by either Comfort or Peace Ark included generally positive statements by local authorities and patients.

At a geopolitical level, these hospital ships carry out humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations (HA/DR) that are in line with their respective navy’s overall strategies of aiding populations in need. Moreover, and unsurprisingly, these visits help to boost up the image of the nation deploying the platform in the eyes of the hosting government and population. For example, a 2011 article by Mercopress that discussed Peace Ark’s arrival to Jamaica had the following statement “the mission is part of a global campaign by Beijing to portray its rapidly growing military as a responsible power.” Similarly, the aforementioned CIMSEC article states that HA/DR operations “are a vital part of U.S. Navy maritime strategy by ensuring regional stability through building partner nation capacity and expanding our sphere of influence.”

While an exhaustive analysis of each nation that Comfort visits is beyond the objectives of this commentary, it is worth noting that the countries it regularly visits are those that the U.S. has good relations with, though there has been one notable exception. In 2011 Comfort docked in Manta, Ecuador: this is was a significant visit as then-President Rafael Correa was known for his anti-Washington rhetoric and for having ordered the shutdown of the U.S. military facilities in Ecuador in 2009. Thus, it is somewhat bizarre that President Correa would authorize a (unarmed) U.S. ship to enter his country’s territorial waters. It would be interesting if the government of Venezuela would similarly allow Comfort to dock in Venezuela’s coast, given the problematic situation of the country’s health system. Nevertheless, the tense bilateral relations make it highly unlikely that Caracas would authorize such a visit, or that Washington would offer it in the first place.

Moreover, as far as the author can determine, Peace Ark has only visited countries whose governments recognize the People’s Republic of China and not the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan). It will important to monitor if future Peace Ark deployments include countries that still maintain relations with Taipei, as Beijing may be looking to obtain the recognition of Taiwan’s last remaining allies in the region – the latest nation to switch sides was Panama in mid-2017.

Ultimately, setting aside the geopolitical motivations for the deployment of these vessels, the humanitarian activities that they carry out ensures that both Comfort and Peace Ark will continue to be welcomed across the Latin America and the Caribbean as future harsh climate events will require greater humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.

In 2017 alone, regional navies had to carry out major relief operations. Case in point, the Peruvian Navy (Marina de Guerra del Peru) deployed several platforms to the country’s northern regions to provide assistance after torrential rains hit many areas. Similarly, the Colombian Navy (Armada de Colombia) has deployed offshore patrol vessels to transport humanitarian aid to areas hit by floods. Even more, the Honduran Navy (Fuerza Naval) has acquired a multipurpose vessel, Gracias a Dios, to combat maritime drug trafficking and to provide assistance to coastal communities. In other words, humanitarian assistance has been a key component of naval strategies, and its importance will only increase in the near future, meaning that support from allies will remain a necessity for many Latin American and Caribbean states.

Final Thoughts

USNS Comfort and China’s Peace Ark have carried out commendable humanitarian work throughout many coastal communities in Latin America and the Caribbean as their tours in these regions have helped individuals who would otherwise have trouble accessing medical services. These humanitarian assistance deployments will continue to be necessary in both the short- and long-term. As for the geopolitical value of such deployments, they are a non-dangerous and effective example of “soft power” via which both Beijing and Washington utilize to maintain and improve their image in these regions.

Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: This a Chinese hospital ship. Called the Peace Ark, this ship is under the command of the Chinese Navy. (Photo by Jake Burghart)

Narcosubmarines: Nexus of Terrorism and Drug Trafficking?  

By John Stryker

One year after the ratification of their historic peace agreement, the Colombian government and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC; Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) continue to make joint steps towards the peaceful demobilization and assimilation of former FARC members into Colombian society. A few hiccups aside, the deal has seen the reintegration of over 7,000 former fighters into camps designed to facilitate their transition into society.1 While countless points regarding FARC’s innovation and longevity merit examination, one infrequently analyzed item stands out: FARC’s drug submarines. Drug submarines (hereafter referred to as narcosubmarines) are manufactured in the thick jungles of eastern Colombia and are not the primitive vessels of one’s imagination. FARC’s narcosubmarines boast sophisticated anti-detection features and navigation, can haul up to 10 tons of cocaine, and can cost upwards of ten million U.S. dollars. Narcosubmarine development has spurred many scholars into hazy gesticulations of narco-terrorism. This paper provides an expose of the issue and more thoroughly considers its implications. 

The Development of Narcosubmarines

Narcosubmarines did not appear overnight. They are the technological byproduct of a shifty competitive relationship between trafficking groups and those that pursue them.2 As security forces improved their tracking strategies in the 1990s and 2000s, drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) responded in kind to avoid them. They are notoriously flexible. Once Caribbean mainstays, DTOs switched to Pacific trafficking routes to avoid detection. They often utilize other clever modes of cocaine transport, such as underwater containers bolted underneath the hulls of boats. Originally, creatively-named ‘go-fast’ boats were the first vehicles of choice in moving cocaine up the coasts of Central America. Yet improvements in radar surveillance as well as increased patrolling saw more speedboats interdicted. The development of sub-surface vessels became increasingly attractive. Sub-surface activity was first documented with the 1993 discovery of the ‘San Andrés’ self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS) near the San Andrés islands of Colombia.3 A crude ship, it was smaller and slower than contemporary subs and could be easily spotted by air. SPSSs were soon supplemented by low profile vessels (LPVs), which avoid detection by riding just above water level. Meanwhile, the first fully-submersible submarine was discovered dense jungle terrain near the town of Facatativá, Colombia in 2000. This Russian-designed sub was not completed, but was predicted to feature advanced navigation equipment, a carrying capacity of 150-200 tons, and the ability to dive to over 300 feet underwater.4 While a precise estimate is impossible to establish, analysts have theorized that dozens of these subs are being churned out every year.5

Supremacy of the Submarines

While high-profile submarine seizures garner attention in the press,6 the combined efforts of U.S. and Central American governments have been unable to seriously address the overall stream of drugs.7

For one, drug trafficking events are extremely difficult to detect:

“American operations analysis shows that given good intelligence of a drug event and a patrol box of a certain length and width, a surface vessel operating alone has only a 5 percent probability of detecting (PD) that event. A surface vessel with an embarked helicopter increases the PD to 30 percent, and by adding a Maritime Patrol Aircraft to the mix, the PD goes up to 70 percent. Analysis by the Colombian Navy shows that adding one of their submarines to the mix raises the PD to 90 percent.”8

Even with the luxury of advanced warning, a resource-intensive, multi-faceted, and (ideally) intergovernmental effort is needed to make interception of the vehicle likely. Sufficient resources are not in place for these missions. Due to budget cuts, “SOUTHCOM is unable to pursue 74 percent of suspected maritime drug trafficking.”9 General John F. Kelly of the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) lamented to Congress in 2014 that:

“I simply sit and watch it (drug trafficking) go by…”10

Further still, when narcosubs are actually interdicted, crew members will typically scuttle the vessel via a system of sophisticated drainage valves.11 Millions of dollars’ worth of evidence can be sunk in a matter of minutes. The recovery of cocaine then morphs into the recovery of the crew members which sank it. Although the United States’ Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act of 2008 now incriminates unidentified submarine crews for attempting to evade authorities, law enforcement cannot typically prosecute for the submarine and its cargo lying on the ocean floor.

Crew from the US Coast Guard Cutter Stratton stop a Self-Propelled Semi Submersible (SPSS) off the coast of Central America. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Finally, in a general sense, interdiction is a problem of scale. 30 percent of the maritime flow of drugs from South America up through Central America is estimated to make use of narcosubmarines.12 Given that maritime routes are roughly estimated to account for 80 percent of drugs shipped north,13 narcosubmarines carry around 24 percent (0.8 x 0.3) of total product, almost a quarter of the entire drug stream. While a single narcosub interdiction may eradicate hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine, DTOs’ diversified drug portfolio still renders their cost-benefit analyses profitable. Yet their innovation with respect to narcosubmarines poses challenges for more than the U.S. Coast Guard and regional partners. It raises compelling concerns for U.S. national security.  

Narco-Terrorism?

The wealth garnered by DTOs undermines national security through the endemic corruption and poor rule of law it breeds in its host countries. Many DTOs are powerful enough to form pseudo-states, areas of military primacy (especially in rural or isolated areas) where centralized federal government authority is weak. In this vein, FARC has been characterized as possessing:

“…an enormous capacity to leverage economic resources, to control some territory, and to maintain a superficial presence in others…[as] their local, armed patronage and their ability to take advantage of rural youth unemployment keeps them afloat and even enables them to establish pockets of legitimacy and support in many regions of the country.”14

Narcosubmarines also pose international security threats. While a more sophisticated analysis of these threats may exist in the classified sphere, open source literature provides a useful primer of the issue. Lamentably, analyses of terrorism are always an exercise in a sort of speculative predication which may very well fail to materialize. A narcosubmarine-based attack on the United States might be shelved as a ‘black swan’ event, a game-changing development difficult to even contrive hypothetically.15 Still, a number of points are difficult to dismiss. Three factors must be considered: the establishment of motive, the acquisition of a narcosub, and the execution of an attack.

Motivations

Many scholars have posited that South America provides fertile ground for terrorist groups and their ideologies. While some have cited widespread disaffection amongst Latin America’s citizenry as a possible motive for terrorism, frustrations with policy, inequality, corruption, and other shortcomings related to governance provide conditions that promote insurgencies. A 2016 congressional report on the subject noted that “most terrorist acts occur in the Andean region of South America,” specifically FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) in Colombia and the Shining Path (SL) in Peru.16 Kidnappings, attacks on infrastructure, and the killing of civilians and local authorities are common tactics. With a focus on domestic politics, grassroots terrorism has not accompanied drug shipments in their northward journeys to countries like the United States. Latin America does not present the United States with extreme, anti-Western ideological sentiments common in other regions afflicted with insurgency. Nor is the measurable level of anti-Americanism amongst the general populace especially high.17

Putting domestic terrorism aside, the intersection of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) and DTOs must subsequently be considered. FTOs have been active in South America in their own right. Two bombings of the Israeli embassy and the Argentine-Israeli mutual association took place in Argentina the early 1990s.18 Venezuela has been frequently accused of collaborating with Iran and funding extremist groups like Hezbollah, which holds documented connections with FARC.19 Russian engineering was responsible for the birth of the Facatativá sub, and Russia has maintained connections with the Cali cartel, another Colombian DTO.20 In 2001, three members of the Irish terrorist group the Provisional Irish Republic Army (PIRA) were arrested for “training FARC militants in the use of explosives, including homemade mortars.”21 FARC utilized this kind of training in its subversive campaigns against Colombian urban centers. Most importantly, South America’s security framework has difficulty preventing these kinds of events. Counterterrorism efforts with respect to FTOs have been plagued by “corruption, weak government institutions, insufficient interagency cooperation, weak or non-existent legislation, and a lack of resources.”22 In this globalized environment, the insertion of FTOs into the narcosubmarine context is entirely plausible.  

While terrorist attacks in Latin America are relatively infrequent and usually domestic in nature, the combination of weak government authority in isolated regions and verified connections to well-established terrorist organizations cannot conclusively rule out the possibility of a group plotting a narcosubmarine-enabled attack on the United States.  

Submarine Acquisition

On a basic level, the acquisition of a narcosubmarine is a purely pecuniary issue. Given a prospective buyer operating near the location of the submarine and the means to negotiate an exchange, purchasing technological blueprints or the submarine outright would only require a monetary transfer. Yet the story is much more complex. First, in all likelihood, terrorist organizations would need to purchase an entire sub. Obtaining the necessary materials and chartering the technological know-how to bring them together would be burdensome and time-consuming. At best, the finished products – which would also require familiarity with local supply chains and the tropical terrain – would be far inferior to the original submarine models. Secondly, Donald Davis stresses that for a DTO such as FARC, the “opportunity cost of a single voyage could exceed $275 million USD.”23 In other words, DTOs would need to reap a profit greater than that which the sub could otherwise garner, calculated to approach a whopping three hundred million dollars. These sums are well beyond the means of the wealthiest terrorist organizations. Further still, a successful terrorist strike on the United States would immediately engender “a swift and decisive military response…[that] could significantly alter the DTO’s ability to function…”24 Inciting retaliatory measures would cut into profits if not totally destroy the DTO. In this way, the chartering of a narcosubmarine appears beyond the means of even the most fanciful ITO.

The most compelling threat is the break-up of FARC, a wild-card variable that presents an uncertain trajectory. FARC’s demilitarization has created a power vacuum in rural Colombia. The Colombian NGO Indepaz has predicted “a territorial reorganization of the ‘narco-paramilitary groups’ in the aftermath of a peace accord with the FARC with the Bacrim (Spanish acronym for ‘bandas criminales’) groups vying to take over FARC drug and illegal mining businesses.”25 Relegated to the peripheries26 under FARC, these groups are competing amongst themselves for dominance in the emerging power vacuum. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), fighting amongst competing groups “has resulted in more than 56,000 displacements in the first half of 2017.”27 These paramilitary organizations include the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN; National Liberation Army) and the Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL; Popular Liberation Army), as well as a host of smaller gangs. Even indigenous communities — many of which are hostile to the federal government and its efforts to eradicate coca production — are prone to violence.28 At least one narcosubmarine has been produced post-demilitarization.29 In July, the Colombian military seized a narcosubmarine built by the ELN.[30] With the opportunity generated by FARC’s retirement and less formalized, looser hierarchical structures, peace agreements with these organizations a la FARC appears unlikely.31 Finally, one must consider FARC’s organizational structure. Prior to the settlement, FARC was “divided into six different commands, each composed of at least five fronts that represent different geographic territories,” all relatively decentralized and autonomous.32 Breakdown of the structural hierarchy raises the probability that individual members33 transfer submarine technology to external agents. When not trafficking cocaine, the aforementioned cost-benefit scenario changes: why not profit from the sale of idle narcosubmarines or the jungle laboratories that built them? Like the ‘loose nukes’ unaccounted for after the breakup of the USSR, control of narcosubmarines, the expertise related to their production, and their assembly sites post-accord is unclear. With FARC’s abdication and continued power swings amongst old and emerging groups in present-day Colombia, the sale of a loose narcosub remains a serious concern.

Although DTOs and FTOs have many reasons to shun technological exchanges, the uncertainty with respect to changing power dynamics amongst sub-national groups in Colombia today cannot rule out FTO acquisition of a narcosubmarine.

Execution of an Attack

How might a drug submarine be used in a terrorist attack? Transportation and detonation of a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) would clearly represent the gravest of scenarios. On paper, many narcosubs are large enough to carry a WMD.34 Delivery on the water additionally allows submarines to reach urban centers on both the East and West Coasts. Yet the list of prohibitive hurdles involved in such an endeavor is enormous, the most pressing of which are not specific to submarines. The use of narcosubmarines for improvised attacks is most concerning.

Described by Admiral James Stavridis in 2008 as “…clearly the next big thing,”35 autonomous narcosubmarine technology has outpaced anti-submarine defenses. They are particularly difficult to expose. Kenneth Sherman notes that “submerged submarines are detected almost exclusively acoustically, and unlike the louder Soviet nuclear subs of the Cold War, modern diesel-electric submarines are extremely difficult to detect, localize, and track.”36 The electric subs FARC regularly employed37 are “virtually impossible to detect using passive acoustic measures.”38 Amid sequestration and budget cuts, the U.S. Coast Guard’s defenses are even less likely to detect and neutralize a narcosubmarine on their own.  

Navy sailors ride atop a 10-meter submarine packed with 5.8 tons of cocaine, as it is being towed into the port of Salina Cruz, Mexico, Friday, July 18, 2008. Navy vice admiral Jose Maria Ortegon said the submarine, seized off Mexico’s southern Pacific coast on Wednesday, was equipped with GPS and a compass and had planned to drop off its shipment on Mexican shores. Four Colombian crew members were taken into custody. (Luis Alberto Cruz Hernandez/AP)

An attacking blueprint could take many forms. In 2000, the USS Cole was rammed by a small boat laden with explosives.39 Seventeen Americans were killed and scores more injured in this suicide attack. An attack on a Navy vessel like the USS Cole in this style is altogether feasible.40 A sub-surface approach with a large payload could do even more damage with little to no warning. In this sense, U.S. harbors on both coasts could be susceptible. And the target need not be military-affiliated. Large groups of people (often headed by and including American citizens) frequent cruise ships which regularly traverse the Caribbean and Pacific coastline. These cruise ships are bulky, difficult to maneuver, and possess no inherent defense systems. Stavridis reiterates the point: cruise ships are ‘lucrative’ targets for terrorists.41 Total destruction of a cruise ship, the worst-case scenario, could result in hundreds of deaths and almost $2 billion dollars’ worth of damages.42 The fallout from such an event would be unprecedented. Even a failed attack with respect to cruise ships could send worldwide cruise markets into sharp decline, as evidenced by the infamous ‘Poop Cruise’ of 2013.43

Above all, the definitive features of a terrorist attack are the reverberations it induces in society. Here narcosubmarines would add a unique and powerful twist to the panic. As Davis dryly remarks, “the overall shock value would be stunning.”44 Submarines possess a tangible mystique which borders on enchantment. Gliding silently along the depths of the ocean, submarines represent a sort of impalpable yet eerily present threat, alarming if activated. In the public eye, characterization of a narcosub attack could read as follows:

A lone submarine built painstakingly by hand in the dense jungles of South America by a demilitarized non-state entity traveled thousands of miles north utterly undetected to successfully strike the shores of the United States, which boasts the strongest and most technologically advanced Navy of all time.

Given the improbable establishment of motive and the acquisition of the necessary technologies, a submarine-based terrorist attack on the United States is not inconceivable given the scenarios considered here and envisaged elsewhere.45

Conclusions

Given the difficulties charting modern submarines post-USSR,46 the security forces of the United States should pay special attention to the evolving world of external submarine development by non-state actors. Narco-terrorism in Colombia follows a fairly intuitive procedural logic on paper. While the idea may seem far-fetched, prudent U.S. policy should continue to plan for the possibility of such an attack.  

John Stryker is a senior studying International Relations and Hispanic Studies at the College of William and Mary. 

Bibliography

Austin, Christina. “Disaster Timeline: How Carnival Went from ‘Fun Ship’ To ‘Poop Cruise’.” Business Insider. February 20 2013. Web. <http://www.businessinsider.com/how-carnival-went-from-fun-ship-to-poop-cruise-2013-2>. 

Baker, Andy, and David Cupery. “Gringo Stay Here!” Americas Quarterly. Spring 2013. Web. <http://www.americasquarterly.org/gringo-stay-here>.

Cragin, Kim, et al. “Sharing the Dragon’s Teeth: Terrorist Groups and the Exchange of New Technologies.” RAND. 2007. Web. <https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2007/RAND_MG485.pdf>.

Crisp, Wil. “The New Struggle for Colombia’s Countryside after FARC.” Al Jazeera. October 24 2017. Web. <http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/10/struggle-colombia-countryside-farc-171023111815468.html>.

Davis, Donald. “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security.” Naval Postgraduate School. September 2013. Web. <https://calhoun.nps.edu/handle/10945/37609>.

Farley, Robert. “Submarines, Cocaine, and Aquatic Terrorism?” Prospect. June 11 2009. Web. <http://prospect.org/article/submarines-cocaine-and-aquatic-terrorism>.

Ferkaluk, Brian. “Latin America: Terrorist Actors on a Nuclear Stage.” Global Security Studies. Fall 2010. Web. <http://globalsecuritystudies.com/Ferkaluk%20Latin%20America.pdf>.

Jaramillo, Michelle. “The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Development of Narco-Submarines.” University of South Florida Scholar Commons. Web. <http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/jss/vol9/iss1/6/?utm_source=scholarcommons.usf.edu%2Fjss%2Fvol9%2Fiss1%2F6&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPages>.

Kraul, Chris. “Colombia Has a Peace Deal, but Can It Be Implemented?” LA Times. March 13 2017. Web. <http://www.latimes.com/world/mexico-americas/la-fg-colombia-peace-outlook-2017-story.html>.

Pelcastre, Julieta. “Colombian Military Forces Attack Drug Trafficking in Operation Barbudo.” Dialogo Americas. October 6 2017. Web. <https://dialogo-americas.com/en/articles/colombian-military-forces-attack-drug-trafficking-operation-barbudo>.

Perez, Janelle. “Fighting Terrorism with Foreign Aid: A Case for Continued US Assistance in Latin America.” John Hopkins. January 5 2015. Web. <https://jscholarship-library-jhu-edu.proxy.wm.edu/handle/1774.2/37232>.

Ramirez, Byron, and Robert Bunker. “Narco-Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels Used for Drug Smuggling Purposes.” Scholarship at Claremont. 2015. Web. <http://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1029&context=cgu_facbooks>.

Ramirez, Byron. “Narco-Submarines: Drug Cartels’ Innovative Technology.” CIMSEC. August 2 2014. Web. <http://cimsec.org/narco-submarines-drug-cartels-innovative-technology/12314>.

Sherman, Kenneth. “Mini-Subs: The Next Terrorist Threat?” ProQuest. July 2003. Web. <https://search-proquest-com.proxy.wm.edu/docview/206603319?pq-origsite=summon>.

Sullivan, Mark, and June Beittel. “Latin America: Terrorism Issues.” Federation of American Scientists. December 15 2016. Web. <https://fas.org/sgp/crs/terror/RS21049.pdf>.

Szoldra, Paul. “A Retired Navy Admiral is ‘Very Concerned’ about Terrorists Attacking Cruise Ships.” Business Insider. June 30 2017. Web. <http://www.businessinsider.com/stavridis-terrorist-attacks-at-sea-2017-6>.

“U.S. Coast Guard Intercepts Semi-Submersible Vessel Packed with 3,800 Pounds of Cocaine.” USA Today. December 11 2017. Web. <https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/12/11/u-s-coast-guard-intercepts-semi-submersible-vessel-packed-3-800-pounds-cocaine/939668001/>.

Vargas, Ricardo. “The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Illicit Drug Trade.” TNI. June 7 1999. Web. <https://www.tni.org/en/publication/the-revolutionary-armed-forces-of-colombia-farc-and-the-illicit-drug-trade>.

Watkins, Lance. “Self-Propelled Semi-Submersibles: The Next Great Threat to Regional Security and Stability.” Naval Postgraduate School. June 2011. Web. <https://calhoun.nps.edu/bitstream/handle/10945/5629/11Jun_Watkins.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y>.

References

[1] Kraul, “Colombia Has a Peace Deal, but Can It Be Implemented?”.

[2] Ramirez, “Narco-Submarines: Drug Cartels’ Innovative Technology.”

[3] Note that SPSSs are not true submersibles, although they are equally difficult to detect, as discussed further on; Ramirez and Bunker, “Narco-Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels Used for Drug Smuggling Purposes,” 29.

[4] IBID, 34.

[5] IBID, 12.

[6] “U.S. Coast Guard Intercepts Semi-Submersible Vessel Packed with 3,800 Pounds of Cocaine.”

[7] Note that “the Coast Guard is the lead federal agency for maritime drug interdiction in the transit zone, responsible for the apprehension of cocaine transporting vessels …”; Wakins, “Self-Propelled Semi-Submersibles: The Next Great Threat to Regional Security and Stability,” 6. 

[8] Ramirez and Bunker, “Narco-Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels Used for Drug Smuggling Purposes,” 47.

[9] IBID, 7.

[10] IBID, 7.

[11] After successful missions, the vessels are also sunk this way; IBID, 25.

[12] IBID, 7.

[13] IBID, 6.

[14] Vargas, “The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Illicit Drug Trade.”

[15] Davis, “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security,” 39.

[16] Sullivan and Beittel, “Latin America: Terrorism Issues,” Summary.

[17] Baker and Cupery, “Gringo Stay Here!”.

[18] Ferkaluk, “Latin America: Terrorist Actors on a Nuclear Stage” 115.

[19] Davis, “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security,” 24.

[20] IBID, 24.

[21] Cragin et al., “Sharing the Dragon’s Teeth: Terrorist Groups and the Exchange of New Technologies,” 71.  

[22] Perez, “Fighting Terrorism with Foreign Aid: A Case for Continued US Assistance in Latin America,” 52.  

[23] Davis, “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security,” 45.

[24] IBID, 45.

[25] Sullivan and Beittel, “Latin America: Terrorism Issues,” 4.

[26] Although significant actors with notable histories in their own right.

[27] Crisp, “The New Struggle for Colombia’s Countryside after FARC.”

[28] IBID.

[29] It is impossible to predict how many narcosubs continue to be produced. Retroactive seizures, as seen with sporadic interdictions of drug subs since the 1990s, are a poor proxy for an overall estimate.

[30] Pelcastre, “Colombian Military Forces Attack Drug Trafficking in Operation Barbudo.”   

[31] Crisp, “The New Struggle for Colombia’s Countryside after FARC.”

[32] Jaramillo, “The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Development of Narco-Submarines,” 53.

[33] Especially those hard-liners unwilling to participate in the surrender, or even de-militarized members wishing to return the previous way of life given difficulties reintegrating into everyday society. 

[34] Davis, “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security,” 42.  

[35] Watkins, “Self-Propelled Semi-Submersibles: The Next Great Threat to Regional Security and Stability,” 51.

[36] Sherman, “Mini-Subs: The Next Terrorist Threat?”.

[37] Davis, “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security,” 25.  

[38] Sherman, “Mini-Subs: The Next Terrorist Threat?”.

[39] Farley, “Submarines, Cocaine, and Aquatic Terrorism?”.

[40] IBID.  

[41] Szoldra, “A Retired Navy Admiral is ‘Very Concerned’ about Terrorists Attacking Cruise Ships.”

[42] Davis, “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security,” 52.

[43] Austin, “Disaster Timeline: How Carnival Went from ‘Fun Ship’ To ‘Poop Cruise’.”

[44] Davis, “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security,” 39.  

[45] Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor’s “Insurgent Submersibles” provides a favorable (albeit subscription-based) account of the issue. 

[46] See James Moltz’s piece “Submarines and Autonomous Vessel Proliferation: Implications for Future Strategic Stability at Sea.”

Featured Image: Seized narcosubmarine (Christoph Morlinghaus)

What the Loss of the ARA San Juan Reveals about South America’s Submarines

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

The Argentine Navy’s submarine ARA San Juan (S-42) disappeared in the South Atlantic, off the coast of Argentina, on 15 November. At the time of this writing, a multinational effort is underway to locate the platform and its 44-person crew. This tragic accident has prompted a discussion in Argentina regarding whether the country’s armed forces are being allocated sufficient budgets to repair or replace aging equipment. Additionally, the San Juan incident must be placed in a wider discussion about civil-military relations, defense budgets, and the present and future of South American submarines.

ARA San Juan

Theories revolving around what happened to San Juan focus on an electrical malfunction that was reported by the crew prior to disappearing, though it was reportedly solved. The platform was returning to its home port of Mar del Plata when communications were lost. Naval protocol dictates that San Juan should have surfaced and traveled back to port, and it is unclear why the submarine continued its voyage submerged in spite of the aforementioned electrical problem. Adding to the mystery and overall concern was an apparent underwater explosion that reportedly occurred around 23 November in the general area where San Juan disappeared. The fear is that the explosion may have actually been an implosion due to pressure on the submarine’s hull.

ARA San Juan at an exhibition in Buenos Aires. (Photo: AFP/Ministerio de Defensa de Argentina)

San Juan, constructed by the West German shipyard Thyssen Nordseewerke, was commissioned by the Argentine Navy in 1985. The platform, a TR-1700 class, weighs slightly over two thousand tons, measures 66 m in length, with a max speed between 15 kts (surfaced) or 25 kts (submerged), and as it is powered with diesel engines – it went through mid-life repairs in 2008. Its sister vessel is ARA Santa Cruz (S-41).

Other South American Submarine Incidents

The disappearance of San Juan prompted a plethora of articles listing other notable incidents regarding submarines. One recent example that is often mentioned is the loss of the Russian submarine Kursk (K-141), an Oscar-class platform that suffered an explosion in the Barents Sea in August 2000. The U.S. has also lost submarines, like the USS Thresher (SSN-593), a nuclear-powered platform, in 1963, and the USS Scorpion (SSN-589), which disappeared in May 1968. That same year Israel’s INS Dakar and France’s Minerve (S-647) also disappeared.

When it comes to South America, submarine accidents are rare but, unfortunately, they have occurred. For example in 1919, the Chilean submarine Rucumilla, an H-class platform, was carrying out maneuvers, when it started to flood; thankfully, all 23 members of the crew were rescued alive. More recently, the Brazilian submarine Tonelero (S-21) sank while it was undergoing repairs at a harbor in Rio de Janeiro in 2000. The crew members aboard also managed to escape safely and the diesel-powered, Oberon-class submarine constructed in the 1970 was successfully refloated only to be decommissioned shortly after.

There has also been one reportedly deadly accident: in 1988 the Peruvian submarine BAP Pacocha (SS-48), a Balao-class platform, was rammed by the Japanese fishing trawler Kiowa Maru off the Peruvian coast, close to the Callao port. Pacocha settled on the seabed, at a depth of around 144 ft (43 m). A massive rescue operation involving several vessels, including another Peruvian submarine, BAP Abtao (SS-42), was carried out and the 52-person crew was rescued in groups. Tragically, eight sailors including Pacocha’s commander, Captain Daniel Nieva Rodríguez, perished. Additionally, some of the survivors would live face health issues, as since they “were exposed to gradually increasing pressure for nearly twenty-four hours, their tissues were saturated with nitrogen at a depth deep enough to produce decompression symptoms.”

The Region’s Aging Submarines

Because submarines are a key element of a nation’s naval deterrent, detailed information regarding their status, including armament, is a sensitive issue. With that said, we can provide some general points from what is publicly known, and how these platforms fit into regional maritime strategies.

South America’s submarines are generally old, as most platforms were constructed in the 1970s or 1980s. Regional navies have focused on mid-life and other upgrades in order to extend their operational life. For example, the Ecuadorian daily El Universo has reported that the country’s two submarines, Shyri and Huancavilca, type U209, were purchased in the late 1970s and have undergone three modernization processes already, “1980-1983 in Germany, 1991-1994 in Ecuador, and 2008-2014 in Chile.”  

While most regional submarines are operational, others have been undergoing repairs for a significant amount of time. For example Argentina’s San Juan underwent mid-life repairs that required over five years of work (the Argentine media has critiqued this). Meanwhile the ARA Santa Cruz has been undergoing repairs at an Argentine shipyard since 2016, leaving the navy with only one submarine, ARA Salta (which was constructed in the early 1970s). Additionally, Venezuela’s Caribe (S-32) has been in a dry dock since 2004-2005, awaiting repairs. It is somewhat bizarre that in spite of the billions of dollars spent on the Venezuelan military during the Hugo Chavez era, the submarine fleet was not modernized or expanded, and it consists of only two platforms, Caribe and Sabalo (S-31), both are U209A/1300 constructed in the mid 1970s.

In recent years, there have been a few new acquisitions. A decade ago (in 2005-2007), Chile incorporated O’Higgins (SS-23) and Carrera (SS-22), two Scorpene-class submarines constructed by DCN-Bazan (now Navantia), to replace the old Oberon-class platforms. Additionally, in 2015 the Colombian Navy received two refurbished German submarines, U206A-class, for its Caribbean and Pacific fleets. The platforms, now renamed ARC Intrépido (SC-23) and ARC Indomable (SC-24), were constructed in the 1970s and served in the German Navy until 2010-2011, when they were retired and sold to Bogota the following year.

ARC Intrépido. (Helwin Scharn/MarineTraffic.com)

Finally, Brazil has the ambitious goal of domestically manufacturing submarines, as it is currently constructing with French support four Scorpene-class submarines and one nuclear-powered platform (the author has discussed this program in a November 2016 commentary for CIMSEC, “The Status of Brazil’s Ambitious PROSUB Program”). Of the region, the country has the most modern fleet as its current submarines (four Tupi-class and one Tikuna-class) were manufactured in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Why Do South American Navies Want Submarines?

Ultimately, what is exactly the role of undersea forces in South America in 2017 and beyond? The last conflict in the region was the Cenepa War in 1995 (Ecuador vs. Peru), while the last conflict with a maritime theater of operations was the Falklands/Malvinas War of 1982 (Argentina vs. United Kingdom).

While inter-state warfare in South America is not unthinkable, it is highly unlikely. Thus as regional naval strategies continue to evolve to properly address broad-spectrum maritime security threats (illegal fishing, drug trafficking, and humanitarian relief), the raison d’être of undersea forces must adapt, too.

In an interview with the author, Christian J. Ehrlich, Director of Intelligence at Riskop and Non-Resident Fellow at the Mexican Navy Institute for Strategic Research, explained that navies have three main missions: maritime security, naval diplomacy, and defense. Latin American navies have focused, particularly in recent decades, on the first objective – given the lack of inter-state conflict and generally peaceful diplomatic relations. This new reality has made it “financially difficult to maintain naval platforms that are mostly, if not exclusively, aimed at defense operations.” Mr. Ehrlich adds that navies that possess attack submarines have had to find a new “role” for these platforms, such as supporting surveillance or combating illegal fishing, such as when Ecuador’s submarine Huancavilca was deployed to combat illegal fishing after a recent incident involving a Chinese vessel off the Galapagos Islands.

Without a doubt, submarines are a powerful naval deterrent, a “just in case” tool if relations between two countries should deteriorate to the point that armed conflict is a real possibility. There are still occasional incidents, including maritime disputes, that highlight how South America is far from being a peaceful region where inter-state warfare is unthinkable. Hence, these hypotheses of conflict, combined with adapting to new security threats, ensures, as Mr. Ehrlich explains, that “the silent service will continue to be part of [South American] navies, which have invested decades in these platforms.”

Final Thoughts

The tragic disappearance of San Juan has brought to light a number of issues. In Argentina, the media and public are demanding both answers and culprits, and it is likely that the navy’s high command will have to resign. The Argentine media has discussed the military’s current status, blaming the civilian leadership of not providing adequate budgets to the armed forces to replace old equipment. At a regional level, this incident has brought to light the problematic reality of South American submarine fleets. Generally speaking, they are quite old, in need of replacement, and they need to find new roles to be relevant to contemporary maritime security strategies.

Thankfully, submarine-related incidents have been scarce, though the 1988 incident of Peru’s Pacocha and the current disappearance of Argentina’s San Juan exemplifies how just one accident can claim so many lives instantaneously. Such is the perilous life of the submariner.

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

The author would like to thank Erica Illingworth for editorial advice.

Featured Image: The Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan and crew are seen leaving the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina June 2, 2014. (Armada Argentina/Handout via REUTERS)

Assessing Colombia’s Recent Naval Platform Delivery to Honduras

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

Colombia Delivers Vessel for Honduran Navy

On 4 November, the Honduran Navy (Fuerzas Naval de Honduras: FNH) received a brand new multipurpose vessel, FNH Gracias a Dios. What makes this delivery significant is that the platform was constructed by a Colombian company, Corporación de Ciencia y Tecnología para el Desarrollo de la Industria Naval Marítima y Fluvial (COTECMAR). Hence, this deal is important as it serves as an example of a Latin American military industry successfully selling platforms to another regional state.

This commentary is a continuation of an August 2016 essay by the author for CIMSEC, titled “The Rise of the Latin American Shipyard,” which discussed regional shipyards and their attempts to sell their platforms to international clients.

The Deal

Gracias a Dios was delivered fairly quickly, as the Honduran and Colombian governments signed a contract on 21 November 2016. The platform is a Short Range Logistic Support Ship (Buque de Apoyo Logístico – Cabotaje: BAL-C), it measures 49 meters, has a max speed of 9 kts and can transport up to 120 tons of cargo. The vessel has a ramp and a hydraulic crane so it does need a port to unload its cargo. Construction was carried out by the aforementioned Colombian company COTECMAR, in its facilities in Cartagena. Apart from assembling the vessel, COTECMAR trained 17 Honduran naval personnel, while three Honduran naval officers will study in the Colombian Navy’s institute of higher education, Escuela Naval Almirante Padilla, as part of the Tegucigalpa-Bogota deal, worth USD$ 13.5 million.

Gracias a Dios will be utilized by the Honduran naval force for coastal operations including relief support after natural disasters. The Honduran government and media in general have applauded the new asset; for example the daily La Tribuna explained that “this is a multipurpose vessel, its main missions will be to transport food, fuel and machinery to inaccessible areas in Honduras.” The newspaper also quoted the commander of Gracias a Dios, Lieutenant Israel Onil Sánchez, who explained that the vessel can be at sea up to 40-45 days. Meanwhile, President Juan Orlando Hernández  highlighted how the vessel can transport up to four speedboats, which will help combat drug trafficking across Honduras’ waters.

There are now five BAL-Cs in operation: Colombia operates four – two in its Pacific fleet and two for the Caribbean fleet – in addition to one for the Honduran Navy.

The Significance

The significance of the Colombia-Honduras deal should not be understated. As a general rule, Latin American or Caribbean navies acquire new naval platforms from extra-regional suppliers, be them governments (e.g. the U.S) or shipyards (e.g. Damen Group). Hence, this deal is a sort of modern milestone since it is between two regional nations with a Latin American company being the supplier. (It is worth noting that COTECMAR has previously sold riverine patrol boats to Brazil.)

The successful delivery of Gracias a Dios has encouraged COTECMAR to be more aggressive in order to acquire new foreign clients. A recent report by IHS Jane’s explains that the company is now looking at countries like Peru, the United Arab Emirates, and landlocked Paraguay as potential customers – and according to Jane’s negotiations with Lima and Asuncion are advanced. Lima’s interest in these platforms is understandable, as Peruvian ships, like the BAP Eten, were involved in support operations recently, when torrential rains affected the country’s northern regions earlier this year.

BAP Eten (La Republica)

Additionally, it will be important to monitor other Latin American shipyards, like Argentina’s Rio Santiago, Chile’s ASMAR, Ecuador’s ASTINAVE, or Peru’s SIMA as these entities are also constructing platforms for their respective navies, but could also attempt to export them. When it comes to Mexico for example, ASTIMAR has constructed 10 Tenochtitlan-class coastal patrol vessels for the Mexican Navy.

Nevertheless, this is unlikely to occur. In an interview with the author, Christian J. Ehrlich, Director of Intelligence at Riskop and Non-Resident Fellow at the Mexican Navy Institute for Strategic Research, explained that,

“Currently, there are no concrete plans to build OPVs or Coastal Patrol Vessels for any country in the region. Some years ago, some Central American Navies showed interest in acquiring the Mexican-made Oaxaca-class OPVs. But let’s be honest, given the Mexican Navy’s small budget, our shipyards can only concentrate on fulfilling the MX Navy’s operational requirements. That is certainly a shame, since the Oaxaca Class OPVs are well-proven, highly capable vessels for maritime security-oriented navies.”

It is important to mention the geopolitical ramifications of the Gracias a Dios deal. The vessel and other initiatives as part of the agreement will inevitably bring the Honduran and Colombian navies closer, and joint naval exercises will probably occur in the near future.  This is important because of one factor: Nicaragua. The Central American nation has taken Colombia to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) due to a maritime border dispute over Bogota-controlled islands and territory in the Caribbean. ICJ rulings in 2016 were generally regarded as very favorable towards Managua, but the two sides have returned to the Court for subsequent demands.

From this perspective, it makes sense that Bogota is approaching Tegucigalpa via defense-related initiatives, as this will serve to counterbalance Managua’s Caribbean ambitions. While armed conflict between Colombia and Nicaragua is extremely unlikely, Bogota can always benefit from having additional allies among states that border the Caribbean and Nicaragua itself.

Final Thoughts

It would be far-fetched to suggest that the recent Colombia-Honduras deal for a logistics vessel will dramatically change the dynamics of Latin American and Caribbean sales regarding naval platforms. Without a doubt, regional navies will continue to look to extra-regional suppliers, including more experienced shipyards, for new (or refurbished) vessels. This is particularly true for more complex platforms such as submarines (Brazil’s submarine program notwithstanding). Moreover, as Mr. Ehrlich mentions, apart from competition, the other main obstacle for these shipyards to grow is lack of political support for these entities.

With that said, the COTECMAR-FNH deal does set an important precedent, as navies with limited defense budgets in Latin America and the Caribbean may start turning to their immediate neighbors regarding the acquisition of new platforms instead of investing in more expensive assets from more distant suppliers.

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: Gracias a Dios logistics ship. (Cotecmar)