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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)

A Growing Concern: Chinese Illegal Fishing in 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

In mid-August the Ecuadorian Coast Guard detained a Chinese vessel off the Galapagos Islands, an inspection revealed the ship was transporting approximately 300 tons of fish, some of which were endangered species. This is yet another high-profile incident involving Chinese ships fishing without authorization in Latin American waters and ongoing efforts by regional naval forces to stop this crime. (This commentary follows up a previous report by the author for CIMSEC entitled “Latin American Navies Combat Illegal Fishing.”)

Ongoing Incidents

The most recent incident occurred on 13 August when an Ecuadorian Coast Guard vessel and a supporting helicopter detained the Chinese vessel Fu Yuang Yu Leng 999 within the Galapagos Islands Marine Reserve. The vessel was escorted to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, where an inspection discovered over 300 tons of a variety of fishes, particularly hammerhead and silky sharks as well as other endangered species. The vessel was a factory ship, which was fed fishes that were caught by other vessels. The country’s Ministry of Defense has stated that the Chinese fleet operating around Ecuador may number as many as 300 vessels. The incident prompted non-violent protests in front of the Chinese embassy in Quito as well as in Santa Cruz Island. At the time of this writing Ecuadorian authorities have put the crew on trial and have also sent a letter of protest to the Chinese government.

Previous to this case, the most notable illegal fishing-related incident in the region (so far) occurred in Argentina last year. In March 2016, the Argentine Coast Guard located a Chinese fleet fishing in its territorial waters by Chubut, southeast of the country. Security vessels were deployed, and the Coast Guard shot at the vessel Lu Yan Yuan Yu to prevent it from fleeing to international waters. Rather than stopping, the Chinese ship tried to ram one of the vessels.

Argentina Coast Guard footage of Chinese fishing vessel Lu Yan Yuan Yu in March 2016. 

There have been other incidents in the past couple of years involving Chinese fishing fleets. A final example occurred in 2015, when the Chilean Navy stopped a number of Chinese vessels off the Bio Bio region in Chile’s exclusive economic zone. The concern was that they were fishing for shrimp. An 11 July 2015 Navy press release explains that said vessels were inspected and no illegal cargo was found.

In December 2016, the Peruvian media reported the presence of large fleets from Asian nations (China, Korea, Taiwan). Similar articles explaining how these fleets hurt Peru’s fishing industry were also published in May to continue to raise awareness among the population. It is important to stress that apart from the 2016 incident in Argentina, there have been no other reports regarding violent maneuvers by Chinese fishing vessels when in contact with Latin American security forces (at least none that the author could verify).

The Response

Leaving aside the governmental response to these incidents, regional naval security forces now must demonstrate that they are capable of monitoring and controlling their nation’s territorial waters. For example, after the Galapagos Islands incident, the Ecuadorian Navy carried out naval exercises aimed at combating transnational maritime crimes. The 209/1300 submarine Huancavilca participated in the maneuvers, along with three coast guard vessels and a helicopter. A civilian fishing vessel and crew were also utilized as the target for said maneuvers. Days after the exercises, the Ecuadorian media reported that Huancavilca had departed for the Galapagos Islands to help with patrolling the area against illegal fishing activities.

It is also worth noting that Ecuador and other nations are obtaining new naval platforms, particularly offshore patrol vessels (OPV), to monitor their maritime territory. For example, IHS Jane’s has reported that on 31 July the Argentine government passed a decree “authorizing state credit to finance some of the major defense acquisition programs included in the 2017 budget.” The acquisitions program includes OPVs, Beechcraft T-6C+ Texan II aircraft, among others. It is unclear if the OPV acquisition was motivated by the 2016 incident, but it stands to reason that this incident provided even more evidence that the Argentine Navy requires new platforms for maritime control.

Discussion

Discussing unauthorized Chinese fishing is complicated as alarmism must be avoided. The incidents between Chinese fishing fleets and security forces in Latin American waters have been few – at least from what has been reported. And apart from the 2016 incident in Argentina, none other has been violent.

Nevertheless, there are a plethora of reports regarding Chinese fleets operating without authorization in Latin America and other parts of the world, particularly in Africa: just this past June, Senegal detained seven Chinese trawlers for illegally fishing in its waters. Moreover, it is correct to assume that these fleets will continue to attempt to operate in Latin American waters in the near future, particularly as domestic demand for maritime resources prompts them to be bolder when it comes to the areas that they travel to. It is also important to mention that not all the fish China captures are for internal consumption, as the Wilson Center’s report “Fishing for Answers” explains: “most of China’s high-value species and about half the overall catch are exported to the EU, the United States, and Japan, and the other half is brought back to China and sold domestically.” (While this article is focusing on illegal fishing by Chinese fleets, we must keep in mind how growing global demand for fish is affecting the fishing industry in general).

Thus one concern looking toward the future is whether there will be more violent confrontations between illegal fishing fleets and security forces given a growing demand for maritime resources. So far, the vessels have either attempted to flee or surrendered to authorities, but the Argentine incident raises the question: would some of these crews one day decide to fight back in order to avoid capture and protect their profit?

Finally, the possible ramifications of future incidents like this must be considered. China is a global economic force, and most nations, including developing nations such as those in Latin America, would not want to take Beijing head on. This is arguably the reason why the incidents mentioned in this article have not somehow evolved into some type of trade or diplomatic crisis. In fact, just this past March, the Argentine government signed a  memorandum of understanding with the Chinese company Ali Baba to sell products like wine, meat, and (somewhat ironically) fish. Similarly, in spite of the December 2016 reports about the Chinese fishing fleet in its territorial waters, Chinese-Peruvian trade remains strong as the latest data by the Peruvian government states that trade grew by 30 percent in the first half of 2017 compared to the same period last year.

How Ecuador reacts to this latest incident will be interesting as Quito-Beijing ties are not only strong due to commerce but also on other areas. For example, Ecuador has acquired “709 4×4 and 6×6 multipurpose trucks, 6×4 fuel and water trucks, and different types of buses in a deal reportedly worth USD81 million,” according to IHS Jane’s. On 4 September, Ecuador’s daily El Telegrafo reported that China’s Ministry of Agriculture has proposed the establishment of an “intergovernmental communication mechanism” between Quito and Beijing to “exchange information and jointly protect” maritime resources and crack down on illegal fishing activities. At the time of this writing there have been no reports about how the Ecuadorian government will respond to this proposal but, if previous incidents in other countries are a precedent, the Galapagos Islands incident will probably be minimized in order to protect Quito-Beijing partnerships in other areas.

Final Thoughts

Demographic growth and scarcer maritime resources are a catalyst for more frequent clashes at sea. In recent years there have been various reports about Chinese fishing fleets operating in international waters and also crossing into a country’s maritime territory to carry out unauthorized fishing activities. The most recent August incident off the Galapagos Islands is another example of this problem, one which has gained prominence in Latin America since the March 2016 incident in Argentina.

New platforms like OPVs will help regional navies to more efficiently patrol their maritime territory and intercept unauthorized fishing fleets in the near future; however this is just half of the equation. The second part is how Latin American governments will adapt their relations (particularly trade) with China since most violating fishing fleets appear to be Chinese. Combating illegal fishing is a complex issue, as it involves modern (and numerous) platforms for surveillance and interception, as well as a skilled judicial system to prosecute the culprits. Adding the future of a country’s relations with China will not make the problem any easier. 

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: Ecuadorian Navy photo of intercept of Chinese fishing vessel FU YUAN YU LENG 999.

Narco Submarines: A Problem That Will Not Sink

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

In the past year a number of narco submarines have been seized in several Latin American states. Narco submarines continue to be a problem as hemispheric security forces combat drug trafficking. Unfortunately for every narco sub that is seized, another is under construction. While recent successful operations should be applauded, combating narco subs needs a regional strategy of its own.

This commentary is a continuation of previous articles published by CIMSEC on this issue: “An Update on Narco Submarines and Maritime Law Enforcement Agencies’ Efforts to Thwart their Operational Effectiveness,” “Narco submarines: Drug Cartels’ Innovative Technology,” as well as the author’s “U.S. Southcom vs Caribbean Narco Pirates.” The incidents mentioned in this commentary will focus on events that have occurred over the past year. (The colloquial term “narco sub” will be utilized for these platforms, though we will later do a more thorough analysis of their characteristics.)

Recent Narco Sub Incidents

In recent months, several narco submarines have been seized in various Latin American states. For example, on 5 August, Ecuadoran marines located one in the Las Delicias area, close to the border with Colombia. For Colombia, a narco sub was seized in an operation by army and naval personnel in the San Juan and Baudó Rivers in the Choco department in late July. The platform, which was carrying approximately four tons of cocaine, was apparently manufactured by ELN rebels. The Colombian Navy explained that this was the first time a narco sub was operating in a river, and that it probably took some five to six months to be constructed. Not long after, in mid-August, the Colombian Navy located yet another narco sub, this time in the Nariño department and with the capacity to transport up to four tons of drugs. This one measured 14 meters, with a diesel motor and propellers, the Navy explained in a communiqué.

On the Ecuadorian Colombian border, the Colombian National Navy located and seized a submarine that had the capacity and autonomy to transport approximately five tons of cocaine. (Colombian National Navy photo)

Narco subs have also been located in Central America. For example, a narco sub, reportedly 16 meters in length and capable of transporting up to five tons of drugs, was found in Guatemala in mid-April. Months later, in late July, the Costa Rican Coast Guard found a similar illegal platform on a beach. Local authorities believe that the vessel, with the capacity to transport up to four tons of drugs, had a motor problem and was discarded by the crew, until it washed ashore and got stuck in the sand.

Catching Them At Sea

The aforementioned examples highlight one fact. So far, the vast majority of narco-platforms are captured in the mainland (meaning either on dry land or “docked” in some body of water), either before they depart or upon arriving to their destination.

As far as the author has been able to find, in the past couple of years, there have only been a couple of narco subs intercepted in open waters. One was in July 2015, when during a “joint operation, the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, and assets from the Customs and Border Protection Office of Air and Marine, intercepted a “narco submarine” off the coast of El Salvador,” Business Insider explains. The platform was carrying over 16,000 pounds of cocaine.

U.S. Coast Guardsmen board a narco sub as part of a drug seizure in September 2016. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

More recently, in early September 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Waesche intercepted a narco sub in the Pacific Ocean off the Central American coast. The Cutter reportedly launched two vessels and an armed helicopter in pursuit. U.S. personnel caught up with the sub, apprehended five suspects, and thwarted a scuttling attempt by pumping water out of the interior of the sub.” By preventing the sinking of the sub, the USCG seized more than 5,600 pounds of cocaine, with an estimated value of USD$73 million.

Who Finds The Narco Subs?

Nowadays, several Latin American and Caribbean navies and coast guards are undergoing a modernization process, which includes the acquisition of new platforms. For example, Colombia and Mexico are domestically manufacturing new fleets of patrol vessels. Christian Ehrlich, a director of intelligence for Riskop, a Mexican Strategic intelligence and risk control company explained to the author that  the Mexican Navy is in the process of adding Damen Sigma 10514 frigates to its fleet, “this will provide a decisive boost to Mexico’s Maritime Domain Awareness but unfortunately it will be some time before this system has an acceptable operational level” (construction for the first of the new frigates commenced in mid-August). Meanwhile The Bahamas is in the final stretch of its ambitious Sandy Bottom Project, via which it is obtaining a fleet of different patrol boats from Damen Group. Similarly, in late June IHS Jane’s reported that Louisiana-based shipbuilder Metal Shark and Damen will construct near coastal patrol vessels (NCPVs) for regional U.S. partners like “the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala.” It is worth noting that Mr. Ehrlich, remarked how Mexico possesses aircraft like CASA CN—235 and Beechcraft King Air 350ER for ISR; Colombia also possesses similar assets.

Nevertheless, in spite of more modern navies and coast guards, locating narco subs at sea continues to be a problem. In an interview with the author, Gustavo Fallas, a journalist for the Costa Rican daily La Nacion, explained that “[Costa Rica] depends on the Americans to combat [narco submarines]. In 2006 we detained a submersible with three tons [of drugs] and it was thanks to an American frigate. In 2012 we chased another one in the Caribbean, and it was also after the Americans alerted us. For those reasons it is vital to have U.S. aid to locate these platforms.” Mr. Fallas added that Costa Rica must create a shield (meaning more vessels, radars, personnel) to prevent drug traffickers from using the country as a warehouse or transit path for drugs.

Unfortunately, Randy Pestana, a policy analyst at Florida International University’s Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy, has a gloomy assessment about regional naval forces vis-à-vis narco subs. Mr. Pestana explained to the author how “relying on partner nations to stop, slow, or detain these shipments is difficult in itself as they do not have the necessary tools to do so unless provided by the U.S.” Of a similar opinion is Mr. Ehrlich, who stated to the author that “there isn’t a navy or coast guard in Central America with the [necessary platforms] to detect, follow and interdict [narco submarines].” 

In other words, Central American navies will continue to rely on the U.S. (be it SOUTCHOM or the Coast Guard) to monitor maritime areas in order to combat, among other threats, narco submarines. This is problematic, since, as Mr. Pestana remarked, even U.S. security agencies have limits to their abilities, particularly nowadays when the U.S. has other security operations and geopolitical concerns around the globe. Furthermore, there is the problematic and ever-present red tape, namely, “the inability of the U.S. to respond to an identified narco submarine without permission from higher leadership. This often led to the narco submarine to either get away, or move out of the U.S. areas of operation,” the FIU expert explained.

How To Find A Narco Sub

Locating a narco submarine at sea is a tricky business. In an interview with the author, Mario Pedreros, a retired Chilean Naval officer and an expert in airborne maritime patrol, provided an excellent analysis on this problem.

As previously mentioned, the term narco submarine is commonly utilized for these vessels, however they are not really submarines. As Mr. Pedreros explains, these platforms are semi-submersibles, meaning that they cannot go completely underwater, and if they can do so, it is for brief periods of time. (“Narco submarine” is still a catchier name than “narco-semi-submersible” though). However, even if these vessels cannot fully dive, they are nonetheless difficult to locate at sea. Mr. Pedreros explained how some of these platforms have electronic motors, which makes them more silent than diesel engines, making them harder to find with passive sonar. “When it comes to semi-submersibles, utilizing  sonar is not very efficient,” Mr. Pedreros concludes. Adding to the problem is that the vessel is pretty small, and “once at sea, the submersibles have 20 percent of their structure above the surface,” making them hard to pinpoint by radar.

A narco submarine found by the Costan Rican Coast Guard (MSP)

Mr. Pedreros recommended maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) as an ideal tool to combat narco submarines at sea, as these aircraft possess superior sensors and radars for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Obviously, locating the target is only part of the solution, because then it has to be intercepted. “The aircraft must work with together with a vessel to capture the submersible. In other words, there are three components in this process: an aircraft (MPA), a vessel, and a light boat that can board the submersible and detain the crew,” the retired Chilean Naval officer explained. As previously discussed, various Latin American and Caribbean navies are acquiring OPVs with attached light boats, while Colombia and Mexico have platforms for maritime patrol, fulfilling the requirements by Mr. Pedreros; what is needed is greater multinational support, apart from additional platforms. 

The Future of the Narco Sub

It would be naïve to assume that recent successful operations by regional security forces will convince drug traffickers to stop investing in narco submarines. There is simply too much money to be made in drugs, and the subs cost only around USD$1 million to manufacture. Even if five narco subs are stopped, drug traffickers only need one or two successful deliveries to make up for their losses.

Moreover, recently seized narco subs show they are becoming more technologically advanced, including bigger in size so they can transport greater quantities of contraband. The narco sub seized in mid-July in Choco had space for a crew of four, measured 9 meters in length by 4 wide, had radars, stabilizers, ballast weights and was powered by over 100 batteries, according to the Colombian daily El Colombiano.

Indeed, the (brief) history of narco subs shows a trend towards modernization, particularly as drug lords are always looking for new methods to transport drugs, from Cessna aircraft and go-fast boats during the Pablo Escobar era to drones and narco subs nowadays (though of course, narcos continue to utilize the former as well). Mr. Pestana drives this home remarking how “top drug traffickers are relatively smart and have a good grasp on technology and history.” Moreover, the attractive wages narco-organizations can afford to pay means that they can hire “former engineers or other trade workers,” as Mr. Pestana explains, to continuously improve previous designs.

Final Thoughts

From a scholarly point of view, the appearance of the narco sub is a fascinating development as it highlights drug traffickers’ ingenuity as they continuously think of new ways of transporting their contraband. Unfortunately, this represents an ongoing problem for regional security forces, as new narco subs become more technologically advanced. Unfortunately, even though many narco subs have been stopped, it only takes one successful trip to make a large profit.

In spite of several successful operations, combating narco submarines requires both a multiagency and multinational strategy of its own. Mr. Ehlrich stresses the necessity to disrupt the construction of these platforms (which requires cooperation between police and military units). As for when narco submarines are at sea, the Greater Central American region requires united front, such as a regional anti-narco submarine task force. By combining resources, in which member states can contribute platforms to create the three-platform interception teams that Mr. Pedreros described, this unit would ideally be more successful at locating narco subs at sea, and not just in inland waterways. This will decrease the region’s dependency on the U.S., which Mr. Pestana and Mr. Fallas highlighted.

Unfortunately, narco submarines are a problem that will not sink, hence new strategies are needed in order to combat them more efficiently.

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 author would like to thank the various experts that contributed to this commentary:

Christian J. Ehrlich, Director of Intelligence, Riskop; External Analyst, Mexican Navy

Gustavo Fallas, Journalist, La Nacion (Costa Rica)

Mario Pedreros, a retired Chilean Navy Officer, expert in aero-maritime patrol. He participated as a Tactical Coordinator Officer (TACCO) in different missions overseas onboard Chilean Navy P-3 Orion aircrafts. Missions include Anti Submarine Warfare, Anti Surface Warfare, Anti Terrorism missions and Search and Rescue operations. He is currently based in Washington, DC. doing consulting for several Defense and Security companies.

Randy Pestana, Policy Analyst, Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy, Florida International University

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: Members of the Colombian Navy stand guard on a seized submarine built by drug smugglers in a makeshift shipyard in Timbiqui, Cauca department. Colombian authorities said the submersible craft was to be used to transport 8 tons of cocaine into Mexico. (REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga)