Tag Archives: Undersea

Institute for Future Warfare Studies Wants Your Writing on Seabed Warfare Concepts

By Bill Glenney

Articles Due: March 5, 2018
Week Dates: March 12–March 16, 2018

Article Length: 1000-3000 Words
Submit to: Nextwar@cimsec.org

The U.S. Naval War College’s Institute for Future Warfare Studies is partnering with CIMSEC to solicit articles putting forth concepts for warfare on and from the seabed as part of the larger maritime battle.

While the broad matter of economics and sea lines of communications should drive a national and Navy interest in securing the seabed, the transformative nature of warfare on and from the seabed should capture the imagination and be of concern to the Navy.

Systems operating from the ocean seabed – to include unmanned systems, mini-submersibles, smart mines, special forces, and others – will one day be deployed against surface, air, and land systems and not just traditional undersea forces – adding yet another dimension to cross- or multi-domain warfare. Navies will be forced to consider not only the role of the seabed and undersea forces in seabed combat, but also how effects from the seabed can shape the behavior of forces on the surface, in the air, and on land.

At its heart, the assumption of U. S. undersea supremacy based on owning the top 1,000 feet of the water column will become invalid, ineffective, and wrong, just as aviators once assumed air supremacy was assured from owning airspace above 30,000 feet. Similarly, the Submarine Force will have to abandon its traditional assumptions about how operating within the undersea domain enhances survivability. Seabed threats may mean the U.S. Navy could have to fight its way out of CONUS home waters before it could project power abroad, and allow adversaries to persistently threaten the U.S. Navy’s flanks and rear support areas. Warfare under the sea may come to look more like tunnel warfare of World War One or suppression of enemy air defenses in Syria than ASW of the Cold War.

The seabed has already long suffered from neglect by the U. S. Navy. For example, modern sea mines can already project power from the seabed with little to no warning, but since the end of the Cold War the Navy and the Submarine Force “whistled past the graveyard” and routinely dismissed the threat from sea mines out of hand. This neglect was reflected in continual lack of substantive funding related to USN mine warfare capabilities and associated tactical development. This trend continued even as more U.S. warships were sunk or damaged in the aftermath of WWII by sea mines than by any other weapon while potential adversaries have tens of thousands of mines. Weapons on the seabed exacerbate the problem even more.

Illustration of how a CAPTOR smart mine functions. (via U.S. Militaria forum)

Nations and commercial entities can be expected to routinely map seabed terrain to support their interests and activities. Available seafloor bathymetry may become comparable to a typical topographic map available in hard copy. This level of detail will facilitate planning for and the placement of systems on the ocean floor, especially with a focus on ensuring they could not be readily detected or attacked. Weapons and supplies could be hidden in seabed caves, trenches, and other geographical features within the complicated seabed landscape.

The threat posed by systems operating from this part of the maritime environment will only grow with technological change and proliferation. The impending proliferation of commercially-developed undersea and seabed systems will make these systems readily available to anyone with even a modest amount of funding. These systems had long ago departed being a resource only for a rich nation-state or billionaires intent on finding the resting place of sunken ships.

Authors are invited to write on the tactical and operational challenges, and potential solutions, that may emerge as maritime warfare expands onto the seabed. How can the Navy’s future force adapt to this coming reality? Authors should send their submissions to Nextwar@cimsec.org.

Professor William G. Glenney, IV, is a researcher in the Institute for Future Warfare Studies at the U. S. Naval War College.

The views presented here are personal and do not reflect official positions of the Naval War College, DON or DOD.

Featured Image: Undersea submersible (Brian Skerry, National Geographic Creative)

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)

The Battle of Locust Point: An Oral History of the First Autonomous Combat Engagement

Fiction Topic Week

By David R. Strachan

TOP SECRET/NOFORN

The following classified interview is being conducted per the joint NHHC/USNI Oral History Project on Autonomous Warfare. This is the first of an eight-part series with Admiral Jeremy B. Lacy, USN (Ret), considered by many to be the father of autonomous undersea warfare, where we discuss the development of the Atom-class microsubmarine, and its role in the first combat engagement of the autonomous era, the Battle of Locust Point.

November 17, 2033

Annapolis, Maryland

Interviewer: Lt. Cmdr. Hailey J. Dowd, USN


The last twenty-five years have witnessed extraordinary developments in naval warfare. Ever smaller, smarter, more lethal vehicles have revolutionized the way navies fight, and the way nations project power beyond their borders. Historians agree that the genesis of this “micronaval revolution” can be traced to the year 2016, when a disabled Russian Istina-class microsubmarine was recovered off the coast of Cape Charles, Virginia. The Chesapeake Bay Incident, as it became known, was a harbinger of things to come, for just ten weeks later, as crowds descended on Baltimore Harbor for Fleet Week and the commissioning of the U.S. Navy’s newest destroyer, USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), Russian and U.S. microsubmarines would square off just beneath the surface in what would be the first combat engagement of the autonomous era, the Battle of Locust Point.

Historians also agree that the micronaval revolution can be traced to a single individual, an individual whose name, like Hyman Rickover, is virtually synonymous with the bold thinking that has come to define the modern U.S. Navy.

Admiral Jeremy Baynes Lacy, USN (ret.) graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1989, earning a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. He served at sea aboard the USS Pennsylvania (SSBN 735), USS Henry M. Jackson (SSBN 730), USS Springfield (SSN 761), and the USS Pogy (SSN 647), deploying to the North Atlantic, Arctic, and Western Pacific, as well as conducting numerous strategic patrols. Ashore, Lacy earned a Masters Degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in Naval/Mechanical Engineering, and served as Major Program Manager for Undersea Project 7, the Atom-class microsubmarine program. Following his work on the Atom-class, he established and commanded Strikepod Group (COMPODGRU) 1, eventually serving as Commander, Strikepod Forces, Atlantic (COMPODLANT). His personal decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit (three awards), the Meritorious Service Medal (two awards), the Joint Service Commendation Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal (five awards), and Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal (two awards), in addition to numerous unit and campaign awards.

Admiral Lacy is currently enjoying his “retirement” as the Corbin A. McNeill Endowed Chair in Naval Engineering at the United States Naval Academy. He was interviewed at his home in Annapolis, Maryland.

Would you tell us a little of your background? How did you end up in the Navy?

I was born and raised in the rural New Jersey hamlet of Port Murray, nestled among cornfields and cow pastures many people can’t believe exist the Garden State. My mother was a secretary at the local elementary school, and my father managed a printing plant just outside New York City. He grew up dirt poor on a farm in New Hampshire without a whole lot of options, so he enlisted in the Navy the day after he graduated from high school. After basic, he ended up in crypto school in California, then a Naval Security Group detachment in Turkey where he eavesdropped on Soviet communications. When I was little he used to make these veiled references here and there to his time in the service, but he never elaborated on anything. He took his secrecy oath very seriously, and it wasn’t until the mid 80s, when I was a curious teenager, that he felt comfortable opening up about what he did. I was totally captivated by the stories he would tell, and the meaning that the work gave him. As luck would have it, I was a pretty good student, and managed to get accepted to the Academy. Fast forward four years and I’ve got a degree in mechanical engineering, and five years of submarine service waiting for me.

Why did you choose submarines?

Never in a million years did I expect to end up choosing submarines. It was the time of Top Gun, and boy I was gonna fly jets! But during my summer service orientation I went for a cruise on the Nebraska, and that was it. I was hooked, and fifteen months later I’m on the Pennsylvania for my junior tour.

Would you say it was the submarine service that spurred your interest in unmanned vehicles?

Oh, definitely. When I was on the Pogy we worked with some very early prototypes sent up from [Naval Undersea Warfare Center] Newport for arctic testing. Nothing too sexy – ocean survey, bathymetry. But I guess at that time I was intrigued with the idea, and started imagining the possibilities, the implications. What if these things could think for themselves? What if they were weaponized?  And what if the bad guys had them? After my tour on Pogy, I ended up at the Naval Postgraduate School working on my masters, and actually wrote my thesis on UUVs – a survey of current architecture, an examination of future technologies and how these could be leveraged for unmanned systems, and how UUVs could be integrated into fleet operations.

Legend has it DOD wanted to classify it.

[Laughs] Well, not really. It was nothing more than a skillful integration of open sources, some analysis, and extrapolation. It did manage to attract some interest, though.

From ONR? DARPA?

Well, actually it was the folks at Newport who reached out to me initially. My advisor at NPS was friendly with the CO there, and at the time – around early 1999 – they were working with APL, SPAWAR, and some other folks on crafting the Navy’s UUV master plan. So they called me up, asked if I’d like to come aboard, and next thing I know I’m on a plane to Rhode Island.

What was your contribution to the 2000 UUV Master Plan?

Well, by the time I entered on duty, the bulk of the heavy lifting was pretty much complete. But I did manage to contribute some perspective on the vision, CONOPS (especially in ASW), as well as technology and engineering issues. But where I think I added the most value was regarding the feasibility of the SWARM [Shallow Water Autonomous Reconnaissance Modules] concept – the idea of utilizing large numbers of small AUVs to create a dynamic, autonomous sensor grid for wide area mine countermeasures.

Was the SWARM concept a precursor to the Strikepod?

Conceptually, yes. It was an early articulation of an undersea battle group, the idea of numerous autonomous vehicles cooperating together to complete a mission. But while the idea was entirely feasible, I felt that SWARM was rather narrow in its scope. As an MCM platform, I suppose it made sense, with scores of small, relatively inexpensive nodes spread across hundreds of square miles, air dropped from B-2s or Hornets. But what we needed was an entirely new class of vehicle that was flexible, adaptive, and capable of carrying out multiple missions, whether in networks of two or two thousand. So, then, I guess you could say that SWARM inspired both Strikepods and the Atom-class submarine, but for different reasons.

Can you talk about how the Atom-class program originated, and how the Strikepod concept evolved?

I’d been having discussions with some of the Newport and MIT folks while working on the Master Plan, and we were all pretty much in agreement on the core elements of a UUV pod structure – connectivity, redundancy and expendability. We were also in agreement that small is beautiful, if you will, but all of the work on miniaturization was being done in the universities. Long story short, not only did ONR find the funding, but agreed to bring the university people on board, and next thing we have a lovely, windowless compartment in the basement of the Navy Lab. And we had a nice, nondescript name: Undersea Project 7.

It was an exciting time, and it was a genuine privilege working with some of the brightest minds around, people who could have easily been making five times their salaries at Google, or JP Morgan. 

The technology was complex, and the work could be pretty tedious. Lots of highs and lows – two steps forward one step back. For some of the top brass it was hard to justify the expense, pouring all that money into a system that seemed unnecessarily complicated, and, for them, pure science fiction. Do we really need roaming schools of killer fish? Don’t forget, these were guys who came from the era of SOSUS. But that’s what we were offering – and more. A smart SOSUS that could be deployed anywhere, at any time.

We envisioned three variants – one for command & control, or what we called the Rogue, one for navigation and communications, which we called the Relay, and a third that could physically attach itself to vessels, mines, infrastructure. This we called the Remora. Together they could be organized in networks of any size, undersea strike groups capable of communicating with each other and, via the Relay, surface assets and ashore bases.

The Atom-class was under development for nearly fifteen years. Were you at all aware of what was happening with adversary developments, and did that play a role in the design?

Absolutely, and somewhat.  Over time, I became increasingly involved with the intelligence side of things – collection guidance, and analysis. There came a point where I was ping-ponging pretty regularly between Carderock and Suitland, especially by the late 2000s when we were really stepping up our efforts. We were well aware of Chinese interest in unmanned systems, and around 2010 we started receiving reports about the Shāyú program. We were also keeping close tabs on some tech transfer between North Korea and Iran, something reminiscent of their Yono and Ghadir cooperation. There was a real sense of urgency, that we needed to be out-innovating and out-classing our adversaries if we were going to stay ahead of the curve. But we believed strongly in the Atom and Strikepods, and while it was important to know what the other guys were up to, we didn’t let it distract us from our own vision.

The most intriguing stuff was the HUMINT coming out of Rubin [Central Design Bureau for Marine Engineering] – concerning a Project S3, or “Istina” – references to unmanned systems, miniaturization, and a breakthrough in energy production. And then there were reports of Russian vessels showing up unexpectedly during our boomer patrols. They seemed to just know where we were. The counterintelligence guys were in overdrive – this was eerily familiar to the red flag that plagued Richard Haver before the Walker ring was exposed. So we couldn’t just stand there and scratch our heads. But everything checked out internally. So, if there was no security breach, then, how could they know?

So, I started compiling data, and mapped it all out. CIA and DIA both believed it could be evidence of a non-acoustic sensor of some kind, and while this was certainly plausible, the evidence was mostly hearsay. We had imagery of SOKS sensors, and journal articles, and public statements by high ranking officials, but no hard data to substantiate the existence of a viable, working platform. We were, however, receiving quality product on the Istina program that suggested the Russians had developed some kind of miniaturized naval platform capable of lurking silently off Groton or King’s Bay, then trailing our boats to expose their positions to the Russian Fleet.

But you couldn’t sell it?

[Laughs] Well, no, which, admittedly, was pretty frustrating. But something that gets lost in all the scandals and the slanted reporting is the commitment to analytic rigor that permeates the intelligence community. These folks understand that their work has a direct impact not only on U.S. policy, but ultimately on human lives. The difference between right and wrong can mean the difference between life and death, and they carry that burden every day. So, no, I couldn’t sell it. And it was back to the drawing board.

And then Cape Charles happened.

And then Cape Charles happened.

Can you tell us about that day?

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Saturday morning, one of those heavy, dewy August mornings in D.C. I was out getting in my run before the heat of the day, when I get a call from Chandra [Reddy, the ONI liaison for Undersea Project 7]. He tells me I need to come in to the office. We were working weekends pretty regularly, but I’d blocked out that day for a round of golf with my dad. I kindly remind him of this, and all he says is, “Jay – we’ve got something.” An hour later I’m on an SH-60 out of Andrews with Chandra and four engineers from S&T, tracking the Potomac out to the Bay. 

They briefed me enroute. Apparently the Coast Guard in Cape Charles, Virginia got a call around 7:30 that morning from a fisherman about a mile off the coast who said he came across something that “looked military.” They send out an RB-M, and bring back what they believe is a U.S. Navy prototype submersible. They phone it in, and ninety minutes later we’re putting down on a grassy airfield in the middle of nowhere, where we’re greeted by an earnest seaman recruit who proceeds to leadfoot it all the way to the station.

It was being kept in a back room, sitting on a table under a blue tarp. When I first saw it, I thought it was just a radio-controlled sub, like someone’s weekend garage project had gone astray. It was basically a miniaturized Oscar II, maybe six or seven feet long, which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising, since the Oscar was built for capacity, and why go to the trouble of designing and developing a whole new hull form when you can just miniaturize one that’s already in the inventory? 

We didn’t know how long it had been disabled, or if the Russians were even aware. We did know that the [Vishnya-class intelligence ship] Leonov had been lurking offshore, and there were a couple of fishing boats we were keeping an eye on near Norfolk, but for all we knew the handlers were right nearby, somewhere on shore. We had to assume they would come looking, so we had to act quickly.

We cracked it open and took a look right there on the table. The guys from S&T were like pathologists, very careful and thorough. One of them had a video camera, which I eventually realized was patched in to the White House Situation Room. 

I don’t think I need to tell you that the intelligence value was immeasurable, a holy grail. It confirmed, of course, what I’d been speculating all along, but it also showed us just how far along the Russians were. The propulsion system alone was a quantum leap for them, and was very similar to what we had been developing for the Atom.

Too similar?

I’d say strikingly similar. Maybe alarmingly so. But there was so much information floating around in the public domain – academia, scientific journals – so much private sector R&D going on, the design could have originated anywhere. For sure there was plenty for the counterintelligence guys to lose sleep over, but at that moment we had bigger fish to fry.

Did you bring it back to Washington for further analysis?

Well, actually, no.

You see, during the autopsy, one of the tech guys notices something – a small explosive charge right against the hull, wired to the CPU. The damn thing had an autodestruct! It was right out of Mission Impossible, but it obviously had failed to activate. We’d been toying with just such an idea for the Atom-class – a small blast to punch a hole in the hull and allow it to disappear into the depths, then ping like a black box for eventual retrieval.

Chandra’s on the secure phone, presumably with the Situation Room, when he turns to me, pointing at the Istina. “They want us to blow it,” he says. “They want us to put it back.” Immediately I think – are they crazy? This is the biggest intelligence haul since K-129, and they want to just dump it?  But then I realize – of course!  The Bay is shallow enough that if the Russians come calling, they will expect to find it, and if they can’t, they’ll have to assume we did. We needed them to believe we were clueless, so we had to let them find it. That way they’d never know what we knew.

So we closed it up, drove it back out into the Bay, and scuttled it.

Was it then that the President authorized Operation Robust Probe?

The biggest question on everyone’s mind was: Is this an isolated penetration, or is it part of a larger operation? Prudence required that we take action to sanitize the Bay, so yes, Robust Probe was ordered, and the Navy immediately mobilized.

But as urgent as the situation was, there was also a need for discretion. We couldn’t exactly fill the Chesapeake Bay with destroyers. Even an increased presence of Coast Guard or small patrol craft would likely not go unnoticed, at least by the Russians. So, within hours the Navy had cobbled together a flotilla of private watercraft manned by cleared contractors and sailors in civies. They fanned out across the Bay, banging away with dipping sonar, fish finders, and whatever they could use.

Fortunately, we’d been putting Alpha, the first operational Strikepod, through its paces, and had been having a lot of success. So we fast-tracked sea trials, put a crew together, rigged up a mobile command post – the very first Strikepod Command – in what looks like a plain T.V. news van, and we’re in business. 

Within twenty-four hours Alpha had detected another Istina lurking just off Thomas Point Light. It was an odd mixture jubilation – knowing that the Atom-class was a success – and dread, the weight of knowing of what was at hand, that the Russians had not only designed, developed and deployed a sophisticated micro AUV, but they were using it to brazenly violate our territorial waters.

Was there any other reaction from the White House?

The President immediately convened the National Security Council, and, yes, yours truly was ordered to attend and provide the briefing. He was not happy. How did we not see this coming? I explained how we were aware of Russian efforts, but that our coverage had been spotty. And there were no indications that the Russians were on the brink of deploying a new vehicle to the fleet, much less inserting it into U.S. territorial waters. 

I remember how surreal it felt, sitting there in the Situation Room, the looks on the faces around me. 

Fear?

Not fear. More like a mixture of deep concern and disbelief as if no one could wrap his head around the fact that this was actually happening. And I think everyone in that room knew that things were about to change, that all of our theorizing, prognosticating, and preparing for the future of naval warfare was coming to a head. The future had arrived, right in our back yard. 

The prevailing opinion in the room was that we should move immediately to destroy it and contact the Russian government. The guys from CIA made a compelling argument for restraint – one with which I concurred – that this was more an opportunity than a threat. There was no reason to believe this was Russia’s opening move against the United States, and that if anything it was the latest example of resurgent Russian bravado and Putin’s longing for the Cold War days. This was an opportunity to gather as much intelligence as possible on a new foreign weapons platform. But there was also concern that, if weaponized, the Istinas could be used to stage a terror attack and sow further insecurity and political unrest in the United States. In the end, though, we managed to convince the President to hold off, but if at any point it was determined that there existed a threat to life or property, we would have to destroy it.

Did you personally have any theories as to its intentions?

Not many. There was Aberdeen [Proving Ground]. Theoretically an Istina could get in close enough to extract some SIGINT or MASINT, depending on the vehicle’s sensor capabilities. But who really knew? Maybe the Russians were just interested in ship spotting, or counting crabs.

And then it just kind of hit me. It was September – the following month was Fleet Week in Baltimore. The Navy would be showcasing its wares –warships, the Blues – which normally wouldn’t be such a big deal, except there was something else that year.

Zumwalt? 

Exactly. Zumwalt was on the agenda that year for commissioning. She’d be sailing up the Bay, and then docked for several days at Locust Point. We weren’t concerned with an Istina attacking Zumwalt, per se, but we knew that there was much to be had intelligence-wise. And while we had no desire to enable a Russian intelligence operation, we also wanted to collect as much as possible of our own.

When we examined the Istina in Cape Charles, we didn’t discover a warhead of any kind, so we assumed any others wouldn’t be weaponized either. And even if they were, it was unlikely that a single Istina could inflict any meaningful damage on an armored warship, unless the Russians had managed to develop a super compact, high yielding explosive, but there was no intelligence indicating such. Perhaps a group of Istinas detonating simultaneously could cause a problem, enough to raise some eyebrows or even provoke a crisis, but it would take dozens to equal the yield of even a single torpedo.

It was a delicate, rapidly unfolding situation that was unlike anything we’d ever experienced in the modern era. Of course, we’d ventured into Soviet waters in manned submarines during the Cold War, at great risk to both human life and the delicate balance that defined the Cold War. But had Parche or Halibut been detected or attacked and sunk during Ivy Bells, it would have provoked a political crisis that may well have triggered World War III. Were the stakes just as high now? It was anyone’s guess.

Were you able to deploy additional Strikepods?

Yes. Alpha had been working like a charm, but then abruptly it loses contact with the Istina as it moves under a passing tanker, which was of course disappointing, but not entirely unexpected. In the meantime, we’d deployed two more six-ship Strikepods – Beta to cover the central Bay, and Gamma the southern region. It was a lot of territory to cover, but that constituted the sum total of our Atom-class fleet at the time. There were eight currently in various stages of production, but it would be at least a day or two before we could deploy them.

Pretty soon we get word that Gamma has detected something down near Bloodworth Island.  At first we figured we’d reacquired the original, but an analysis of the acoustic data revealed that it was actually a new vehicle. It was alarming, for sure, knowing that there were now at least two Russian microsubmarines lurking in the Chesapeake Bay.

We tracked it for about two days, and then Beta manages to reacquire Istina number one. About twelve hours later, Alpha detects not one, but two more right at the mouth of the Patapsco River. That’s when everyone’s hackles went up. This was no longer a counterintelligence operation. 

Operation Robust Probe becomes Robust Purge?

Correct. Once we realized that we were dealing with at least four Istinas in the Bay, and they were lingering in Zumwalt’s path, the time for just being sneaky was over. We needed to at the very least disrupt, if not outright destroy them. 

By now the eight new Atoms have come off the line, so we fit them each with a makeshift warhead of C4, designate them Remoras, and deploy them immediately – four for Alpha, which was now tracking two separate targets, and two each for Beta and Gamma. They would only be employed if we felt that there was an immediate threat to life or property.

In the meantime, Zumwalt, Leyte Gulf, and Jason Dunham, and the other ships arrive, and as they transit the Bay, the Istinas take up position about 500 meters astern. Once the ships turn into the Patapsco, though, they back off and assume a position just outside the mouth of the river. They linger there for about twelve hours, until we get a burst from Alpha: One of the Istinas is headed up river.

So now we have a decision to make. Alpha is tracking two separate vehicles. Do we order Alpha to pursue, and break off contact with one of them? Turns out Sea Rays and Boston Whalers aren’t particularly effective ASW platforms, and Strikepods Beta and Gamma were both busy with their own tracks, well to the south, too far away to assist Alpha in time.

Then one of our brilliant engineers suggests splitting Alpha pod. We could repurpose one of the Remoras as a Rogue, and assign it an armed Remora and a Relay for coms. The engineers get on it, and in about fifteen minutes a small splinter pod breaks off and starts trailing the Istina up the Patapsco.  Things get increasingly tense as it nears the Key Bridge, and we decide that if the Istina begins moving toward the bridge supports, we would have no choice but to destroy it.

After a few anxious moments it passes under the bridge without incident, and continues on a path toward Locust Point, where the warships are docked. Word comes down from the Sit Room: The Istinas now present a clear and present danger, so immediately we order the splinter pod to attack. A minute later a Remora detonates about five meters below the surface, and we watch as it and the Istina disappear from the tactical display. Beta and Gamma attack as well, sending their respective contacts, as well as two Remoras, to the bottom of the Bay.

And just like that it was over?

It was over.

The Strikepods and surface vessels continued to prosecute Robust Purge until Zumwalt and the other ships made it safely to the Atlantic. By all accounts, Baltimore Fleet Week, including the commissioning of the Navy’s newest destroyer, came off without a hitch. No one had any idea that the first decisive battle of a new era in naval warfare had just occurred within throwing distance of Fort McHenry.

What were the takeaways?

Well, we had terabytes of data to analyze, of course, but perhaps even more importantly, there were myriad political, security, and even philosophical questions to consider. What exactly were AUVs? Were they vessels? Weapons? In a way they were like spies, but rather than round them up and expel them, or put them in jail, we’d have to disrupt them, or even kill them.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway, though, was the realization that a new form of conflict was dawning. Submarines had of course always been characterized by stealth and secrecy, and had engaged in high risk cat-and-mouse games in order to stay ahead of the adversary. But now that submarines were unmanned, and, like their stealthy manned cousins, operated far from the prying eyes of the public, a kind of limited war was now possible, a war with little or no risk of escalation, or political fallout, and most importantly, no loss of human life. A war characterized by secrecy, anonymity, and non-attribution.

In other words, as we sit here today in my living room, in the year 2033, with the benefit of hindsight, our vision of AUVs as merely an extension of the Fleet’s eyes and ears was really rather primitive.

And only the beginning of the story.

[End Part I]

David R. Strachan is a writer living in Silver Spring, MD. His website, Strikepod Systems, explores the emergence of unmanned undersea warfare via real-time speculative fiction. Contact him at strikepod.systems@gmail.com.

Featured Image: Arctic Sub Base by Jon Gibbons (via Deviant Art)