Self-Propelled Semi-Submersibles

They’re used to smuggle drugs into the U.S.

Since the vessels have a low profile—the hulls only rise about a foot above the waterline—they are hard to see from a distance and produce a small radar signature. U.S. counterdrug officials estimate that SPSS are responsible for 32% of all cocaine movement in the transit zone.

But let’s not forget the terrorism angle:

“What worries me [about the SPSS] is if you can move that much cocaine, what else can you put in that semi-submersible. Can you put a weapon of mass destruction in it?” Navy Adm. Jim Stavridis, Commander, U.S. Southern Command

Posted on February 10, 2009 at 12:59 PM44 Comments


RH February 10, 2009 1:10 PM

This reminds me of biology. The harder you squeeze, the more you don’t like the results.

We squeeze on the drug industry, and they mutate into something which is then used by terrorists?

While I agree that the added “terroism angle” is painful and unnecessary, its funny to see how it could not only work, but that we forced them to invent it for something completly unrelated

Johannes Berg February 10, 2009 1:23 PM

But but … drug dealers are terrorists too, didn’t you know:

“The vessels are designed and built by narco-terrorists in Colombia to smuggle large volumes of cocaine over long distances in a manner that is difficult to detect.”

Skorj February 10, 2009 1:30 PM

For once I actually agree with the “terrorism angle”. If there exists a “normal” illicit way to move people into the country that works reliably, that’s part of the country’s “attack surface”. The question is not “is this a threat” — of course it is — but “how large a threat”.

Of course, there are two ways to close such holes. (1) Surveil our border at “wartime” levels: with enough expense we could reliably find anything except nuclear submarines. Clearly that’s an absurd expense if the threat is terrorism. (2) Remove the incentive for the smugglers to get clever: legalize whatever’s being smuggled, or make a policy of stopping only the really stupid smugglers, and police the contraband further up the chain. Again, a trade off to get better security that many would oppose.

Either direction we went would lessen the importance of the Coast Guard, so presumably the Coast Guard would oppose any such change (as all government agencies ultimately prioritize growth).

mcb February 10, 2009 1:34 PM

The narcotraffickerpharmaterrorists have reinvented the torpedo, a device which has been killing people by the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, since 1914. Admiral Jim might have known that his very own navy used to put fission bombs in theirs…

Baron Dave Romm February 10, 2009 1:48 PM

Ah, we’re back full circle. A variant of SPSS was used in the attack on Pearl Harbor. I’m sure today’s terrorists aren’t as clever as today’s drug smugglers, but they don’t have to be.

Kurt February 10, 2009 2:06 PM

There’s a reason we haven’t seen a lot of these with terroristic weapons: economics.

A boatload of cocaine is highly profitable. A boatload of WMDs is not.

The estimated cost on one of these is $2 million. If some terrorist organization has $2M kicking about, they are better off (from their point of view) spending it on other stuff, like vans full of fertilizer or box cutters and flying lessons.

Or save money and just using a shipping container. Back in the 1990s, United States Customs Service estimated that a third to a half of all the cocaine used by Americans enters that way; I’m not sure on current statistics.

Phillip February 10, 2009 2:34 PM

Maybe the terrorist could sneak in a Tsar Bomba? We could include that in the next movie plot threat.

derf February 10, 2009 2:43 PM

Why worry about a submarine? That’s much more sophisticated then say firing a nuclear tipped scud from an offshore container ship or just riding a small boat into a populated location and setting off your nuke on the bow.

bob February 10, 2009 2:44 PM

I dont understand why we have not heard of “real” submarines (for example a “retired” Russian diesel submarine) being caught in the service of drug smugglers. Seems like sneaking in on battery at 3 knots and then launching a drug-filled wire-guided torpedo several miles up an inland waterway would be ideal for the mission. Unless they are so extremely successful that none have been caught?

Paul February 10, 2009 2:58 PM

Max: Look at the adjacent CC cutter, it has rust too and is obviously in use. I doubt drug smugglers carry a lot of extra deck hands just to keep up the paint, those who have been on ship know it’s a full time job.

Paul February 10, 2009 3:01 PM

Sorry Max – fingers faster than the eyes, you noted it had been in use for some time-I read had not been in… But it doesn’t take all that long for rust to start in.

Fred P February 10, 2009 3:16 PM

Yes; we should all fear the application of 16th century technology in modern-day smuggling operations ;-p. Next they’ll realize that ultralights are hard to track or detect.

Jason February 10, 2009 3:18 PM

Re catching them: it’s true that “wartime” coastal surveillance would be too expensive, but we really don’t need to go that far. We’ve spent 50 years trying to detect Russian subs: by comparison, these things are pathetically easy to spot. All we need is some good communcation between various military reconnaisance assets and the Coast Guard. I’m assuming the military still runs hydrophone arrays to detect subs: if so, track ’em with passive sonar, use satellite resources to image suspicious targets, and send in the Coast Guard to interdict. It’ll be good practice for existing military operations.

Of course, it won’t be long before the drug lords work up the engineering for true submarines: once that happens, the job gets really tough.

Interesting how much these jobbies look like the USS Monitor. It only took 10-20 years at the end of the 19th centuy for western militaries to move from semi-subs to true submarines…

Fred P February 10, 2009 3:25 PM

That’s 18th century; not 16th century, although that version didn’t have a motor (nor was the Turtle very useful).

Jason February 10, 2009 3:34 PM

“That’s 18th century; not 16th century”
swap 16 for 18, I assume….

And yeah, I know human-powered subs go way back, but mechanical propulsion is the boundary line between “amusing toy” and “effective tool”, both for blowing up ships and for smuggling drugs.

Anyway, the truly submersible narco-sub. It’s gonna be a thing, just watch.

Clive Robinson February 10, 2009 5:31 PM

So these manded vessels cost 2million USD…

Hmm me thinks that makes them more like Appolo than Voyager.

Taking the human out, and putting a few hundred dollars of fairly standard marine auto nav in would make the vessal a lot smaller.

You could also make it duck and dive. That is it travels mainly under water (say 40ft down) and comes occasionaly to the surface to get a sat nav fix.

It is the sort of engineering you might expect a graduate to be capable of.

And yes I have thought of a couple of ways of doing the retrieval (hint both the Germans and Allies developed systems to do what is required during the second world war).

ctmf February 10, 2009 5:32 PM

I remember some years back a discovery of some plot for a drug organization to buy a real submarine. It was some sort of deal with a Russian mafia guy who had somehow gotten an old diesel boat from the Russian navy.

Anyhow, the plan was, they were going to smuggle drugs into the U.S. on the West coast.

The West coast. Past a U.S. Navy submarine base in San Diego, through the operating areas of actual, trained, professional submariners. Being a submariner myself, I don’t think that was a very wise plan. These things are difficult to see, with your eyeballs, maybe, but trivial to detect for a real ASW asset.

Put a U.S. Navy submarine on counter-narcotics ops on each coast. I wouldn’t worry too much about amateur not-quite-real-submarines then.

Tim February 10, 2009 5:39 PM

Yeah if I were a drug smuggler, an automated true submarine would seem the best option.

The only issue would be the power supply. Nuclear would be not worth the hassle. Diesel would probably be best but you probably need to surface for air.

Anyway, it seems sufficiently easy that it must already be used. If not, drug lords, my services are available!

kiwano February 10, 2009 5:56 PM

Clive Robinson:

As much as I’m with you on the general principle of developing drone boats, I think I’d have to identify the outrageous frequency with which things break down at sea as a challenge that would bring the engineering feat up nontrivially (like maybe half a dozen to a dozen engineers for the fully submersible device you describe — much easier for semi-submersible).

Really though, I’d guess that one of the major reasons to man such a vessel would be to ensure that e.g. the drugs arrive at their destination, the money arrives at its, and there’s minimal arguing about who should be responsible for a shipment lost at sea (clearly it’s the dudes who got lost with it, and maybe the guy who picked them for the job).

Roy February 10, 2009 5:56 PM

A 40-foot commercial shipping container can hold 13 tons of payload, and can completely avoid detection or inspection.

A C-130 can hold 22.5 tons of payload, and will completely avoid inspections owing to being a military aircraft.

RH February 10, 2009 6:27 PM

@Roy: of course those are overkill. If you start talking about metric tons of drugs (as they do in the article), the savings of shipping in commercial containers or such start becoming trivial compared to the street value.

moz February 10, 2009 7:36 PM

An even more cost effective terrorist plot would involve flare guns and motorbikes. Both are legal, readily available and require little training to use. Sure, it wouldn’t be Dresden but it would be very, very exciting. Especially in, say, California or New South Wales in the summer where the death toll could imaginably exceed the 9/11 baseline, or even a weeks US road toll.

MikeA February 10, 2009 9:45 PM

From the cited link about the Tamil Tiger Sub:
“With this discovery the LTTE will go down in the history as the first terrorist organization to develop underwater weapons,” reads the Ministry of Defence’s statement on its website.

So, they maybe never heard of the Fenian Ram?
Or is it still politically incorrect to call that particular group “Terrorist”?

neill February 10, 2009 10:10 PM

soon we will classify everything as terrorism:

in 1775 a fellow named George Washington had taken command of three armed schooners under Continental authority to intercept any British supply ships … The Continental Navy … raided many British merchant vessels

(from wikipedia)

Roger February 11, 2009 3:34 AM

The reason for the terrorist references is simply that FARC, the organisation that is almost certainly behind this, is, in fact, a terrorist organisation.

FARC started off as a Marxist guerrilla warfare army in the 1960s, but during the 1980s started smuggled cocaine to fund its paramilitary activities. The drug money corrupted it until drugs rather than revolution became its raison d’etre. However, it still engages in its military and paramilitary activities on a large scale — but many of these attacks, including hostage taking, mortar attacks and bombings — are targeted at civilians. Consequently many nations around the world (including all EU countries) have branded FARC a terrorist organisation; even such neutral organisations as Human Rights Watch have condemned FARC’s methods.

So FARC is a rather novel kind of beast; a guerrilla army that has turned into a terrorist army primarily concerned with drug smuggling. To describe this phenomenon, the term “narco-terrorism” was coined, and that is what the terrorism reference is about.

Bill February 11, 2009 5:46 AM

Oh that’s just silly, what self respecting lunatic would deploy a nuke via a sinkable rust bucket subject to the vagaries of the sea?

They’d use DHL Express Delivery which guarantees to transport the weapon of your choice, to any name+postcode target by 9am. Has track and trace too. Perfect 🙂

David February 11, 2009 8:52 AM

@Jason: I don’t think any members of USS Housatonic’s crew were concerned whether their semi-submersible attacker was machine- or human-powered, so I’d put practical sub technology at the mid-19th century. (CSS Hunley was designed as a true submarine, but probably operated semi-submerged for later training and her one operational cruise; she killed enough crews as it was.)

Practical submarines, as in diesel-electric, are about a century old. That’s plenty of time to make the concept available to criminals that operate on a large scale.

Blancmange February 11, 2009 10:05 AM

@Roger: FARC’s not that novel. The various paramilitary groups in the Northern Ireland conflict have tended for a long time toward primarily being concerned with robbery and drug smuggling rather than political action. (Particularly now that that peace process is relatively firmly cemented in place.)

billswift February 11, 2009 10:24 AM

“reliably find anything except nuclear submarines.”

Nukes are relatively easier to find than most other subs, like diesel-electric running on batteries and many exotic propulsion systems. The problem is that a nuclear power plant cannot be completely shut down at sea. Many coastal navies that need quite over long range, like Sweden, don’t use nukes for that reason.

Scared February 11, 2009 12:14 PM

So we have the Navy killing whales by the dozens each time they do their sonar training, and they can’t detect an old diesel submarine? It doesn’t even require an active sonar to find it, just a hydrophone array. We’re talking pre-WW2 technology here.

Ghost February 11, 2009 1:37 PM

You don’t need high tech automated control systems, just another boat within 3 miles with a short range control system, a good motor, a wireless camera, and no humans actually on board. There’s deniability for the smuggling operation if it ever gets busted. Oh, drug traffickers were doing this back in 1988 – of course using the available technology of the day. I remember a guest speaker discussing remote-controlled cargo-carrying submersibles used by drug trafficers way back in engineering school.

John Campbell February 11, 2009 11:01 PM

Anyone look at some of the pictures and think…


I suspect that was the first “stealth” ironclad.

Jonadab the Unsightly One February 13, 2009 7:50 AM

The economics of cocaine are different from WMDs. Nobody needs to smuggle megaweapons into the US on a regular basis in the same way and along the same path in order to maintain an ongoing revenue stream, and, indeed, trying to do so would be extremely foolhardy and highly uneconomic. Additionally, the cocaine guys expect to lose a percentage of their shipments, and just turn up the price on the rest to compensate. It’s relatively easy to produce more than is needed, so getting it to its destination is the bulk of the cost. They use easily replaced unskilled workers to do the actual shipping and make sure said flunkies do not know where exactly the stuff comes from or who they work for, so it doesn’t matter when a percentage of them get caught.

Just try to imagine a nuclear warhead or something like that being entrusted to a hapless mule who may or may not make it through. It doesn’t make sense. That’s a totally different dynamic. With the nuke, you want to get through for sure the first time, but you do NOT care about being able to repeat the performance every day for the next several years. That would be pointless.

Frankly, if an intelligent terrorist wanted to get something into the US like, say, a nuclear warhead, he probably wouldn’t try to come in through the gulf of Mexico where most of the cocaine comes in, because the area is too heavily watched for stuff like that. There are better ways.

Roger February 13, 2009 5:28 PM


FARC’s not that novel. The various paramilitary groups in the Northern Ireland conflict …

Indeed. I mean novel in terms of the history of human ideas, rather than just this year; FARC got into drug smuggling around a quarter of a century ago. Interestingly, there is some evidence of links between FARC and PIRA.

Of course, there are even earlier examples of revolutionary organisations, guerrilla armies or protective secret societies devolving into criminal organisations: the Mafia and the Triads are classic examples.


You don’t need high tech automated control systems, just another boat within 3 miles with a short range control system, a good motor, a wireless camera, and no humans actually on board.

In the linked article, it is noted that these are not new, just becoming much more common (although they describe the earliest as early 1990s, rather than 1988.) It is also noted that this boat does have remote control features, too. The 4 man crew is presumably required for long range operations: it has a maximum range of 2,000 miles, sufficient to reach the US from Colombia entirely under its own power.

Wesley Parish February 15, 2009 4:54 AM

The Mullah Nasrudin travelled from Turkey to Iran each month, taking with him a train of donkeys with panniers of straw. He would tell the border guards, equally regularly, “I am a smuggler”. The border guards would strip the panniers bare to try to find what he was smuggling, leaivng him to replace the straw, then send him on, because they couldn’t find anything. Then every month he would trudge back, footsore and weary.

After he retired from the cross-border trade, one of the border guards also retired and came to live in the same village. They met at the coffee house and the border guard said, with admiration – “You told us you were a smuggler, and yet we never caught you smuggling. Now I can’t do anything to you, now you’ve retired, would you please tell me just what it was you were smuggling?”

The Mullah Nasrudin said, with a smile, “Donkeys”.

Firstly, smuggling from one place to another is always going to produce innovations of one sort or another. This time it’s a semi-submersible.

Secondly, if someone truly wanted to use nuclear weapons to – sorry, nukular weapons – destroy some target or other in the Continental US, and they wanted to have the maximum effect, they wouldn’t waste their precious time smuggling nukes in from outside – far too dangerous, far too risky, and besides, they would be to waste the vast number of free-floating nukes already available to anyone wanting to make use of the halfwits employed by the US Air Force. When you can have arming triggers winding up in Taiwan of all places, and nuclear cruise missiles flown across half the country, apparently armed and ready for use – why bust your fufoo valve smuggling anything in? I’m sure that flying a fully-armed B-52 into the Pentagon has occured to various disgruntled USAF personnel at times. Ditto the other services ….

JimFive February 17, 2009 2:07 PM

Can you put a weapon of mass destruction in it?

Are we no longer allowed to say “bomb”?


Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.