Category Archives: narcosub


Dubbed either self-propelled semi-submersibles (SPSS) or low-profile vessels (LPVs), “narco subs” have gone from being a unicorn type of thing discussed only in Clive Cussler books to the real deal, especially when it comes to the Eastern Pacific, where they seem to be the vessel of choice running coke from South America to transshipment points in Central America.

Since they first started popping up in 2006, these craft have become an almost weekly thing in the past few years. The USCG and SOUTHCOM assets stopped almost 40 such boats in 2019, this number continued into 2020 where, across four days in mid-May Southcom stopped three narco submarines in the same week (remember the “Alto su barco” incident?), and showed no sign of stopping if you look at the typical patrols done by cutters throughout 2021-22.

Almost every recent EastPac patrol by the Coast Guard (or Fourth Fleet with a USCG LEDET aboard) shows off images of an LPV stopped with a gleaming white cutter in the background.

USCGC Northland (WMEC 904) interdicts a low-profile vessel in the Eastern Pacific Ocean in August 2021. The Northland crew returned to Portsmouth Monday, following an 80-day patrol in the Eastern Pacific Ocean in support of the Coast Guard Eleventh District and Joint Interagency Task Force South. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

This translates into a whole series of art produced as part of the U.S. Coast Guard Art Collection in the past few years on the subject:

Not bad for a narcosubmarino

Spanish authorities arrested two citizens of Ecuador near the beach of O Foxo, Galicia on 24 November. Their ride? A scuttled 66-foot narco submarine carrying over three tons of coke. It is believed to be the first such craft to be seized from Latin America in Europe.

The Guardia Civil is currently trying to figure out if it was launched from a mother ship or made the entire journey on its own. Keep in mind that it is roughly 5,000 miles from the northeast tip of South America to Spain in a straight line. With an average speed of about 10 knots, said narco boat likely took more than three weeks to make a solo crossing only to be seen at the end of its run after things didn’t work out.

Meanwhile, the USCG recently popped a similar such craft in the Eastern Pacific, where they are increasingly common. How long before these are seen in asymmetric warfare by users carrying dirty bombs into a vital port or chokepoint?


U.S. Coast Guard boarding team members climb aboard a suspected smuggling vessel in September. Crews intercepted a drug-laden, 40-foot self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS) in the Eastern Pacific carrying approximately 12,000 pounds of cocaine, worth over $165 million and apprehended four suspected drug smugglers. (U.S. Coast Guard Photo)

A curious mini-sub in the news again

So in the past week, this bad boy caused a stir in California’s Monterey Bay:


Some were concerned it was a narco-sub or possibly a spy boat or something, as there aren’t a lot of privately owned manned submersibles in circulation. Turns out, it is noting nefarious and is part of a crowdfunded Community Submarines project to get people into man-in-the-sea activities, which is admirable.

As for the boat itself, currently dubbed Noctiluca, it is the old British-built U.S. Submarines S-101, a 32-foot, two-person diesel-electric mini-submersible with a decent performance (range of 200 miles when surfaced, can dive for 72 hrs, 300+ foot operating depth/1250 ft. crush depth due to its 10 mm thick A43 steel pressure hull) built back in 1987.

If she looks familiar, she was used on a contract for the Royal Swedish Navy through the 1990s to serve as an OPFOR of sorts for that country’s coastal forces, mimicking Russian frogmen boats.

Then, in 1998, the Sea Shepherds (Whale Wars) guys picked it up cheap ($225K) from a Norwegian seller and, given a killer whale-style scheme, was intended to harass various fishing enterprises.

Passing into private hands in 2004, it has been up for sale off and on, most recently in Florida for about $80K.

It even showed up in a 2013 episode (S01E06) of the snorable cop show Graceland on the USA network:

Graceland Narco sub

Actor Manny Montana afloat in S-101, when it dressed up like a narco sub, in a 2013 episode of Graceland.

Either way, nice to see it still poking around.

A whole new take on cigarette boats

Low-observable to both radar and the ole Mk I eyeball, these homegrown Latin American LPVs can pack tons of blow on one-way trips and are increasingly common in the East Pac.

The crew on Coast Guard Cutter Campbell captured this photo of a low profile drug vessel on May 24, 2018, during their deployment to the Eastern Pacific.

Presser from U.S. Coast Guard 1st District Northeast:

BOSTON — Coast Guard Cutter Campbell returned to its homeport in Kittery, Maine, Friday after an 80-day counter-narcotic patrol in the Caribbean Sea and Eastern Pacific Ocean.

Campbell’s crew disrupted six narcotic smuggling ventures, seized about 12,000 pounds of cocaine, worth $209 million, and detained 24 suspected smugglers.

Equipped with an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew deployed from the Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron unit based in Jacksonville, Florida, the Campbell patrolled known narcotic transit zones in the Eastern Pacific Ocean off the coast of Central and South America in support of [Key West NAS-based] Joint Interagency Task Force-South, which facilitates international and interagency interdiction to enable the disruption and dismantlement of illicit and converging threat networks in support of national and hemispheric security.

“During this challenging deployment, the crew excelled in all assigned missions and should be exceptionally proud of their accomplishments,” said Cmdr. Mark McDonnell, commanding officer of the Campbell. “Our efforts to integrate with partner agencies and nations are key to the safe and successful execution of these complex interdiction operations as we work together to remove cocaine bound for the United States and help dismantle criminal networks.”

Campbell is a 29-year-old Famous-Class cutter homeported in Kittery, Maine, with a crew complement of 100.

All tricks, no treats: Coasties chalk up another sneaky narco sub, making 43 total

The Alameda, California-based USCGC Waesche (WMSL-751), one of the new 418-foot Legend-class National Security Cutters, offloaded 39,000 pounds of cocaine Thursday at Naval Base San Diego– including a large bust from a narco sub.

The self-propelled semi-submersible, or SPSS, was stopped in the Pacific Ocean off Central America on September 6.

Upon sighting the vessel, the cutter launched two fast pursuit boats with boarding teams and an armed helicopter crew to interdict the SPSS. Five suspects, apprehended by the Coasties (where are you going to go in open ocean?) attempted to scuttle the dope boat as water filled the smuggler to just below the helm.

Waesche crew members boarded the sinking vessel and were able to dewater it using portable pumps, allowing boarding officers to safely remove over 5,600 pounds of cocaine from the SPSS. It is the sixth such submersible captured this year by the service and the 43rd total.

According to a fact sheet from the service, Coast Guardsmen apprehended a total 585 suspected drug smugglers in Fiscal Year 2016– a new record for the service, up from 503 suspected drug smugglers last year.

Scratch one narco sub

P-3s are still out there busting subs everyday...just in a different livery

P-3s are still out there busting subs everyday…just in a different livery and with no Mk46s

A Customs and Border Patrol Air and Marine Office P-3 Orion Long Range Tracker found a self-propelled semi-submersible vessel (SPSS/dope sub) in the Eastern Pacific Ocean that led to the arrest of four smugglers and the boat being lost at sea with 6 tons of blow on board. Street value was $193 milly.

As noted by CBP in their presser:

The crew aboard a P-3 Long Range Tracker detected a self-propelled semi-submersible vessel Mar. 2, while conducting counter-narcotics operations with Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) South.

The task force coordinated an interdiction of the semi-submersible with a U.S. Coast Guard vessel in the area while the AMO crew maintained constant visual surveillance. Upon interdiction, the U.S. Coast Guard arrested four individuals operating the vessel.  The semi-submersible became unstable and sank.

“This type of cooperation and teamwork produces these kinds of results where suspects are arrested and narcotics prevented from reaching U.S. shores,” said Director John Wassong at the National Air Security Operations Center – Corpus Christi. “Our crews will continue to take every opportunity to disrupt this type of transnational criminal activity.”

CBP operates two types of P-3s: 11 P-3 Airborne Early Warning, or AEW, and 3 P-3 Long Range Tracker, or LRT, aircraft flying from Corpus Christi, Texas, and Jacksonville, Florida.

CBP’s LRTs, called “slicks” by the service to differentiate them from the AN/APS 145 radar-equipped AEWs, are former USN P-3As that have landed most of their ASW and ASuW suite, replacing them with an electro-optic ball with night vision and FLIR capabilities, APG 66 air search and SeaVue marine search radars used for detecting and tracking targets of interest.

Over 40 years old, the 14 Orions flown by CBP have been extensively reworked in recent years and are expected to remain in service for another two decades.

Share a coke with…the Spanish Navy

It seems like a group of Colombian Narcotraficantes got smart and ruthless with some Spanish Armada members on shore leave in that country recently.

They likely offered the bluejackets a choice between plata o plomo which led the sailors to try to smuggle some 150 keys of pure Colombian scarface in separate shipments to New York City, where its street value is mega high, and then back to Spain. In Europe, coke is the premium drug of choice by the jet setters and as such is highly valued there.

Unfortunately the would-be smugglers had their connection in NYC burned, where agents seized 20 keys, and then the Spanish Civil Guard found the other 127 keys still hiding in the reserve sail locker of their ship.


Wait, reserve sail locker?

Yup, the ship in question was the pride of the Spanish Armada, the naval training ship, Juan Sebastián Elcano. The handsome 3673-ton ship dates back to 1927 and at 113 meters (370 feet) long, she is the third-largest Tall Ship in the world.


More here

Warship Wednesday, June 19th Carriers Under the Sea

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take out every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week.

– Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday,  June 19th

IJN I-401 Pearl Harbor 1946
Here we see the Sen Toku I-400-class (I-yonhyaku-gata Sensuikan) giant submarine aircraft carrier I-401 at sunset. It’s an appropriate picture as the submersible was at the time one of the last remaining units of the WWII Imperial Japanese Navy left afloat in the world. The IJN’s battle flag was the now-infamous Rising Sun, and this beautiful picture was taken of the  I-401 at sunset, as a captured prize ship of the US Navy, sitting in Pearl Harbor in 1946.


In 1942, the war in the Pacific was still winnable for Japan, and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto conceived of a class of huge submersible warships, 18 overall, that could carry an armada of 54 submarine-launched attack floatplanes to attack far off strategic US targets such as the Panama Canal, or fuel manufacture/storage facilities on the West Coast, or logistical hubs like American Samoa. Furthermore, the ships would be capable of circumnavigating the earth 1.5 times (37,000 miles!)  on one full load of fuel, which would enable even targets on the US East Coast within the reach of the Japanese Navy.

To make such a capable submarine in 1942 under wartime conditions was a challenge.  Nevertheless, you have to admire the audacious plan. Each of these I-400 boats had to be some 400-feet long with a very wide beam to be able to carry and launch up to three combat airplanes. This gave them a displacement of some 6700 tons and an immense crew of over 140, including air wing. When you compare this to the subs of the time, they are super-sized. Even looking at today’s HY-80 steel nuclear propelled boats, the I-400s are larger than many of the modern hunter-killer of the sea. For example, the backbone of the US Navy since 1976, the “688 Boats” of the Los Angeles class SSNs have a length of 362 feet and a surfaced displacement of 6.082-tons.


The Germans helped a lot with the design, giving the Japanese the plans for the aircraft catapult as well as supplying them with snorkels and periscopes. Unlike many subs of the day, the I-400s had both air and surface search radars as well as a primitive radar warning receiver and sonar absorbing anechoic tile.


The I-400s had a huge armament punch. Not only could they carry a trio of M6A1 Seiran (Mountain Haze) attack planes, each of which could carry a 1800-pound bomb or torpedo load out to 300-miles from the submarine and return, but the ship itself carried 8 21-inch torpedo tubes, with 24 Type 95 torpedos, a 140mm deck gun and a number of 25mm cannons for small surface ships and aircraft defense. The Type 95 is considered by many to be the best torpedo of WWII, being an advanced design of the famous Long Lance, it had a 51-knot speed and a 1200-pound warhead, a performance envelope that is still formidable today.

The Seirans were to be launched via a 85-foot long compressed-air catapult mounted on the forward deck. A well-trained crew of four men could roll a Seiran out of its hangar on a collapsible catapult carriage, attach the plane’s pontoons and have it readied for flight in approximately 7 minutes. Although to get all three airplanes off the boat took up to 30-minutes.

The Gatun Locks at the Panama canal were supposed to be the I401s first target

The Gatun Locks at the Panama canal were supposed to be the I401s first target

Well, all did not go as planned for the  I-400s. After Yammoto was killed in 1943, the Japanese Navy saw little use for the program and started slowly canceling the ships. Just three I-400s were finished and only two, I-400 and I-401, ever went to sea. Their primary reason for being, the Seiran float-plane, had only 28 examples made.

Commissioned 8 January 1945, I-401 was a late comer to the war. Already the US Navy had recaptured the Philipines and was breathing hard on the Japanese home islands. By June the two boats and a crew of float plane pilots were practising on wooden mock-ups of the Panama canal locks in preparation for their first attack. At the last-minute, the plan was halted and the two I-400s were sent to attack Ulithu Atoll, the forward base of the US Navy’s fast carriers. At any given time the US Navy had up to a dozen carriers there on “Murders Row”, taking a break from the war. To give the six Seirans a fighting chance against up to 2000 US aircraft and thousands of anti-aircraft guns in the atoll, they were painted in US markings and refitted as kamikaze aircraft.

 Murderers Row at Ulithi atoll was the target of two submarines and six floatplanes.

Murderers Row at Ulithi atoll was the target of two submarines and six Seiran  floatplanes.

While at sea on the way to the atoll, the war ended and the I-400 and 401 surrendered to US forces. Both ships shot away their torpedoes, threw their artillery shells overboard, and shot their unmanned floatplanes off the deck into the deep ocean. I401 surrendered to the USS Segundo (SS-398), a Balao-class submarine less than half her size.

The floatplanes on the I400 and 401 were given US markings and looked almost like a P-51 with a set of floats.

The floatplanes on the I400 and 401 were given US markings and looked almost like a P-51 with a set of floats.

Both the I400 and I401 were taken to Pearl Harbor by prize crews where they were inspected at length by the US Navy.  Odds were they would have been kept for years, and one of them may have even still been around as a trophy ship had the Soviets not wanted to inspect them. To prevent the Russkis from getting to the amazing Japanese-German hybrid tech of the I400s, the Navy sunk them as targets off Hawaii in 1946.

The US navy had these ships for almost nine months, and they would probably be gracing a museum somewhere, had it not been for the Russians.

The US navy had these ships for almost nine months, and they would probably be gracing a museum somewhere today, had it not been for the Russians.

The I-401 was rediscovered in 2005 about a mile off Barber’s Point in 2600-feet of water. A few of her parts were saved prior to sinking, including the 140mm gun sight which is currently displayed at the Yokohama WWII Japanese Military Radio Museum.

The only remaining Seiran floatplane, captured intact at the Aichi Aircraft Factory following the end of the war in August 1945, is at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on current display.

True to Yammaoto's vision, at least one Seiran made it all the way to Washington DC, just not how he thought it would.

True to Yammaoto’s vision, at least one Seiran made it all the way to Washington DC, just not how he thought it would.

In a twist of fate, the USS Segundo (SS-398), captor of the I-401, was herself sunk as a target by the USS Salmon (SSR/SS/AGSS-573), a Sailfish-class submarine, in 1970, her usefulness past. It should go without saying that the Salmon likewise was sent to the bottom  5 June 1993, as a target by the US Navy. History is funny like that.

I-400 Diagram B

Displacement:     5,223 long tons (5,307 t) surfaced
6,560 long tons (6,665 t) submerged
Length:     122 m (400 ft)
Beam:     12 m (39 ft)
Draft:     7 m (23 ft)
Propulsion:     Diesel-electric
4 diesel engines, 7,700 hp (5,700 kW)
Electric motors, 2,400 hp (1,800 kW)
Speed:     18.75 knots (21.58 mph; 34.73 km/h) surfaced
6.5 kn (7.5 mph; 12.0 km/h) submerged
Range:     37,500 nmi (69,500 km) at 14 kn (16 mph; 26 km/h)
Test depth:     100 m (330 ft)
Complement:     144
Armament:     • 8 × 533 mm (21 in) forward torpedo tubes
• 20 × Type 95 torpedoes
• 1 × 14 cm/40 11th Year Type naval gun
• 3 × 25 mm (0.98 in) 3-barrel machine gun
• 1 × 25 mm machine gun
Aircraft carried:     3 × Aichi M6A1 Seiran sea-planes

If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO)

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval lore

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

Nearing their 50th Anniversary, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

I’m a member, so should you be!

The DHS Does OPFOR Submarine Ops…

Ever Heard of Pluto?

Homeland Security’s ‘narco sub’ PLUTO mimics the real thing

PLUTO seen during tests in San Diego, CA…..If you live around Destin, you may have bumped into it…

Surrogate semi-submersible engineered to mimic the design of the “dark vessels” being used
to bring narcotics and other illicit cargo into the United States. With low profiles and low radar reflectivity, stealthy, drug-running semi-submersibles, “narco subs,” built in southern jungles cut through the ocean at wave height and are nearly impossible to detect.  DHS’ semi-submersible mimics them so that  a variety of sensors can be tested  in the battle  against illegal drug-running.

The erstwhile planet Pluto (now officially an asteroid) was known for decades as a small, dark planet—hidden, difficult to spot, and on a quiet, determined course all its own.  And so, when the DHS Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) needed a target semi-submersible to detect the hidden but determined maritime smuggling operations of the South American drug cartels, it created its own vessel and called it “PLUTO,” after the planet that is so difficult to spot.  S&T’s PLUTO is a small, semi-submersible that is representative of what are popularly called “narco subs,” and serves as a realistic practice target for the detection systems of DHS and its national security community partners.

In the early 90’s, South American drug cartels came up with a new tactic to transport narcotics destined for the United States: small, radar-dodging, self-propelled, semi-submersibles (SPSSs).  Although clandestine semi-submersibles were rumored to exist in the mid-1990s, many believed them to be a myth, hence their name Bigfoots.  Then in 2006, an actual Colombian semi-submersible was captured by the U.S. Coast Guard in the Eastern Pacific Ocean.  Today, drug cartels continue to build their “narco subs.”  With low profiles and low radar reflectivity, these illegal, stealthy, drug-running semi-submersibles cut through the water at wave height and are nearly impossible to detect.

S&T built PLUTO in 2008 to serve as a surrogate SPSS with many of the same features as the vessels built by the cartels.  It is used as a target by DHS and its national security community partners to help test the performance of detection systems and give operators of those systems real world experience under controlled conditions.  This testing helps develop new concepts of operation for seaborne, airborne, and space-borne technologies to spot illegal vessels.

“Small surface vessels, self-propelled semi-submersibles, and now the most recent innovation of fully submerged vessels (FSVs), pose significant challenges to maritime security,” says Tom Tomaiko of S&T’s Borders and Maritime Security Division.  “While some small boats sitting low in the water have legitimate purposes, there are many that are used for illicit purposes.

Dozens of these boats have been captured by the U.S. and partner nation law enforcement agencies in the last few years, sometimes with their cargo still on board, sometimes after it has been thrown overboard.  “When the crews become aware they’ve been spotted, they will typically scuttle the boat immediately, knowing they’ll be rescued by us anyway,” says Tomaiko.

Meanwhile, cramped living conditions within the illegal SSPSs can be horrendous.  There is generally only 3” of space above the waterline, meaning the ride can be very rough.  The small crews of 3 or 4 have little to eat, poor air quality, no toilet facilities, operate with little rest until they reach their destination, and are sometimes watched over by an armed guard.

If the mission is undetected and the drugs successfully delivered, the vessel is typically scuttled and not reused.  “Drug-running is lucrative.  It is cheaper to simply build another vessel than to run the risk of trying to get a vessel and its crew home,” says Tomaiko.

In a typical operation, PLUTO will operate at SPSS cruising speeds of 4 to 8 knots while remote sensor platforms from sea to space attempt to detect and track it at various distances and observation angles.

S&T’s PLUTO is home-ported at Eglin Air Force Base, near Fort Walton Beach, Florida, and is maintained by the Air Force’s 46th Test Squadron.  Various civilian and military
agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection/Air and Marine (CBP/OAM), U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and other national agencies have tested their remote sensing capabilities against PLUTO in the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic, and the Pacific.

In 2009, Customs and Border Protection tested its Dash 8 maritime surveillance aircraft against PLUTO at the Eglin range and near Key West, Florida.These results helped gauge the performance of the Dash 8’s SeaVue radar against PLUTO and helped determine detection distances and aspect angles for optimal mission performance. In addition, the U.S. Navy tested one of its P-3 aircraft equipped with maritime surveillance radar system against PLUTO.All such tests were instrumental in helping to verify the performance of sensor capabilities, and provided operators with real-world training which will help determine future tactics.

PLUTO is just over 45 feet long, can run roughly 10 knots at maximum speed and can hold a crew of 3 to 4, although it usually operates with only one for safety reasons.  It has VHF and HF radios, and the 46th Test Squadron can install other types of radios and maritime automated identification system (AIS) equipment to meet testing or safety requirements.  Conditions onboard, however, were primarily influenced by the need for crew safety, so PLUTO’s design does not exactly mimic that of illegal SSPSs.

Technical capabilities such as PLUTO are necessary to counter and stay ahead of threats to the country.  Admiral James Stavridis, former Joint Commander for all US forces in the Caribbean, Central and South America, wrote, “Criminals are never going to wait for law enforcement to catch up.  They are always extending the boundaries of imagination, and likewise, we must strive to push forward technology and invest in systems designed specifically to counter the semi-submersible.  We need to be able to rapidly detect and interdict this new type of threat, both for its current effects via the drug trade, and – more troublingly – for its potential as a weapon in the hands of terrorists.”

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