Friday, September 5, 2008

Semi-Submersibles as Terror Weapons

There was an interesting article posted to the Boston Globe web site a couple of weeks back on the increased use of sea going ‘semi-submersible’ craft by drug traffickers. The article reports that the Coast Guard has sighted 27 of these disposable ‘submarines’ so far this year in apparent drug smuggling operations. I have to use the weasel-word ‘apparent’ because many of these vessels were sunk by their crew to avoid being caught with their illegal cargo.


Vessel Evolution


A recent Intel column in Sea Classics magazine provides a brief description of the evolution of these semi-submersibles. It provides a description of a recently discovered 100-ft steel-hulled vessel that should almost be considered a full submersible since it is designed to travel 15-ft below the ocean’s surface. It uses snorkels to provide air for the six-cylinder diesel power plant and the four man crew and has a range of over 2,000 miles.


These vessels have been developed and used by drug smugglers to get their cargos of cocaine and other drugs passed the Coast Guard, police and military patrols. This sophistication has been necessary because of the increasing successes seen in interdicting more traditional smuggling techniques. With increasing sophistication have come increased costs.


Potential Terror Links


Admiral Stavridis, the commander of the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />US military’s Southern Command, describes how these vessels may make the transition to terrorist transport in a recent article for the Air Force’s Air & Space Power Journal. He notes that:


  • “In simple terms, if drug cartels can ship up to ten tons of cocaine in a semi-submersible, they can clearly ship or “rent space” to a terrorist organization for a weapon of mass destruction or a high-profile terrorist.”

There have been numerous reports about the increasing interconnection between major terrorist organizations and drug trafficking groups. The cooperation between FARC and the Columbian drug organizations is particularly worrisome in regards to the potential use of these vessels for terrorist support operations.


It is also possible that drug cartels may see cargo diversification as a way to decrease their transportation costs. The charges for smuggling high-value human cargo, WMD or other weapons might be high enough to offset the reduction in drug cargo carried. Drug kingpins might also decide that the law enforcement pursuit of terrorists might draw attention away from their enterprises (see Tom Clancey’s book Teeth of the Tiger).


Maritime Chemical Facility Attacks


To date no one has mentioned maritime chemical facilities as targets that might be attacked using semi-submersible vessels. It does not take much imagination to think of multiple ways that these vessels could be used in such an attack. One needs only to look at the Maritime/Boat Borne IED Attack scenario (page 63) or the Assault Team Attack Scenarios (page 64) listed in the SVA Instruction Manual.


A semi-submersible that can carry 10 tons of cocaine it can also carry 10 tons of explosives. This would be a significant Boat Borne IED that might have an effective damage radius (greater than 3-psi overpressure) greater than the 270 feet outlined in the SVA instructions. A submerged approach would reduce the probability of detecting the attack in advance.


For the greatest on-shore effect the device would have to be detonated while the vessel is surfaced. An exception would be if the BBIED were detonated under a ship loading or unloading a release toxic or release flammable chemical. A ten-ton device detonated under or next to an ocean going vessel would effectively destroy any such vessel resulting in a near total release of whatever was loaded.


Semi-Submersibles as Attack Team Transports


The Assault Team scenarios are not limited to maritime chemical facilities. In fact, there is very little in the SVA instruction manual that deals with how the assault team is transported to the high-risk chemical facility.


A hundred foot long semi-submersible could carry a large assault force into a maritime chemical facility without having to deal with any of the conventional perimeter security devices. If the water front is not appropriately covered, such a concealed assault could bypass much of the ‘deter, detect, and delay’ provisions of the site security plan.


Planning for Semi-Submersible Attacks


It is not clear who would bear the main responsibility for defending against such attacks. The Coast Guard is generally considered to be responsible for protecting navigable waterways around the country. On the other hand, high-risk chemical facilities are responsible for indentifying security vulnerabilities and developing site security plans to reduce those vulnerabilities. It would seem that there will be a certain overlap of responsibilities.


At the very least it would seem that DHS, DEA, the Coast Guard (I know, they are part of DHS) and perhaps the US Navy should work together on both the intelligence and operations sides to identify and interdict these vessels as far from the US coast as possible. Each of these agencies has a unique set of skills available and differing interests in this problem. A synergistic approach would seem much more likely to reduce the number of these craft approaching our shores. An increased probability of interception is likely to deter a terrorist attack even if it is not likely to shutoff the flow of drug shipments.

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