Narco submarines offer lessons for Pacific defense
One of the main problems facing Taiwan, Japan, Korea and the United States (among others) is how to protect themselves against invasion by a hostile power, most often defined as China. Most foresee an air battle, starting with missile attacks against air bases, followed by a seaborne invasion force. By taking out as much of a defender’s air power as possible, an invasion-force flotilla, protected by Chinese surface combatants and attack submarines, would be able to land agile forces and overwhelm the defender. By hitting multiple points at one time, the defender (with its air and sea power significantly degraded) would have a hard time surviving any heavy and persistent attack.
It is, in a sense, deja vu – but with a twist. Hitler got cold feet and did not try to land forces in Great Britain in the early part of World War II, but this time the outcome could be far different.
Countermeasures to this kind of threat emphasize the importance of survivable assets capable of thwarting the invasion force wave. This means survivable air and sea power. And sea power means not only surface combatants, which will be under heavy attack, but underwater vessels, especially submarines that can systematically take out enemy transport and combat ships.
The Nazis used their significant underwater fleet in World War II to destroy combat surface ships and transports (including troops and supplies), particularly in the North Atlantic, where almost 3,000 Allied ships (175 warships; 2,825 merchant ships) were sunk. In the end, thanks to advances in anti-submarine warfare equipment and tactics, the Allies eventually restored sea superiority and decimated the U-boat fleet in the Atlantic (with some 784 U-Boats destroyed), and the Japanese fleet and its submarines in the Pacific. Even so, for a critical period the U-boats contributed significantly to forcing vast assets to be used by the Allies, especially the United States, to winning the sea war and ensuring vital supply routes for troops, equipment and commodities.
Submarines are the oldest modern stealth platform, dating from the first modern diesel electric submarines put into service in the early part of the 20th Century. The first of these, the USS Holland, entered service in 1900.
Today, there are many countries producing both diesel-electric, AIP (Air Independent Propulsion, mainly hydrogen fuel cells) and nuclear submarines, including the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, Sweden, Italy, Australia, Japan, and – generally under license –others such as Greece, Korea, Pakistan and India.
A fleet of semi-submersible and true submersibles, some manned and some unmanned, can be an effective patrol force capable of knocking off, on a systematic basis, any invasion fleet
Modern submarines range in price from hundreds of millions of dollars (the German U-214 prices at US$394 million apiece) to billions (the US Virginia Class nuclear-powered fast attack submarine prices at US$1.8 billion apiece). Big submarines require well-trained crews willing to spend extensive sea-time isolated on a submarine mission, and extensive port facilities that are hardened and protected to keep the submarines operating optimally. The secret of modern submarines is to be able to operate silently (hence the “Silent Service” moniker) and under the surface. They carry advanced torpedos and other weapons, as well as sophisticated sonars and other equipment that can track an enemy even in heavily trafficked seas.
In fact, large submarines have so dominated the vision of global naval experts that few alternatives have gained much attention or earned development dollars.Innovations in smaller submarines – vessels useful for attacking harbor facilities or launching commando raids – have been limited.
Because of the US Navy’s total aversion to anything other than a nuclear-powered fleet of submarines, development has been stilted to the degree that it has required submersible commando boats to be carried by nuclear submarines and to be powered only by batteries, making them inherently short range once they are launched from the mother-platform. Other small submersibles, sometimes called mini-subs, have come from diverse sources (Russia, Yugoslavia, Italy, North Korea) but have not earned any serious following. Recent failures of North Korean clandestine mini-subs has only added to their negative reputation.
That leaves some countries with only small fleets of conventional submarines, limiting their ability to defend territories and making it easier for an adversary to focus on those assets and track them down. And for some countries such as Taiwan, the lack of sources for submarines puts them in the unhappy quandary of not being able to buy a successful submarine or submarine blueprint from reliable suppliers in Europe or Asia (especially Japan), even where it is patently in the interest of some suppliers, especially Japan, to lend Taipei a hand. But Japan does not go anywhere except with the blessing of Washington, and despite making promises Washington – fearful of China and dominated by a pro-China State Department and an indifferent Pentagon – has failed to deliver anything resembling a reliable and proven submarine platform to Taiwan.
Surprisingly, Narco terrorists operating in Central America may have inadvertently pointed the way to solutions that can help Taiwan and other countries that need to be capable of defending against a potential seaborne invasion. These drug runners have developed three types of boats that have proven very effective in smuggling drugs. The vessels are known as “Go-Fasts,” semi-submersibles and small mini-submarines.
Go-Fasts are basically fiber-glass boats powered by two high horsepower outboard engines. Low in profile and mainly operated only at night, they have been responsible for shipping thousands of tons of drugs, usually in one-way missions as the boats rarely ever return to base. Go-Fasts live on the surface and leave a large wake behind them, so if patrols are lucky they can intercept them, and many have been captured. Even so, they evade conventional surface radar and often deliver the goods to their distribution networks.
More creative is the Narco Semi-submersible. These boats were originally made from wood and covered in fiber-glass. They can each carry tons of drugs, and they are exceptionally hard to detect when they operate just beneath the surface. Usually they are powered by twin internal diesel engines and the narcos construct them near rivers and other outlets to the sea with mostly commercial parts. Some of them have double hulls, and more recent models are steel, not wood and fiberglass. The success record in intercepting them is not too good. As reported back in 2012, of 214 documented sightings of semi-submersibles, only 45 semi-submersible operations have been disrupted. A semi-submersible costs around US$1 million to produce, a fraction of what a real submarine costs.
Finally, the narcos have started producing real mini-submarines, essentially an evolution of the semi-submersible, which are powered by diesel engines.
As the well-equipped US Navy and Coast Guard have admitted, semi-submersibles and true mini-subs produced by narco terrorists are a huge challenge. These primitive vessels can evade some of the best anti-submarine warfare tracking systems available.
There is a lesson that needs to be learned. A fleet of semi-submersible and true submersibles, some manned and some unmanned, can be an effective patrol force capable of knocking off, on a systematic basis, any invasion fleet. It is a more cost-effective way to do the job than anything else available, and is the underwater equivalent of a fleet of unmanned drones operating in the skies. By exploiting new technologies – just as electric cars are starting to change the automotive industry – and advanced electronics, including sophisticated networking, burst data communications, cellular technology and satellite and other sensors, a modernized and weaponized version of the narco fleet can be a new and vital defense against invasion and a vital asset for national security.