Naval planners are doubtless considering the potential of ‘narco-sub’ technology being used by terrorist organizations in North Africa and the Middle East. The threat of this technology proliferating to terrorist and similar non-governmental forces has been highlighted several times, mainly with reference to smuggling arms and WMDs into mainland US from Central and South America. Narco-subs are already used extensively to smuggle narcotics from Colombia to Mexico on their passage towards US markets but despite the US coast being within range the ‘direct-to-market’ modus operandi has not revealed itself. And the threat of narco-subs being used to smuggle terrorist materials into US is currently unproven.
However, if there is one theater where we should expect to see the proliferation, it is along North Africa’s Mediterranean coast and in the Eastern Mediterranean. Multiple terrorist and non-state groups are involved in smuggling arms between their territories and allies. In general, groups in Libya experienced an excess of weaponry and have been involved in supplying common causes in the region. And there are numerous other flows between the various groups. Often these transfers are made by sea using trawlers and other ‘civilian’ boats but the presence of NATO (and Russian) warships and Special Forces in the Mediterranean will make this route less attractive. This article deals with this possible expansion of narco-subs in this region.
One key requirement for a terrorist or non-government force in fielding ‘narco-subs’ is having sufficient localized control of sections of coastline from which to operate them. This greatly limits many organizations, but geopolitics have conspired to provide many MENA (Middle East / North Africa) with coastal territories.
The other possible application of narco-sub technology by terrorist organizations is to deliver their forces to targets directly on the shoreline. Terrorist groups have used small boats several times to conduct shoreline raids, notably in July 2014 when Hamas fighters landed at Zikim Beach in Israel (they were fought off by Israeli forces) and in June 2015 in Sousse, Tunisia when a lone terrorist killed 38 people on a beach.
It was recently reported in Defense News that the Israeli Navy is preparing to counter such a threat in the vicinity of the Gaza Strip. The craft could be used to smuggle weapons and supplies into Gaza, and to land Hamas fighters on Israel beaches.
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By Narco-sub technology we mean boats designed to travel almost below the water and/or improvised submarines. These are designed to avoid detection and can carry several tons of payload over long distances. They are termed ‘narco-subs’ because they are used in South America where they smuggle narcotics. Similar designs have also been built by non-governmental organizations outside South America, notably in Sri Lanka and China (see below).
Narco-subs can be divided into several categories (see Narco Subs 101) There is a tendency to emphasize the most sophisticated and exotic examples which approach the capabilities of midget submarines used by some Navies, but we should remember that the average Narco-Sub is something quite simple, relatively inexpensive and proven effective. The threat is low tech, which is part of what makes it so dangerous.
Main Narco-sub article: Narco Subs 101
The prototypical narco-sub is a ‘Low Profile Vessel’, about 14m (45ft) long and running very low in the water so that only about 1m (3ft) is exposed above the waterline. The boat is divvied into three compartments with the payload in the bow (where it acts as ballast), the crew in the middle and the engine in the stern. Typical payloads are 6 tons, range is 2,000nm+ and speed is about 12kt which is actually quite fast for a semi-submersing full-displacement hull. They can be crewed by four men of which only one, the navigator/pilot, has to be highly skilled. The resulting boat is the product of ingenious design and is both simple and moderately stealthy.
As soon as you introduce full submergence (either a full semi-sub or a true submarine) you add cost and complexity. It is also much harder to train the crew, to navigate and to operate over long distances. The benefit of course is increased stealth, but the gains may not outweigh the increased difficulties and very few ‘advanced’ narco-subs have been found.
Related: Yantar spy ship loitering over undersea cables
Possible sources of technology
The most obvious source would be the Colombian drug cartels. Hezbollah in particular has strong ties in Latin America. Other potential non-government sources would include former Tamil Sea Tigers (LTTE) from Sri Lanka who developed a range of low profile vessels and semi-submersibles during their war with the Sri Lankan government. In fact the Tamil Tigers may be partly responsible for spreading some aspects of the technology to the Colombian Cartels (or vice versa).
An LTTE (Tamil Tigers) Low Profile vessel. Note that it is much narrower than typical narco-subs.
The Tamil Tigers also built a Low Profile Boat out of steel:
Main LTTE article: LTTE Sea Tigers' sneak craft and midget subs
Other groups who have developed highly ingenious stealthy boats include Chinese gangs who have built craft to smuggle luxury cars. This Armored Stealth Boat (ASB) was discovered by Chinese police in 2004. It features six 1200hp turbocharged jet-ski engines (much more powerful than typical narco-subs) which gave it a top speed of 50kt. The cargo was unloaded by hydraulic ramps. The police cut it in half and put it on display.
Narco-subs are within the technical grasp of almost all navies, but particularly Iran which operates semi-submersibles supplied by North Korea (see HERE). Iran has close ties with Hezbollah.
If narco-subs turn up in the Middle East we should be able to identify any tell-tale indicators of the technology’s origin from photographs.
Can they be weaponized?
They are probably more of a strategic threat as arms smuggling vehicles. They can be adapted to carry men although the ballast configuration would need to be adjusted compared to narcotics or weapons. They are generally less suited to being used as direct action weapons (e.g. suicide boats) however because of their relatively slow speed. The Tamil Tigers did use semi-submersibles as suicide boats but these were quite elaborate and there is no evidence that they were effective. The threat is arms smuggling.