The last time hostile submarines appeared off this country’s shores was during World War Two. The U-123 parked itself off New York City in January 1942 and began sinking ships. For months strollers along the boardwalk in Atlantic City watched as unescorted merchantmen burned. During the eight month campaign, Germany sank 233 ships off the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico and killed no fewer than 5,000 seamen and passengers.
Today, the United States is engaged in another submarine war. This time it is against drug smugglers. The other day the Coast Guard announced that it had intercepted the 30th drug submarine — really a semi-submersible. Over the past several years the Coast Guard has intercepted 29 other vessels, 25 in the eastern Pacific and four in the Caribbean. This is a better record than the U.S. Navy achieved in 1942.
These “submarines” are generally 100 feet long, fiberglass vessels that ride a few feet above the waterline, with small diesel engines, rudimentary controls and a portapotty for the five or six man crews. They have a range of between 3,000 and 6,500 miles and move at a relatively leisurely 5-7 knots per hour. They can carry up to ten metric tons of cocaine worth on the street an estimated $250 million. Since the Coast Guard estimates that each submersible costs no more than $1 million to build, the cost-exchange ratio — to use a military term — is absolutely in favor of the smugglers. One successful voyage pays for the next ten years of the submarine war.
What drug smugglers can do with cheap materials and systems that can be bought at home improvement stores and sporting goods shops terrorists can too. Instead of tons of cocaine, what if the cargo was high explosives or even a weapon of mass destruction? The U.S. coastline and waterways provide great access to what is a target rich environment. In theory, it might be possible for a determined adversary to drive one of these vessels into the harbor of a major U.S. city.
The Coast Guard’s apparent success against this new and growing threat is remarkable given how badly stretched it is and the age of its air and sea fleets. Given the growing demand on the Coast Guard and the challenge posed by inventive adversaries, it is a tragedy that budget cuts have forced the Coast Guard to cancel plans for two of its brand new National Security Cutters. We should be increasing both the number and capability of Coast Guard ships and planes. The Coast Guard and its companion force, Customs and Border Protection, should be given additional resources to upgrade their capabilities for airborne surveillance beyond current plans. In addition, we need to consider the implications of this threat for the size and deployment of the U.S. Navy.
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