P-3 Subhunters Using ASW Gear to Find Narco-Subs?

Remember about a couple of years ago when news of drug smugglers using so called “semi-submersibles” was all the rage? Those craft can almost completely submerge themselves to evade interception. Still, the vessels don’t go all the way underwater and can be spotted from ships or aircraft and have been intercepted a number of times.

Since then, the high seas cat-and-mouse game between governments and drug smugglers has become more intense now that the cartels have built actual submarines. It sounds like these vessels are capable of staying underwater long enough to warrant the use of P-3 subhunters to find them.

Calling them “third-generation” Narco-subs, Adm. James Stavridis, supreme NATO commander said during a speech this week in Arlington, Va., that the U.S. and its allies in Latin America are using P-3s to hunt these actual submarines which have communications suites that rival some modern military subs. Now, he didn’t elaborate, but I’m pretty sure Stavridis wasn’t talking about the airborne early warning versions of the P-3 used by the Department of Homeland Security to track drug flights or another variant used by DHS that can track surface ships suspected of smuggling. Yes, the Navy has been using P-3s to help hunt drug smugglers on the surface, but what’s new here is that they may actually be using the planes’ ASW capabilities.

The existence of these actual submarines was first unveiled last summer when police and soldiers discovered a 100-foot long, air-conditioned sub estimated to be able to carry 10 tons of cargo, at a secret narco-shipyard in the jungles of Ecuador. Rumor has it these vessels are designed and built with serious help from the leftist Colombian rebel group known as the FARC.

All this begs the question, even if you can find a submarine from the sky, how do you know 100 percent who it belongs without getting it to surface? How do you get the vessel to surface for inspection during peacetime without serious kinetic action? Do authorities simply track the vessel and wait for it to arrive at its destination before moving into arrest the smugglers?

35 Comments on "P-3 Subhunters Using ASW Gear to Find Narco-Subs?"

  1. That's what subhunters do; identify, track and if necessary sink subs, and they have a number of tools for that.

    – A MAD boom – the stinger-like sensor extending from the tail – to detect disturbances in the Earths magnetic field (such as caused by a passing metal sub),
    – airdropped sonobouys which float and lower hydrophones under water,
    – surface radar; the P-3s radar can detect periscopes, and even detect tell-tale (wake) wave patters,
    – sniffers; the P-3 has sensors which can detect diesel fumes from miles away.
    – infrared; the IR sensor can detect underwater subs, and even certain (algae) disturbances (if you're lucky).
    – processing power; old, but still powerfull computers which can compute all the data and compare it to known 'footprints' – unique info often recovered by a trailing (spying) submarine.

    So if I'd be the P-3 ASW tactical coordinator (TACCO), I'd first establish the sector where I'd want to spend the rest of the 8-10 hour flight looking for possible contacts, drop sonobouys at specific corridors/choke points, and fly a racetrack pattern using the MAD-boom, radar, sniffers and good ole Mark One Eyeball with binocs for possible contacts.

    If something interesting is found, the TACCO can order the pilot to go in low and slow to get a closer look (with binocs, radar and/or IR). Drop special search sonobouys to "ping" an underwater contact, or just passively listen to it.

    These make-shift NARCO-subs/semi-submersibles are NOISY, you have no idea. They can be detected by ASW assets miles away, be it by P-3, navy (LAMPS) helicopters, frigates or other submarines.

    These Narco subs can mask their sound by hiding in the noise from surface waves, but they can't stay there forever. ASW is something NATO is very good at – well, was anyway.

  2. is it just me, or have you written this exact same post before?

  3. Maybe the Cartels will salve the problem of the Navy not knowing how to find Diesel Subs it's like hyper realistic training kill two Birds with one stone.

  4. "How do you get the vessel to surface for inspection during peacetime without serious kinetic action? Do authorities simply track the vessel and wait for it to arrive at its destination before moving into arrest the smugglers?"

    That's what you would want to do, anyway. If you captured the sub in transit, the most you'd be getting is the shipment itself and usually one low-ranked operator. What you really want is to unravel the whole logistics structure, starting with whoever shows up to receive the shipment. It's not like the sub will be asking for official mooring space at a commercial port.

  5. Does anyone stop and wonder just how much money is going into this failed war on drugs? Drugs are still relatively cheap and easily accessible. Prisons are overflowing with low level drug offenders. Governments around the world are destabilized by the illicit drug trade. What do you think is going to happen? If we buy just one more sub hunter, or open up one more prison, or arrest that one drug kingpin, that the war would be over and illegal drugs would no longer be available?

    “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

  6. Guess my inner caveman got loose, but wouldn't it be within the right to self defense to sink a sub covertly entering US territorial waters?

  7. What happened to the US's previous propaganda claims that they could "hear any submarine within 2000 miles and tell if its a dolphin or a tadpole, no sub is too queit except our own, we have sensors everywhere the enemy can never find, our shores are impenatrable blah blah blah"

    Military command needs to go. I think they must of all got grandfathered in a long time ago, or they are buying their way in like country club memberships. Whoever is in charge of organizing our R&D and equipment purchases is incompetant.

  8. OS1(SS/SW) RET | January 14, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Reply

    As a former Anti-Submarine Air Controller (ASAC) aboard a number of US Navy Frigates and Destroyers, I can say this approach was tried 20+ years ago with limited success. Having a USCG detachment onboard conducting drug interdiction ops in the Caribbean, this method was attempted against small surface contacts. I suggested the theory of the cartels using an old Diesel/Electric to transport drugs and impulse them out of the torpedo tubes for pick up. The contacts we were tracking were small surface boats, but these are in the same 'Sound Channel' as a shallow sub or semi-submersible.

    The Caribbean is lousy acoustics for sound travel. Warm, relatively shallow water, is an acoustic problem. Limitations of Sonobuoy design (ie; depth settings) also caused complications. Small MDR's (Mean Detection Range = 50% probability of detection) were so small that Sonobouy placement was short, using an excessive amount of them to cover even a small area. Of note, I used our onboard LAMPS (SH-2F) to conduct this study. After several contacts were 'prosecuted', we determined that the capabilities were of limited us and not very cost effective. As UpDopler points out, MAD is not a detection sensor, but a confirmation sensor. Like a search for a needle in a hay stack.

    This 'study' we did was never anything official. It was at my suggestion that we should look in to it as we had limited air surveillance at times, but good intel on drug movements. By placing long life sonobouys we could in effect establish a fence and monitor them from the ship in a stand off position, launching our Helicopter only when needed. Needless to say, it was of limited success in the near surface, poor acoustic, sound channel of the Caribbean.

    OS1(SS/SW) USN (ret)

  9. I heard the narcosubs are made from fiberglass….doesn't that make the P-3's MAD irrelevent?

  10. Cranky Observer | January 15, 2011 at 10:27 am | Reply

    > All this begs the question, even if you can find a submarine
    > from the sky, how do you know 100 percent who it belongs
    > without getting it to surface?

    All of which begs the question, since human beings have been consuming reasonable quantities of mind-altering and general recreational substances since they developed the concept of cause and effect, and since the percentage of people who abuse mind altering substances has remained fixed throughout human society regardless of how relaxed or punitive the prohibition laws have been, why don't we simply sell mind-altering substances to any citizen over the age of 18 who holds a "drug users license" from stores regulated by the Pure Food and Drug Act (i.e. Pennsylvania's state-run liquor stores), and give up the utterly unnecessary and colossally self-destructive War on Human Nature?


    Read more: http://live-defensetech.sites.thewpvalet.com/#ixzz1B7N3aJEr

  11. War on drugs: the stupidest, most wasteful war ever.

  12. Targeting supply is pointless, it'll always find a way through. Here's an unpopular view: dealers are just meeting a demand and law enforcement should take a light hand with them. Get them onside, pay them regularly for tipoffs on their new customers – most dealers couldn't care less where their money comes from, and put a plainclothes officer in every club with a hint of a reputation. Then hit all the users so hard they'll wish they were on death row. With sufficient disincentive and low enough odds of getting away with it demand will evaporate overnight and illicit drugs will be finished as a social issue.

  13. Why not just use a few attack subs and use the narco "subs" as target practice?

  14. samuel Mordente | January 15, 2011 at 11:33 pm | Reply

    As a retired cpo in a P-3 sqn, I thought they sold us out when the cold war ended, but we hung in there and now it looks as if we are back.

  15. In my opinion, so called "narco subs" should be declared terrorist craft and dealt with as such. These vessels are not registered with the IMO or any nation and they are attempting to evade detection. They could carry anything from biological warfare agents to chemical warfare agents to nuclear material (although one assumes that the P-3 would pick up on that one immediately). They should be given opportunity to surface and identify themselves or be taken under fire. Depth charges seem an appropriate level of force.

  16. Very good Mordente. The real question is, is this a mission looking for weapon system or a weapons system seeking a mission? Did the DEA or DHS approach the Navy and say, "Hey, we have this narco-sub problem and we need your P-3s." or did the Navy come to DHS and say, "Hey, we have these P-3s looking for work, we hear you can use 'em to hunt narco-subs"?
    I suspect the later. Unless a case can be made that the drug trade has shifted in such a major way towards sub trafficing AND existing assets are falling short.

  17. gives new meaning to: "We all live in a yellow-submarine." The Beatles must have foresaw this when one of them was in a Heroin induced song-writing muse!

  18. Here is a kick in the nuts that would bring down every drug lord, make drugs legal and heavily taxed.

  19. The best ASW platform is another submarine. But we could use a cheaper torpedo than the MK48 adcap to kill these boats. If I were a submariner, I'd be excited about the opportunity to engage and eliminate these types of targets. No government will protest and no one would ever know….

  20. somewhere a bell goes off that reminds me that the military may not be used to for law enforcement puroses ….. it's a constitutional thing. I'm not personally opposed. I think they should drop charges on the bastards ….. just saying …….

  21. The best way to force the sub to the surface is to use depth charges in a pattern around the sub. If the sub dives to get away, then it is probably a military sub. The Narco subs can't dive too deep or they would have to be very expensive to build. The depth charges would make the crew panic and want to abandon ship. They would come to the surface to do that.

  22. They should send some of the US Navy's attack submarines to track and destroy the 3rd gen "narco-subs".
    The opposition might then have to resort to hiring professional mercenary navy personnel to command armed subs willing to destroy US subs. Keep track of this story. It ought to get more interesting over time.

  23. What else can we think up to spend money on? My guess is the Navy jumped on this one to keep a few more planes flying in rather cushy areas. In the cold war, when Navy anti-sub project costs came up in Congress, the Navy would quickly respond with a report spotting Soviet Union subs right off the Eastern seaboard. Wouldn’t it be better to let the drug-addicts have their kicks and not turn this country into some kind of narco amusement park? Let the drugs in, tax them just enough not to make it lucrative for traffickers to sell non-taxed drugs, and teach kids and adults that there really are lousy consequences to using drug. Don’t put them in prison, either, where they can live for free as we pay tens of thousands a year for their prison housing. Show them consequences that maybe do not put you in prison, but mess up your life in really bad ways. In the not too distant future we would see major declines in drug use, IMHO. Just my thoughts to add to the conversation.

  24. Would the Coast Guard be providing an escort and a 21 gun salute if those same subs were carrying cigarettes and booze? The war on drugs is a war against civilians who are responding to a free market. Drug users are idiots, but isn't that their choice in a free society? How can we be for freedom and a smaller government, if we must use armed force to dictate what you can and can't ingest? Sure, we can be like Iran and hang drug traffickers. Has that been any more successful? War is the most serious business a society can engage in, and should be used only as a last resort. Those P3's could be much better used off the coast of countries like North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Yemen or Somalia, places where real bad guys are operating.

  25. Using P3's with ASW gear against civilians is a bad idea. It opens the door to misusing the military to fix social problems. Will we also be using Predators against illegal immigrants? Hellfire missiles against drunk drivers? Counter sniper fire to stop poaching? Fast Attack subs to stop illegal fishing boats? Motorized rifle companies to respond to wife beaters? I'm sure lots of you will say yes, and therein lies my point… our founding fathers were quite clear about the matter, and it's worked fine for hundreds of years. We need to be mighty careful who we tag with the dreaded "terrorist" label, and take a page from the French and Chinese revolutions, where sooner or later everyone is suspect, and the enemy becomes you and I.

  26. http://www.wired.com/thisdayintech/2011/01/0118fi

    as far as the last comments, as long as there is connection between narco-terrorists and the ME, interdiction is a top priority…… the fears stated above are quite absurd.

  27. It's economics!!! The thing is that drug business is a very lucrative one. And one way of keeping it lucrative is to make it illegal. If governments would legalize it, it would ruin the profits of the druglords of Africa and South America and Asia; and would even more ruin the profits of their bosses in North America and Europe. Of course i would like to erradicate every drug dealer in the world and that i'd love to see brute force used by a P3 to sink a narco-sub; but i know that that would be a needle in an haystack. For me the solution relies on education and providing young people "individual psycological defense weapons", so that they say no to drugs. When the need for drugs starts to disappear, then we will be starting to win this so-called war.

  28. Has anyone here ever heard of ISPS International Port Security System? On a daily basis, merchant crews are subject to search, inspection and are usually restricted to the ship. Port workers go through at least 2 levels of security daily. Port workers are subject to background checks, searches and monitoring.. We are going to very great lengths to ensure that our ports are secure.

    The attitude that a submarine supposedly full of some "happy juice" approaching the coast of the US not being a threat is both absurd and makes a joke of the sacrifies made by merchant seamen and port workers. Theattitude that interdiction of this threat is somehow unworthy of the USN or P3 crews is simply crazy.

  29. As a former ASW equipment operator on P3s, I find the article interesting. Unless our tactics and technology has taken a step backwards, finding and identifying ANY submerged vessel is highly likely. If it is one of our subs, we can't find it. If it is one of the foreign military subs, we can easily keep trck of it. If it is a sub being used for some other purpose, the purpose is a threat. With all due respect to the posters that find legalizing drugs is the answer, or fear military action violates someone's "rights", it stands to reason that an unidentified vessel attempting to enter U.S. waters should be dealt with as a threat to our security. Find it, track it, and dispose of it.

  30. Absolutly. Legalize and educate (eliminating the need for drugs); and meanwhile treat it as the menace it is for the citizens

  31. Or just send CAP back to its roots and have them do it, freeing up the military to do what it needs to do. CAP can do it a heck of a lot cheaper too…

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  34. movers los angeles | June 7, 2013 at 6:14 am | Reply

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