The Threat From Below

Science, technology, and life.
June 8 2009 10:12 AM

The Threat From Below

Will the next attack on the United States come from submarines?

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

When I asked that question seven years ago , the model I had in mind was the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist group infamous for naval suicide strikes. A Tiger supporter had recently been caught building a submersible vessel.

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Last month, the Tigers were wiped out by the Sri Lankan military. But the technology they were developing, submersibles, has caught on. "U.S. law enforcement officials say that more than a third of the cocaine smuggled into the United States from Colombia travels in submersibles," the Washington Post reports . "U.S. officials and their Colombian counterparts have detected evidence of more than 115 submersible voyages since 2006," and "U.S. officials expect 70 or more to be launched this year."

Why submersibles? They're hard to detect and easy to sink. The Post explains:

Until recently, submariners caught by authorities could not be charged in the United States or Colombia if the cocaine was scuttled. "The vessels are built to sink. When they open the valves, tons of water come in, and in a minute, or a minute and a half, they sink," [a Colombian admiral] said. "There is no evidence, and what starts as a counterdrug operation becomes a rescue operation." ... "With no drugs found, we couldn't prosecute," said [an] assistant U.S. attorney. At least eight crews have been returned to Colombia after rescue, without being charged.

Is it expensive to sink your own sub? Not if you're a drug lord. Each sub costs about $1 million to produce. The crew gets $500,000 or less. A recent 6.4-ton payload of cocaine was worth more than $100 million. As a percentage of the gross, subs are so cheap that they're routinely scuttled anyway.

That's the genius of submersibility. Several months ago, during the Israeli invasion of Gaza, we explored the terrestrial underworld of the Gaza tunnels . The tunnelers were developing a three-dimensional way of thinking about land : While one side built walls and stationed soldiers above ground, the other side went down 60 feet and dug past those barriers.

The nautical underworld is even better. You don't have to dig. You just glide. Even the semisubmersible crafts built by the drug lords are low enough to evade radar. And underwater, you can do something else that can't be done on land: dump your contraband and let gravity take it beyond your enemy's reach. No evidence, no conviction.

To stop this tactic, Congress recently enacted the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act of 2008 , which declares that anyone operating "any submersible vessel or semi-submersible vessel that is without nationality ... with the intent to evade detection, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both."

Maybe that law will deter submarine drug commerce. But what about submarine terrorism? Ultimately, "U.S. officials fear that the rogue vessels could be used by terrorists intent on reaching the United States with deadly cargos," the Post reports. In fact, "Colombian officials say some former military personnel might be helping to design, construct and direct the vessels" used by the drug lords. If so, all that's needed is a financial lure from al-Qaida to build a vessel for a different mission.

It might not be a suicide mission, either. Drug submersible builders are "trying to develop a remote-controlled model," according to officials contacted by the Post . Two men were arrested last year, apparently while peddling this technology. No crew necessary . Just pack the radioactive bomb aboard your craft, slip it underwater, and hit any coastal target.

Think about that the next time you take off your shoes at an airport security gate. If we expect the next 9/11 attack to come from the sky, we may be looking the wrong way.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

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