Less than two weeks after President Trump initiated Enhanced Counter-Narcotic Operations in the Eastern Pacific and Caribbean, national security officials are already celebrating seizures of illegal drugs. The imagery used in official tweets center on one of the most difficult threats facing the coast guard: narco submarines.
On April 9 Secretary of Defense Mark Esper tweeted “As of today, the @USNavy and @USCG have already seized 2,100KG of cocaine headed for America using the strategy announced one week ago.” The image chosen showed a narco sub being interdicted by the Coast Guard in the Eastern Pacific on Aug. 31, 2015. A similar message was posted on the official Southern Command twitter account. It used a more up to date image, from Nov. 4 last year.
So what are these so-called “narco subs” and what are the main types? To a trained eye the two vessels shown in the tweets above are very different from each other, representing different categories.
#1 Low profile vessel with inboard motor
The narco sub tweeted by Esper shows a purpose-built boat with a very low profile, barely a couple of feet above the surface. It has a sailing yacht shaped hull with a tiny cockpit approximately in the middle. Critically for categorizing these smuggling craft, it has its motor inside it. This is termed an inboard motor and leads to the acronym LPV-IM (low profile vessel, inboard motor). This is the oldest of the modern types and first appeared in 2005. It is still relevant today, but has become less common.
#2 Low profile + very slender
VSVs (Very Slender Vessels) have been experimented with by the U.S. Navy SEALs for years. Since 2017 they have become increasingly popular with drug trafficking organisations too. The defining characteristic is that they are very long and narrow with a wave-piercing bow which goes through, rather than over, waves. They are typically 55 feet long and 5 feet across. Most have outboard motors leading to the acronym LPV-OM-VSV (low profile vessel, outboard motors, very slender vessel hull).
#3 Hybrid go-fast
Another category, not seen in the official tweets above, is to take a speedboat style hull but run it lower in the water. At first sight it can appear like a ‘go fast’ smugglers’ boat, which is a power boat loaded with extra fuel and narcotics, but it sits much lower. Some do have custom built hulls but most take a power boat type hull and modify it. This is easier than building a dedicated vessel from the ground up, and goes faster, but creates a less stealthy vessel. All the same this model has been popular since 2016. The more stealthy VSV type mentioned above evolved from this type.
#4 The rarest beast: very slender vessel with inboard motor
So far only one of this category has been interdicted at sea. It was dragged from the water by the Colombian Navy in January 2019. The concept is very simple, taking the traditional low profile vessel with an inboard motor and giving it a VSV hull. This does reduce the payload, but appears to be the most stealthy configuration of all.
There are other types, such as true submarines, but these are the main categories facing the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy and Customs & Border.
Courtesy – Forbes