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April 13, 2011 9:07 AM   Subscribe

Law enforcement authorities are in awe of the new wave of narco "supersubs" that are being found in the jungles of Colombia.

Previous discussions on the Blue.
posted by reenum (60 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
US law enforcement officials began to think of it as a sort of Loch Ness Monster, says one agent: “Never seen one before, never seized one before. But we knew it was out there.”

Now, that's not quite right is it.
posted by criticalbill at 9:12 AM on April 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


I initially thought this post would be about large submarine sandwiches filled with drugs.
posted by mightygodking at 9:17 AM on April 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Free Coke and CHiPs with every two supersub purchases.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:20 AM on April 13, 2011 [10 favorites]


This is a good sign that we are going to be able to get the drug trade under control... oh, wait...
posted by fuq at 9:24 AM on April 13, 2011


The most valuable feature, though, is the cargo bay, capable of holding up to 9 tons of cocaine

DEA agents, working in concert with the Avengers, were led to the payload after noticing that Galactus seemed to be carrying a two-ton, fifty-foot long housekey and kept discussing plans to start a band where all the music would be based on like the cosmos like maybe not even any notes just the celestial sounds of the planets like jupiter and mars and okay maybe some keyboards maybe like a Korg or two, oh shit we TOTALLY need to get a Korg
posted by Greg Nog at 9:28 AM on April 13, 2011 [7 favorites]


I love the fact that they're worrying about national security implications of these subs above and beyond drug running. So just like our other wars, the War on Drugs is doing absolutely nothing except encouraging exactly the kind of drive and innovation we don't want to see.
posted by Ickster at 9:31 AM on April 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


Hey, awesome - forcing lucrative drug trade underground (or underwater) develops black market capacity for transporting all kinds of shit. I guess what I'm saying is that the US can prevent terrorism (!) by legalizing and regulating drugs.
posted by parudox at 9:34 AM on April 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Those things have been around for a while now and they keep getting better and better. I wonder how long it'll be until they can hit the open ocean. Maybe the cartels will even get their own maritime flag!
posted by jake1 at 9:35 AM on April 13, 2011


Wow. This is what happens if you don't go for a soda.
posted by GuyZero at 9:38 AM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


God, I wish I could talk to the people who made this. So many questions!

-How did they contact you, and did they just come out and say "yo, we need you to make a sub to smuggle drugs" or were they like "so here's our problem, what solutions do you have?" Was your reply "hey, I think a submarine might work, and I think I can get it built." Were they on board with that idea or did someone have to shoot someone in the head to get a consensus on that issue?

-What's your educational background like?

-What's your work history like? Have you built subs/ships before in any capacity? Do you have any experience overseeing complex operations? I bet you're a good project manager.

-Did you start from scratch on this thing? How much of existing sub design did you intentionally copy? Do you think you improved on anything that you could share with others in your field?

-What tools and resources did you use to get this done? How many prototypes did you go through? What was your engineering plan here: was this like 3-5 people in a single shop or did you outsource any of the work? Did you start from raw materials? Did you have part of a sub to expand upon?

-What's your life story? Where did you grow up? Did you want to build stuff and figure out how stuff works as a kid? Did you want to be involved with drug smuggling from an early age? What brought you to this, exactly, and what shaped you along the way.

Well done. Whatever you do in the future, I hope you use your forces for good.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:46 AM on April 13, 2011 [8 favorites]


It's just a matter of time before drug traffickers create an invention that crosses over into other industries. Probably already happened.
posted by rageagainsttherobots at 9:48 AM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


These drug sub guys give the other totally legit Colombian submarine constructors a bad name. But I love the colorful paint job.
posted by MrFTBN at 9:49 AM on April 13, 2011


I love that they suggest it could be used to ferry illegal immigrants. How many immigrants would you have to transport before you started getting any kind of ROI on that?

But, yeah, high payoff illegal enterprises sure do push innovation.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:52 AM on April 13, 2011


I also like the go-fast boats. The notion of pirate shipbuilders making uncatchable craft in the modern day is pretty romantic...
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:52 AM on April 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


From the details in the article I found the area where the sub was built here, unfortunately all Google has is the low-res satellite imagery... would have been fun to play intelligence analyst and try to locate it.
posted by crapmatic at 9:53 AM on April 13, 2011


I wonder why they don't just buy a sub.
posted by TheShadowKnows at 9:53 AM on April 13, 2011


So many questions!

The Wired article answers (or at least provides good guesses for) most of those, even though the specific builders of these cutting edge subs are unknown. The Colombians have been building submersibles for over ten years, so most likely the people who worked on this have had experience with less sophisticated subs. And they are built by large numbers of rural laborers using equipment and materials that are smuggled into the jungle.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:54 AM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I love that they included a toilet. Is it flushable?
posted by madred at 9:55 AM on April 13, 2011


I wonder why they don't just buy a sub.

I'm guessing that, given that submarines are large, take a long time to build and are built by a small number of well-regulated shipyards, it's a lot harder to sell submarines off the record to random crooks than it is to sell, say, a few containerloads of AK-47s or land mines.

Then again, private submarines aren't unheard of; I recall reading that diamond cartel De Beers has a fleet which it uses to protect its diamond shipments.
posted by acb at 9:57 AM on April 13, 2011


The hull, they discovered, was made from a costly and exotic mixture of Kevlar and carbon fiber, tough enough to withstand modest ocean pressures but difficult to trace at sea. Like a classic German U-boat, the drug-running submarine uses diesel engines on the surface and battery-powered electric motors when submerged. With a crew of four to six, it has a maximum operational range of 6,800 nautical miles on the surface and can go 10 days without refueling. Packed with 249 lead-acid batteries, the behemoth can also travel silently underwater for up to 18 hours before recharging.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:58 AM on April 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


!!!
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:58 AM on April 13, 2011


In my ideal world the investigators discover the submarine was in fact assembled by a group of teenagers...

...on an adventure of a lifetime...

...to see faraway places and explore hidden temples.

...to find treasures beneath the oceans and discover exotic sea creatures.

Will these seven teenagers survive their heroic journey?

Stay tuned and find out!


On a side note, I do appreciate that they've included a toilet in this version. Hygiene is gaining ground in drug trafficking circles it seems.
posted by lemuring at 10:01 AM on April 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


I love that they suggest it could be used to ferry illegal immigrants. How many immigrants would you have to transport before you started getting any kind of ROI on that?

The ROI comes from all the drug smuggling they would also be doing. The illegal immigrant ferrying is just for gas money.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 10:03 AM on April 13, 2011


On a side note, I do appreciate that they've included a toilet in this version. Hygiene is gaining ground in drug trafficking circles it seems.

Perhaps international drug trafficking has entered its Google phase, where, rather than exploiting slave labour or bribing the desperate with promises of fabulous wealth, cartels are competing for the best in their field with increasingly elaborate perks. ("Hey submariners: work for us! Our subs have toilet facilities!")
posted by acb at 10:05 AM on April 13, 2011


In my ideal world the investigators discover the submarine was in fact assembled by a group of teenagers...

Y'mean like the Mad Scientists Club of Mammoth Fall, Minn.?
posted by Herodios at 10:11 AM on April 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I love that they included a toilet. Is it flushable?

of course! if detected, they just flush the dope down the toilet. it's frickin' perfect.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 10:15 AM on April 13, 2011 [20 favorites]


Y'mean like the Mad Scientists Club of Mammoth Fall, Minn.?

Ha! He even has seven teenagers in the story!
posted by lemuring at 10:22 AM on April 13, 2011


Kevlar/CF sounds high tech but for the purposes of withstanding water pressure I don't think it would be much use at all. Iirc from reading the article the last time the kevlar/carbon fibre hull had a crush depth of about 30ft. It does give the advantage of not showing up on MAD and battery-run subs are also better at hiding from acoustic ASW detectors. Modern blue-green Lidar might pick up the sub at that depth - I don't know enough about the tech and it's adoption to comment tbh. Running just subsurface to charge the batteries leaves them open to radar, FLIR and visual detection (most subs are detected from their wake).

I'd be surprised if the batteries would hold out sufficiently for the duration required and figure that they'd run much like U-Boats (on the surface most of the time, switching to batteries/sub-surface when threatened by interdiction). I think it's likely they'd have to adopt "milk-cow" subs to top them up with if they had any intention of travelling any sort of distance.

Personally I suspect that you'd be better off towing a submersible but neutrally bouyant unmanned container at some depth that could be jettisoned and retrieved at a later date. You could use a series of different boats and divers to relay it which would make it considerably harder to track as it went from ship to ship. I would guess that the cartels will have tried this already, they have the money to hire some very smart people.
posted by longbaugh at 10:23 AM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is it just me, or does that boat look far too much like a movie prop?
posted by schmod at 10:29 AM on April 13, 2011


I love that they suggest it could be used to ferry illegal immigrants. How many immigrants would you have to transport before you started getting any kind of ROI on that?

The ROI comes from all the drug smuggling they would also be doing. The illegal immigrant ferrying is just for gas money.


These subs are tiny and don't have the CO2 scrubbers that would be needed to support a large crew for a significant amount of time. There is no way they are going to add unskilled, unnecessary human cargo to a vessel that costs $5 million to build and transports $250 million in cocaine. The only reason they put anyone in it at all is because they need someone to steer it to the destination. And their destination is usually Mexico, not the US.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:34 AM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Actually the subs were to be made by Electric Boat, in Groton Ct, where we get our nuclear armed subs for the Navy, but the drug lords complained about cost over-runs and so they are now made in China and sailed here. The crew, from China, allowed to stay in Columbia as guest for two weeks and then go to Yankee Land, with the drugs, and fly home by plane.
posted by Postroad at 10:37 AM on April 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Previously (oh, c'mon, don't tell me there were no drugs involved)
posted by exogenous at 10:58 AM on April 13, 2011


Another great example of capitalism (the entrepreneurial black market drug trade) defeating socialism (the state proscribing an entire market by edict). I'm not much of a gung-ho capitalist myself but stuff like this makes me recognize the undeniable power of the invisible hand. The war on drugs will absolutely never be won, but it will provide a wonderful welfare system for the authority figures and people in flamboyant costumes that the masses love so much.
posted by mullingitover at 11:00 AM on April 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


US law enforcement officials began to think of it as a sort of Loch Ness Monster, says one agent: “Never seen one before, never seized one before. But we knew it was out there.”

Those in charge of our drug enforcement policies believe in mythical monsters? That right there is a beautiful metaphor. You can't write satire this good.
posted by formless at 11:04 AM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


longbaugh: From page 3 of the article.

"In 1999, Montoya and his associates began designing a finned, dart-shaped tube that could be crammed with cocaine and towed underwater by fishing trawlers to evade detection. His “narco torpedo” was unmanned and carried radio transponders to locate it if traffickers had to ditch it on the open seas. "
posted by Grimgrin at 11:19 AM on April 13, 2011


That's why they haven't returned my calls! Fuckers stole my ideas already!
posted by longbaugh at 11:33 AM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Kevlar/CF sounds high tech but for the purposes of withstanding water pressure I don't think it would be much use at all.

Limited. Their strength is in tension, which is why a composite fuselage on an pressurized airplane works, the pressure puts the tube into tension. They're not nearly as good in compression, but really, what you need is beams and frames across. From what I can see, it's just a big tube, even HY-80 steel would have trouble with that.

Then again, there's the old saw about submarines -- you never really truly know the crush depth until you reach it -- at which point, you don't really care anymore.
posted by eriko at 11:33 AM on April 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's just a matter of time before drug traffickers create an invention that crosses over into other industries.

well, i can think of one of their creations that has been fairly popular in the music industry.
posted by dubold at 12:32 PM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Hey, I'll catch up with you guys in a moment. I'm just going to buy some, uh, souvenirs from that dude in the, uh, submarine!"
posted by mmrtnt at 12:53 PM on April 13, 2011


> In 1999, Montoya and his associates...

My name is Inigo Montoya.

You sank my submarine.

Prepare to die!
posted by mmrtnt at 12:57 PM on April 13, 2011


Does anyone here remember the Dealer McDope comic with Father Guido Sarducci and the submarines smuggling drugs? Drawn by David Sheridan? Way back in the early 70s? Did I hallucinate the whole thing? Help...
posted by Splunge at 12:59 PM on April 13, 2011


OK, so you've got a tube with a bunch of lead-acid batteries, a generator, diesel fuel, air space for a crew, a few humans to drive it and a relatively small cargo hold.

Stupid question: why not ditch the humans altogether and add simple computer control?

Smugglers tow it out to sea, set the destination and send it on its way. When it reaches the destination it holds in place (or drifts in the general vicinity) until it receives radio instructions to surface for unloading. The boat that meets the sub can link up and recharge the batteries while offloading the cargo, then send it back for another load.

They'd save the cargo capacity they're wasting ferrying a crew, the life support systems for the crew (limited though they are), the diesel generators and fuel. Plus the current hull is shaped such that a human can be aboard - remove the human and you can make it longer and thinner reducing drag which you could trade for speed or capacity.

And while I'm suggesting improvements, why lead-acid batteries? Yes, they're cheap, available and well understood by your engineers, but they're also heavy and have limited charge/discharge cycles. The sub costs $5M, I'd expect them to spring for some better batteries to improve range and speed.
posted by cmj at 1:23 PM on April 13, 2011


You've screwed up now cmj. They'll just read that, implement it and you'll never see a penny...

The drug cartels will rue the day they stole my IP!
posted by longbaugh at 1:27 PM on April 13, 2011


They're not nearly as good in compression

That's an understatement. Kevlar is absolute crap in compression. I'm still trying to figure out what the point of having Kevlar in the hull may be, and can't find any. So, either:

a) somebody is playing games with the drug lords (generally not a good idea); or
b) the journalist is wrong in this regard (rather more likely).
posted by Skeptic at 1:54 PM on April 13, 2011


WTF Gilligan. Home depot class.
posted by clavdivs at 2:06 PM on April 13, 2011


I'm still trying to figure out what the point of having Kevlar in the hull may be, and can't find any. So, either:

a) somebody is playing games with the drug lords (generally not a good idea); or
b) the journalist is wrong in this regard (rather more likely).


c) drug lords say they want it made out of kevlar because kevlar it totally fuckin' strong, and nobody wants to tell them otherwise.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:20 PM on April 13, 2011


Here's the thing: if those surface engines are diesel, then they are running on MDO 180 or MDO 380, which someone one has to sell them. No way you could bunker one of them at sea, so it's portside (ex-truck delivery in the jungle is a far, far distant possibility).

There are a very, very limited number of bunker suppliers in Colombia.
posted by digitalprimate at 4:29 PM on April 13, 2011


Stupid question: why not ditch the humans altogether and add simple computer control?

Computer control would be so much more complicated and expensive, and far less reliable. And for a submersible vehicle, it's even worse: In order to get a radio signal or GPS signal you need to either be on the surface or have antennas that reach to the surface.

They'd save the cargo capacity they're wasting ferrying a crew, the life support systems for the crew (limited though they are), the diesel generators and fuel.

They would still need the diesel generators & fuel; The current set of batteries was reported to give the sub an underwater endurance of 18 hours.

Basically, if you have cheap human labor available, computerizing your sub probably doesn't make sense.
posted by jjwiseman at 4:33 PM on April 13, 2011


There's something terribly romantic and heroic about these efforts to thwart the war on drugs. Jesus, the DEA should take all of the credit for the stimulating such ingenuity.
posted by thebestusernameever at 4:41 PM on April 13, 2011


Why Kevlar? Stealth. Kevlar has a very, very low radar signature, making it tough to detect once on the surface. I doubt it has much of a sonar return, either, and active sonar sure as shooting ain't set up to look for something made of kevlar at depth.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:10 PM on April 13, 2011


“This is a quantum leap in technology,” Bergman says over a breakfast of eggs and strong Colombian coffee at a Bogotá hotel. “It poses some formidable challenges.”
The smallest measurable leap?
posted by delmoi at 5:30 PM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sensationalist journalistic nonsense designed to frighten you. Some coker up drug lords white elephant.
posted by humanfont at 5:34 PM on April 13, 2011


Stupid question: why not ditch the humans altogether and add simple computer control?
Yeah it would be really difficult. You couldn't stay underwater and use GPS or anything like that.
posted by delmoi at 5:41 PM on April 13, 2011


I love that they included a toilet. Is it flushable?

of course! if detected, they just flush the dope down the toilet. it's frickin' perfect.
At 60 ft. submergence pressure, flushing overboard might have unexpected results.
posted by ctmf at 6:49 PM on April 13, 2011


Kevlar/CF sounds high tech but for the purposes of withstanding water pressure I don't think it would be much use at all.

Limited. Their strength is in tension, which is why a composite fuselage on an pressurized airplane works, the pressure puts the tube into tension. They're not nearly as good in compression, but really, what you need is beams and frames across. From what I can see, it's just a big tube, even HY-80 steel would have trouble with that.

Good points. They could get around this problem by pumping the internal air pressure up to two atm..

That would keep the hull in tension down to ~33ft., which is consistent with the 30 ft. design limit someone mentioned.
posted by jamjam at 8:32 PM on April 13, 2011


You know what they could do, buy a big old ship, fill it up with sub making supplies, and then sail out to international waters and build it there.
posted by delmoi at 9:36 PM on April 13, 2011


From what I can see, it's just a big tube, even HY-80 steel would have trouble with that.

From examining the pictures, the design seems to be rather more sophisticated than that, making use of submarine technology from the 1950's to get around building limitations.

My guess is that the local builders didn't have access to large scale stamping, rolling and welding equipment necessary for building a steel-plate pressure hull, but did have the stuff for building small craft out of light, relatively expensive materials like kevlar. The whole boat is constructed around an internal frame right out of the 1950's, and the hull form is from the 1950's as well: it's the classic American 'albacore' hull form from 1953, lacking in modern refinements such as the flattened weather decks one sees in modern descendants of this design. The submarine is only able to take about 2 atm pressure, but that's probably overkill if one doesn't care about the survivability of the crew. The only way to bring such a vessel to the surface would be to actively track it for many hours (difficult without specialised equipment, which the Mexican coastguard probably lacks) or to depth charge it. Now I assume that the survivability of such a submarine in a depth charge attack would be pretty much zero. This might, on the other hand, be viewed by drug cartel people as a feature, not a bug. Dead men tell no tales.

In a sense, this retro-50's look reflects a certain naivete in the design. The albacore hull form was developed for submarines to operate efficiently in a submerged condition. But this sub is a classic, old-school diesel electric, reminiscent of the configurations from ten years earlier. The forward diving planes are stepped way down near the foot, as if they are intended to operate as a kind of ersatz roll-keel while at or near the surface. The conning tower has windows (?!) set at what seems to be eye height for a man standing in the 'control room' of the submarine. This is terrible for a submerged submarine (critical point of weakness) but potentially useful at the surface. The submerged endurance figures we're given in the article are incomplete (18 hours at what speed?), but I'm assuming that they would be limited to a relative crawl while submerged (say 2-5 knt) in order to save battery power. All this means that the boat would most likely sail on the surface or awash (like previous narco-subs we've seen) and dive to hide from nearby patrol craft. In which case, why the teardrop hull? Such a hull form would roll around like a cork on the surface, dramatically reducing the effectiveness and endurance of the crew. Much better to build a conventional 'boat' hull which could dive.

tl/dr: this thing should look like an old U-boat from the '40's, but instead is built like a sub from the 1950's. I'm not sure what this tells us, but it's strange and might tell us something useful.
posted by Dreadnought at 10:44 PM on April 13, 2011 [7 favorites]


Stupid question: why not ditch the humans altogether and add simple computer control?

Because state-of-the-art computer navigation systems cost money, whereas disposable serfs, motivated by money and fear, are as free as the air.
posted by acb at 6:59 AM on April 14, 2011


Stupid question: why not ditch the humans altogether and add simple computer control?

This gave me a great idea! I keep hearing about these UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) that the military is all hot on. I'd be willing to guess that it would be rather trivial to build enough autonomy into them that they could go to a pre-programmed (or randomly selected choice of program) drop-off point where they'd drop the cargo and report back that they'd arrived (or not). Later on, someone comes by to pick it up. It seems like there would be very difficult to find the starting or landing location (and the programming could auto-destruct on completion). While they could be found, disabled, and confiscated, if you had enough it wouldn't matter if some got lost. I don't think would show up on most RADAR or other flight monitoring equipment. I looked into it and you can definitely carry a decent payload on a smaller UAV. Here's one that can carry 2 kilos (see 2008/9 surveillance section) and these helicopter UAVs apparently have a payload of up to 350kg and airtime of up to 18 hours. I'd also think it would be much simpler to build them, communicate with them, orient them, and get parts for them.

Here's the thing: if those surface engines are diesel, then they are running on MDO 180 or MDO 380, which someone one has to sell them.

That's assuming they're using typical marine diesel engines...they may have re-purposed standard industrial engines, especially considering the hybrid drive train. I'm also pretty sure that an engine that can run on bunker can run on just about anything petrol with some adjustment. It's getting an engine to run on bunker fuel that seems to be the more difficult engineering problem, although that's conjecture based on experiences with running standard diesels on unblended vegetable oil and mixed motor oil.
posted by nTeleKy at 11:34 AM on April 14, 2011


Why Kevlar? Stealth. Kevlar has a very, very low radar signature, making it tough to detect once on the surface.

That's absurd. Cheap glassfibre has the same low radar signature, and twice the compression strength than Kevlar. Unless the hull was indeed pressurised, as jamjam suggests, there would be little point in using Kevlar, and such pressurisation would raise other issues, notably regarding decompression sickness. On the other hand, the toilet would flush...
posted by Skeptic at 4:43 AM on April 17, 2011


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