COLUMN | Maritime forces respond to surge in drug trafficking by sea [Naval Gazing]

UK Royal Marines from the frigate HMS Montrose board a drug-carrying dhow in Middle East waters. (Photo: Combined Maritime Forces)

Intelligence reports indicate that the Covid-19 pandemic is having a profound effect upon the international trade in illegal narcotics. The radical reduction in airline traffic caused by the pandemic is making it difficult for narcotics trafficking syndicates to use the traditional “mule” method, which involves paying multiple air passengers for each to smuggle relatively small quantities of drugs.

Drug traffickers have therefore switched emphasis to sea routes, and maritime forces have responded by intensifying their efforts to counter such activity.

The United States Coast Guard (USCG), traditionally a leader in the battle against narcotics runners, is in the vanguard of these efforts, and has boosted its presence in the Caribbean and South American regions. The service’s medium endurance cutters and smaller fast response cutters are both heavily engaged in action against drug smugglers.

USCG surface assets co-operate closely with the service’s shipboard MH-60 helicopters, and highly trained boarding parties of the service’s Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON).

Backing up USCG forces are US Air Force (USAF) E-3 airborne early warning aircraft and E-8 electronic surveillance planes. Typically, participating USAF aircraft locate, at long range, suspicious craft, and pass information to the USGC on the suspect targets. The USCG’s ship- and helicopter -mounted surveillance radars then refine the target information, and carry out boarding operations. These operations have been successful enough to cause a spike in street prices of cocaine and crystal meth in the USA.

A US Coast Guard cutter intercepting a narco-submarine (Photo: US Southern Command)

The narco smugglers use both speedboats and cargo vessels, while in South American waters, a major, and escalating problem is the use of what have been dubbed “narco subs” – actually high speed semi-submersible craft. These vessels, more than 20 of which have been encountered over the past year, have large fuel tanks, and powerful engines, ensuring long range and high speed. Their very low profile makes both visual and radar detection difficult. Narcotics smuggling syndicates pay very big money for skilled navigators and engineers to operate narco subs.

In August, the Colombian Navy discovered, and destroyed, a 30-metre narco sub at a riverine location. A similar size of narco sub had been apprehended in Spain in late 2019, having apparently undertaken a trans-Atlantic crossing.

HNLMS Groningen (Photo: Dutch Ministry of Defence)

An Anglo-Dutch deployment to the Caribbean, made up of the UK Royal Navy OPV Medway, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary aviation training/primary casualty receiving ship Argus, and the Royal Netherlands Navy OPV Groningen, has been meeting with success since September. Some US$325 million worth of cocaine, and crystal meth, has been seized so far from drug-running vessels in a series of interceptions. Both speedboats and cargo ships have been apprehended.

Operations started inauspiciously, and tragically, with the loss of Groningen’s NH-90 helicopter in a fatal accident. Momentum was swiftly recovered though, with anti-narcotics smuggling operations involving the use of ships’ surveillance radar, and Argus’ Merlin and Wildcat helicopters. Medway’s and Groningen’s large flight decks, which have ship-to-air refuelling capability, enable both ships to act as range extenders for flying operations.

Underway boardings using high speed interception and raiding craft are being carried out by Dutch and British marines, and a USCG HITRON team, which is operating from Medway. Back-up is provided by US Navy long-range maritime patrol aircraft, and US Customs Service surveillance planes, as well as local law enforcement assets, notably helicopters and fast interception craft of the Royal Cayman Islands Police.

Meanwhile, the British frigate Montrose, currently deployed to protect allied shipping in and around the Persian Gulf, made a major drug bust in mid-October, seizing some US$130 million worth of crystal meth from a dhow.

Despite these successes, there is no sign of any let-up in the surge of trafficking of illegal narcotics by sea. It therefore seems that countering this scourge is set to be a long-term commitment for maritime security forces.


Trevor Hollingsbee

Maritime security expert and columnist, Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police, Assistant Secretary for Security in the British Hong Kong Government Security Branch, and Intelligence Analyst in the UK Ministry of Defence. As an independent defence and security analyst he has had some 1,500 articles on maritime security, and geopolitical topics, published in a range of international journals and newspapers. He is an Associate Fellow of the Nautical Institute, and a past Vice-Chairman of the Institute’s Hong Kong branch.