Small Submarines Increasingly Appeal to Terrorists, Criminals

(c) K.B. Sherman, 2003

The Manila Times is reporting that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front plans to buy a number of midget submarines to be used in fighting the government, according to a military spokesman. MILF is a communist terrorist group, according to the Philippine Government.

In a press briefing at Camp Aguinaldo, Armed Forces spokesman Col Essel Soriano was reported to have presented to the media documents which he said were found in the Buliok complex, an MILF stronghold in Central Mindanao that was overrun by the government troops in February of this year. Among the documents reportedly were receipts for weapons amounting to $2,196,250, as well as a report from the MILF political affairs chief, Ghadzali Jaafar, dated June, 1999, mentioning a mini-submarine as an available weapons system. MILF spokesman Ustadz Eid Kabalu subsequently reportedly denied the existence of the documents, accusing the military of fabricating them to justify past and present offensives against the MILF.

However, a brochure describing the midget submarine was found. It purports to describe a 45-foot long submarine with the capacity to carry, of six persons, including two divers. The submarine "…is designed for special operations and [has] a good tactical range and a low noise level," according to the brochure. Missions for such a sub were said to include mounting sabotage operations and landing personnel and arms along beaches.

The idea certainly isn't new. The first vessel to be sunk at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 was a Japanese midget submarine, which subsequently washed-up on the beach. In 1960 a second such sub was located and raised off Hawaii. In 1996, after two prowlers were found along a highway in Kangnung City, South Korea, a stranded North Korean midget submarine was discovered grounded on rocks at the nearby seashore. The 350-ton submarine was subsequently determined to have been built in North Korea in 1994 to carry 30 commandos and crew. South Korean troops subsequently captured a North Korean commando and collected a total cargo of 4,380 items, including a North Korean-made anti-tank rocket launcher, a number of M-16 and AK rifles, and reconnaissance maps. The same day, 11 of the North Korean infiltrators were found dead near Mt. Chonghak, shot by their own colleagues, and an additional 13 North Koreans died in gun battles with South Korean troops.

The Group Terrorist Watch, Inc., claims that in 1997, Al Qaeda used an ex-Soviet Kilo-class submarine in an attempt to smuggle nuclear weapons materials and people on the west coast of the US. However, this group also claims that one of its members secretly documented these operations from his observation post near his house trailer overlooking the coast, so the reader may wish to apply the requisite skepticism.

In June, 1998, the energetic North Koreans were at it again. A 70-ton, 60-foot Yugo-class North Korean submarine was spotted some 12 miles off Sokcho on the South's east coast after it had become entangled in a fishing net. Submerged submarines are detected almost exclusively acoustically, and unlike the Soviet nuclear subs of the cold war, modern diesel-electric submarines are extremely difficult to detect, localize, and track. The same advantage of nearly unlimited range attendant to nuclear subs comes with the heavy burden of noise omitted by all the gearwork, turbines, high-speed propellers, cooling pumps, and associated machinery carried by a nuclear-powered vessel. For shorter trips into and out of shallow water, a diesel-electric sub is just fine, and when running submerged on batteries, is essentially silent and virtually impossible to detect using passive acoustic measures. Countering them involves using difficult and resource-intensive measures such as active acoustics or throwing enough ships and nets at the water to snag one of these stealthy boats as it creeps by. In any case, countering such small subs over any length of time for any but the most critical situations is simply not feasible. This gives the bad guys a huge advantage. Modern maritime patrol aircraft can counter such subs, but again, it becomes a matter of resources and cost-effectiveness. Even the P-3 crews of the US Navy – certainly the world leader in ASW – now spend only a fraction of their time training for ASW; there are just too many new missions for which to train, such as over-the-horizon targeting and standoff reconnaissance of high interest targets. For nations without the resources of the US, the threat posed by such subs simply overwhelms their military and police.

Acquiring such small vessels should not be dismissed with a wave of the hand. Rosoboronexport, for one, will happily sell you a “Small Class” submarine. The 90-foot, P-130 model carries ten people, can dive to 200 feet, has a range of 2,000 miles, and for when the law comes calling, carries six 40mm torpedoes. For the upwardly-mobile terrorist they will sell you a 210-foot P-750, which not only is bigger, faster, and farther-ranging, but can also lay mines to really discourage those Coast Guard cutters. For the more cost-conscious terrorist or drug smuggler, there is a flood of old Soviet Union boats for sale. Only their high costs of operation and maintenance and the large crew required keep them rusting at the docks in Russia.

In 2002, Columbian police and the US DEA were stupefied to find a 100-foot submarine under construction at the hideout of drug dealers. It was being built with the assistance of ex-KGB officers and the Russian Mafia. The vessel would have been able to smuggle 10 tons of narcotics at a time, well away from the prying eyes of the US Coast Guard. In 1995, the Cali cartel unsuccessfully tried to buy a larger, used Russian submarine, it was subsequently discovered. It seems the Cali cartel had been supplying cocaine to Moscow and St. Petersburg through a Russian gang.

The use of such boats can only increase during the decade; it is very unlikely that only the Philippine and South Korean governments should be concerned. How the world’s governments react to the threat posed will make a fascinating story.

The “Small Class” Submarine from Rosoboronexport may meet all of your terrorist needs. See dealer for details!