The Navy and Marine Corps expect a big future fight in the Pacific. It will involve China, a lot of missiles, small islands and far-flung units.
Many people turn to history for lessons learned and future guidance. Others lean on high-tech superiority.
But another direction might be sitting just south of us and come from a long-running U.S. adversary: narcotraffickers.
That was the inspiration for three junior officers ― two Navy and one Marine ― when they saw a well-run undersea armada, one that delivers on schedule to our shores and beyond, for a way of thinking about distributed fighting.
And they’re calling it, “cocaine logistics.”
Lt. Cmdrs. Collin Fox and Dylan “Joose” Phillips-Levine along with Capt. Walker D. Mills recently authored a piece in “War on the Rocks” by the same name. Mills currently is an exchange officer with the Colombian Marine Corps. Phillips-Levine, a naval aviator, is an exchange instructor pilot with the Argentine Navy, and Fox is a foreign area officer with as the Navy and Air Force section chief in Panama.
There’s ample evidence of narco-submarine use. President Donald Trump visited United States Southern Command in July to applaud its interception of drugs, especially in maritime efforts.
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Trump noted that over the previous 12 weeks, efforts to increase surveillance in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific Ocean specifically hauled in 120 metric tons, or 264,000 pounds, of illegal drugs and nabbed 1,000 drug traffickers.
The three SOUTHCOM-based officers’ piece is their attempt to offer one solution to the challenge of supplying food, fuel and ammunition to dispersed units expected to fight a potential war in the Pacific.
The trio has seen first-hand how drug cartels in Central and South America have sent a low-profile flotilla of cheap, semi-submersible craft loaded down with literally tons of cocaine to the United States.
Some get intercepted, true. But the vast majority, experts agree, get through.
And the channels they’re traveling are much smaller, and likely better patrolled than the vast expanse of the world’s largest ocean.
Mills told Marine Corps Times that the idea is to follow what Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger has directed, and find “affordable and plentiful” options.
By their estimates, large-scale, low-profile semi-submersible watercraft could be built for much less than $1 million each and carry anywhere from 4 tons of cargo up to 10 to 20 tons, depending on the scale.
All of them would be piloted autonomously and could be launched from more than 2,000 km away — as far as Guam or Darwin, Australia, they said.
“It’s a fair amount,” Mills said. “Put an MRZR (all-terrain vehicle) on there, a trailer with 500-pound bombs, fuel bladder, hit the beach.”
The craft lands ashore under cover of darkness and Marines meet it and offload supplies.
Like fish to amphibians, early versions would evolve. The cheap first prototypes would be simple craft but later versions could have ramps and wheels to facilitate better offloading, Fox said.
Like the cartels’ acceptable-risk business model, some of these logistics subs would get ensnared by enemy monitoring, perhaps radar or signature detection devices. But if the Navy launched a whole lot of them, enough would get through.
And narcos were not the first to come up with this idea, either. The German military built a cargo-only transport submarine called the Deutschland that it showcased in U.S. ports as part of a covert spy mission before the outbreak of World War I. It was featured in local newspapers in Baltimore and Connecticut as it made the rounds.
The submarine later took on the war effort to run supplies.
The Soviets built at least one massive submarine for transport and used others in a pinch to bring supplies and evacuate people from Sevastopol during World War II, the authors found in their research.
The key, Phillipe-Levine told Marine Corps Times, is to keep the watercraft on the low end of electromagnetic emissions and figure out the best way to integrate them as nodes in a large-scale communications network. That way it is tracking but also offers its services up as a sensor for the wider effort.
This is simply at the idea stage, but with investments in the Sea Hunter ― an unmanned surface vessel launched in 2016 ― and other unmanned efforts in the mining-countermining space, the narco-based logistics subs are not breaking entirely new wake.
There’s a history lesson embedded in the small island, large ocean logistics problem.
Marines and sailors took the island of Guadalcanal in a fight that stretched from August 1942 to February 1943. U.S. forces were well-supplied in that operation. The Japanese military was not.
As the three officers noted in a piece of writing they shared with Military Times that didn’t make the cut on their published article, things got rather rough for the Japanese military.
Marines in later interviews talked about eating turkey on Christmas while taking down the enemy, according to the book “Midnight in the Pacific,” by Joseph Wheelan.
Not so on the other side.
“Imperial Japanese logistics dwindled to drive-by supply runs, with destroyer crews pitching barrels of rice into the dark water and hoping that a few would wash ashore for the hungry troops,” they wrote.
The authors worry that without a host of logistics solutions, fate could be reversed.
“If we don’t do this right, if we don’t have covert logistics,” the group wrote, “We could end up just as bad as the Japanese on Guadalcanal.”
About Todd South
Todd South is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War. He has written about crime, courts, government and military issues for multiple publications since 2004. In 2014, he was named a Pulitzer finalist for local reporting on a project he co-wrote about witness problems in gang criminal cases. Todd covers ground combat for Military Times.