Homeland Security's PLUTO sub designed to imitate narco subs


September 16, 2012

PLUTO off the coast of San Diego (Image: Paul Wedig, DHS S&T)

PLUTO off the coast of San Diego (Image: Paul Wedig, DHS S&T)

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When someone mentions drug running, most people probably picture a person coming through an airport carrying a suitcase with a false bottom or with balloons stuffed up their nether regions. We don’t usually imagine things like submarines. Unfortunately, the South American drug cartels not only imagine them, but they build and operate them. To help combat these underwater smugglers, the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (S and T) is operating their own drug-running submarine called PLUTO to develop and test a new generation of detection equipment.

Named after the hard to detect (former) planet, PLUTO reproduces the characteristics of what are commonly called “narco subs.” When rumors of their existence began to circulate in the 1990s, narco subs were dismissed as something out of a James Bond film and nicknamed “Bigfoot” because everyone in drug enforcement heard about them, but no one had seen one. Then one was captured in 2006 by the U.S. Coast Guard in the Eastern Pacific Ocean.

Narco subs are not true submarines. Instead, they’re a form of semi-submersible or, to give them their official designation, self-propelled, semi-submersibles (SPSSs). They ride very low in the water with only about three inches (7.62 ) of freeboard above the waterline and are designed to give only a tiny radar profile. They also ride very rough and their crews of three or four have little to eat, bad air and no toilet facilities as well as sometimes having an armed guard as a supervisor.

The subs are also meant to be expendable at the end of a delivery "Drug-running is lucrative. It is cheaper to simply build another vessel than to run the risk of trying to get a vessel and its crew home," said Tom Tomaiko of S and T's Borders and Maritime Security Division.

PLUTO was built in 2008 and is home-ported at Eglin Air Force Base near Fort Walton Beach, Florida, where it is maintained by the Air Force's 46th Test Squadron, though it operates in the Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Forty-five feet (13.71 m) long and running at a maximum speed of ten knots (11.52 mph/18.52 kph), though it only cruises at four to eight knots (4.60 mph/7.4 kph to 9.20 mph/14.81 kph), PLUTO can carry up to four crew, but usually only operates with one due to safety.

It’s used by the U.S. Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection/Air and Marine (CBP/OAM), U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force and other national agencies as a target submarine capable of mimicking a narco sub for the purpose of testing detection systems from ships, planes and even satellites at various angles and under different sea conditions.

Customs and Border Protection used PLUTO to test its Dash 8 maritime surveillance aircraft’s SeaVue radar to determine detection distances and aspect angles for optimal mission performance and the U.S. Navy tested its P-3 aircraft’s maritime surveillance radar system against the pseudo narco-sub.

PLUTO is only one part of an escalating war between drug cartels and law enforcement agencies. Recently, the cartels have started using true submarines that travel submerged, which means that PLUTO may now be fighting yesterday’s war.

According to Admiral James Stavridis, former Joint Commander for all U.S. forces in the Caribbean, Central and South America, "criminals are never going to wait for law enforcement to catch up. They are always extending the boundaries of imagination, and likewise, we must strive to push forward technology and invest in systems designed specifically to counter the semi-submersible. We need to be able to rapidly detect and interdict this new type of threat, both for its current effects via the drug trade, and – more troublingly – for its potential as a weapon in the hands of terrorists."

Source: Department of Homeland Security

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

The secret to not detecting a military sub is make them as queit as possible so sonar cannot pick them up. These crude, but effective subs should be as noisey as a metal trash filled with rocks rolling down a hill. Set up a few listening bouys to detect them and triangulate their loaction.


@ctsme: well since its travelling near the surface, how do you distinguish it from the sound of any other old clunky fishing boat operating legally in the area? Since they seem to be one trip only boats, they may not have a distinct sound profile to learn to listen for.


@jaqen: Simple - have UAVs flying above look in the areas where signatures are triangulated. If it's a fishing boat, omit its signature from the listening. All unidentified triangulated signatures could simply be displayed on a map, and they'd send subs or other boats after them.

Of course, we wouldn't need any of this at all if cannabis was legal, since very few would care about cocaine/heroin. The market for illegal drugs would just dry up, and the cartels would go back to being pathetic local gangs.


@Onihikage: Do you really think the cartels would ever let that bill pass congress? They own senators to make sure drugs stay illegal, there is too much money made from something that is illegal.


If the drug subs are one-way boats, there should be dozens of them abandoned on beaches or scuttled in the shallows along the American coastline. Why did we need to build our own copy of a drug sub, if we could simply collect a dozen actual drug subs for free? I smell a boondoggle.

Dennis Baer

re; Onihikage

Given that we have had more success with reducing cigarette smoking than in reducing heroin and cocaine consumption, and that the costs to society of the "war" against these intoxicants has been greater that the costs to society of having the intoxicants legally available. Where I live it is easier for a child to by an illegal drug than it is to buy a tobacco product. I go farther and think that legalizing cocaine and heroin as well as marijuana is the best solution.

re; Shannon J Cox

The ban on alcohol was successfully ended in the USA and that took a constitutional amendment.


The best and most economic way to locate and track submarines in the Caribbean area is to use a fleet of modern blimps. The US Navy stopped U boat attacks on convoys in WW2 using blimps and they are still the best answer to a submarine threat.

For more information see the AT10 page of my web site:

Trevor Hunt

read someplace thatr cartels have made Narco subs true subs vs the earlier models. IE relive WW2 era ASW.

Stephen Russell

3 out of 4 submarines detected and tracked are not actually intercepted due to lack of resources (boats, planes, helicopters). Detection is not the problem.


re; ctcsme

Crude submarines don't have to be noisy, electric trolling motors (available in most fishing or boating stores) are quiet to keep from scaring the fish. ICE trolling motors are quiet for the same reason. There are some very quiet air movers available as well. Batteries are of course silent. Being towed by a otherwise law abiding vessel is quit as well.

re; Dennis Baer

The edge of the continental shelf is not that many miles away and beyond that the depth is measured in thousands of feet. It would not be difficult to build or instal an auto-steering system and a valve that opens when the batteries are dead.

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