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