“Cocaine Logistics” for the Marine Corps

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In a future conflict with China, how would the Marine Corps supply small units deep inside enemy controlled areas, hundreds or even thousands of miles from their logistics bases?

Right now, the service would have to send ships and aircraft to feed, fuel, and arm these scattered forces just to keep them alive and in the fight. However, sending manned logistics ships into this lethal environment ranges from risky to reckless, while cargo aircraft lack the carrying capacity required to keep marines fed and equipped for very long.

The Marine Corps’ new operating concept, expeditionary advanced base operations, is bold but logistically difficult. It seeks to “further distribute lethality by providing land-based options for increasing the number of sensors and shooters beyond the upper limit imposed by the quantity of seagoing platforms available.” Simply put, islands make for unsinkable aircraft carriers and each one is a potential base for attack aircraft, missiles, and sensors. Keep these advanced bases supplied and they are a lethal thorn in the enemy’s side. Without a means to sneak supplies through a maritime no man’s land, however, the marines there would be divided instead of distributed and vulnerable to defeat like the one suffered by the Imperial Japanese Army on Guadalcanal in World War II.

To fulfill Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger’s gambit to redesign the service around expeditionary advanced base operations and pivot to the high-end fight in the western Pacific Ocean, the service needs covert logistics.



To address this logistical conundrum, the United States should mimic drug traffickers. These undeniably resourceful adversaries have developed a vessel ideally suited to routinely smuggle tons of critical supplies (i.e., cocaine) thousands of miles past the most technologically advanced and well-resourced nation on Earth to their distributors in North America. Their long-range transits even extend to Europe. Manned, semi-submersible, low-profile vessels, also known as narco-submarines, have profitably solved covert logistics across the maritime tyranny of distance. These air-breathing vessels evade detection by staying almost entirely underwater, trading speed for semi-submerged invisibility.

If semi-submersible, low-profile vessels can work for delivering cocaine, they can work for delivering warfighting materiel. The Department of the Navy should develop and procure a new family of inexpensive, unmanned logistics vessels patterned after these illicit semi-submersibles. While these platforms would not solve all of the service’s challenges, they could prove to be an affordable and effective platform to support expeditionary logistics, even in the most fiercely contested areas.

A Yawning Amphibious Gap

Amphibious lift and over-the-beach logistics pose a critical gap for the Marine Corps that could be filled in part by semi-submersible, low-profile vessels. The Navy’s fleet of L-class shipping carries everything needed to establish and sustain marines ashore, including medium-range surface connectors to bring them over the beach. But these ships have to get vulnerably close to their target for a rapid offload. With growing concern that these large, slow, and overt amphibious vessels wouldn’t survive in a conflict with China, and no indication that the Navy would expand this chronically understrength fleet, the Marine Corps sacrificed the longstanding requirement to find better solutions.

One solution is a light amphibious warship that combines the long range of a large amphibious ship with the cost and beach offload capability of a surface connector, with a payload somewhere in the middle. But even these proposed hybrid vessels would be insufficient to enable littoral operations in a hotly contested environment. They would remain too few, too visible, and therefore too vulnerable. Although a move in the right direction, they still lack the crucial “affordable and plentiful” quality called for in the Marine Corps Commandant’s Planning Guidance.

The Cocaine Connection

However, “affordable and plentiful” perfectly describes the vessels plying one of the most lucrative and resilient logistics networks in history. Drug traffickers have turned these vessels into nearly invisible transporters, hauling a large fraction of the 1,000 to 3,000 tons of Andean cocaine to the United States, which remains the world’s biggest importer of the substance. Drug traffickers constantly adapt and innovate, finding new ways to move their illicit cargo undetected and searching for greater profits while staying one step ahead of the law. The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that 80 percent of cocaine moves via maritime routes, with 30 percent of those maritime flows traveling on low-profile vessels and semi-submersibles. According to estimates, nearly a quarter of cocaine bound for the U.S. market, which is worth some $6 billion annually at retail, travels via low-profile vessels or semi-submersibles.

Drug traffickers have evolved low-profile vessels to be incredibly difficult to detect without specialized equipment. A surface vessel has about a 5 percent chance of detecting a low-profile vessel at sea without an embarked helicopter or support from shore-based aviation. Consequently, very few interdictions come from stumbling across a low-profile vessel on patrol. Only 10 to 15 percent of low-profile vessels are intercepted at all, meaning that known trafficking activity represents just the tip of the iceberg. The fact that the use of low-profile vessels is at an “all-time high” reflects their remarkable effectiveness in covertly moving cargo. Typical low-profile vessels cost about $1 million each, whereas fully submersible snorkel subs cost $2 million to $3 million. Either way, it’s a rounding error when each ton of its payload sells for $28 million wholesale and more than $150 million at retail.

Low-Profile Vessels for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations

Low-profile vessels are clearly effective in delivering critical cargoes undetected across thousands of square miles of ocean. The Navy and Marine Corps should pursue semi-submersible, low-profile vessels as a low-cost and expendable platform for pushing critical equipment and supplies, like munitions and fuel, to remote expeditionary advanced bases. Semi-submersible, low-profile vessels would meet Gen. Berger’s call for “smaller and less expensive” intra-theater connectors that are more “risk-worthy,” which is a term of art for expendable and bordering on simply disposable. Defense analysts have called for the Navy and Marine Corps to “develop smaller, lower-cost ships that are better suited to the type of dispersed operational posture implied by [the concept of littoral operations in a contested environment]” — a role that low-profile vessels could fill. However, designs for these vessels have yet to materialize. Special forces and intelligence agencies have long used covert maritime platforms for similar delivery missions, but their small payloads, short range, high price tags, and general inability to beach make them unsuitable for covert logistics in support of expeditionary advanced base operations.

Low-profile vessels that are purpose-built for delivering logistics materiel would be a cheap and expendable logistics platform for the Navy and Marine Corps, and easy to mass-produce. These low-profile vessels could be standardized in their propulsion and guidance with other proposed variants, but constructed modularly to allow for different forward cargo sections, which would vary in size and configuration. Smaller and more covert vessels, most resembling current drug trafficking low-profile vessels, could carry a few tons of essential supplies to the smallest units on the most advanced and vulnerable outposts. Vessels with larger forward cargo sections would be able to deliver palletized cargo, small vehicles, trailers, or bulk fuel to resupply larger bases that would otherwise endanger manned resupply vessels.

Navy or Marine Corps low-profile vessels could potentially deploy thousands of miles from their targets, either pierside or from L-class shipping and maritime prepositioning ships. With only a small snorkel and sensor mast showing above the waterline, they would have a negligible probability of detection and make for a nearly impossible anti-ship cruise missile target in the unlikely event that one passed nearby. They would navigate autonomously from point A to point B, with the rudimentary instructions of “try not to hit anything.” This sort of autonomy has already been demonstrated in crude terms by drug traffickers in Europe and developed with far greater elegance by the U.S. Navy. By way of comparison, the open ocean presents a far less demanding navigational environment than what the average Tesla negotiates every day.

On arrival to the objective area, the autonomous vessels would beach for unloading and then depart on the next high tide. Because the low-cost design makes recovery and reuse an option, not a necessity, they could either return to a collection point or simply self-scuttle in the ocean. The vessels could also sink themselves to avoid capture if intercepted at any point along the voyage.

Deploying Low-Profile Vessels in the Western Pacific

Beyond payload, the Pacific Ocean’s tyranny of distance dictates another vital parameter: range. A minimum 2,000-nautical mile operational radius would allow covert delivery from Darwin, Australia or Guam to nearly anywhere in the geostrategic first island chain. This capability would dramatically reduce the need for legacy amphibious shipping or logistics vessels to operate forward resupplying marines. For still greater flexibility, low-profile vessels could deploy from the cranes of naval auxiliaries, the floodable decks of expeditionary transfer docks and amphibious shipping, or even the strengthened ramps of modified roll-on/roll-off truck carriers. Such a deployment would not only complicate enemy targeting of fixed supply hubs, but would also decrease required fuel payload, increase available cargo payload, and increase the voyage frequency for each vessel.

For naval operations in the western Pacific, unmanned logistics vessels would probably need large ballast tanks to achieve both low, submarine-like freeboard in transit and reduced draft for beaching. Producing these vessels in factories and commercial shipyards instead of jungle craft shops would allow for the construction of higher-quality vessels with better features for lower costs. The navigation, communication, and propulsion components would be kept mostly common between variants to reduce cost. On the other hand, producing a steel, aluminum, or composite hull is relatively cheap. Like traditional low-profile vessels, these ones would also vary in size, payload, and range. But the first generation of vessels would closely match the form and function of the largest drug smuggling predecessors. This model would allow for spiral development from a well-proven base design into more complex later models.

The Navy and Marine Corps should design low-profile vessels for over-the-beach logistics with wheeled vehicles as one of the later variants. They would need a bow ramp for rapid offload, while also requiring a wave-piercing bow section forward of the ramp to maintain the minimal wake and fuel-efficient shape of traditional low-profile vessels. This wave-piercing visor bow would fold up for loading and unloading like those of some commercial ferries, illustrated by another landing craft concept. This sort of bow would allow small vehicles like the Marine Corps’ Polaris MRZRs to drive trailers full of cargo across the beach and onto forward bases. It should go without saying that such a larger and more complex vessel would cost much more than the $1 million to $2 million for a traditional low-profile vessel. Even so, they would cost far less and survive far better than the latest proposal for a roughly $100 million manned amphibious vessel.

A small fleet of low-profile vessels could sustain expeditionary bases and Marine forces operating within range of adversary weapons and capabilities — from the smallest Marine reconnaissance units to multi-company formations. Low-profile vessel cargo sections could be staged at forward locations like Guam and Darwin as well as Yokosuka, Japan. When needed, these cargo sections would be married to propulsion and guidance modules, loaded, and launched. Marines flying in on MV-22 vertical-lift aircraft, perhaps part of a “warbot company,” would time their landing to the beaching of the semi-submersibles.

The marines would then be able to offload the vessels by carrying sea bags and fuel cans from hatches of small low-profile vessels or by towing trailers with missiles, bombs, and fuel bladders from bow doors of the larger variants. The vessels would return to sea on the next high tide, ready for the next load of cargo — leaving the marines with far more supplies and sustainment than they could have carried with them on their insertion. In this way, lighter aircraft could fly farther and carry more marines. Using the semi-submersibles would also free up valuable transport aircraft for other missions and allow aircraft to operate further from enemy threats. Low-profile vessels could be used in other scenarios, too, such as breaking a blockade, covertly transiting a contested chokepoint, or delivering critical supplies to a besieged force.

Looking Ahead

Low-profile vessels are not a panacea. They are slow and cannot match the thousands of tons carried by overt logistics craft, even in swarms. But they can be integrated into a larger logistics system and provide a key capability — covert logistics in contested waters — at the scale necessary to support the small units and expeditionary advanced bases central to the Marine Corps’ newest warfighting concept. The military does not currently have a platform capable of providing covert logistics outside of the special operations community. Low-profile vessels inspired by those employed by drug traffickers would be small- to medium-haul, long-range, covert connectors. Low-cost, low-profile vessels can be mass-produced, pre-staged in the Indo-Pacific region, and employed as “attritable” connectors from ships or bases. Operating autonomously and without sailors aboard, these low-profile vessels would be the very epitome of the Marine Corps commandant’s “low signature, affordable, and risk-worthy platforms.”

The Marine Corps needs redundant, affordable, and survivable connectors to sustain forces ashore, especially in a conflict with China. These platforms should come in many forms, including semi-submersible low-profile vessels for sustaining the most exposed forward bases. Difficult to detect and track, long-range and capable, low-profile vessels are a proven component in one of the most resilient maritime logistics networks in history — the network bringing cocaine from the Andean highlands to American cities. As the Navy and Marine Corps continue to pursue innovative and outside-the-box thinking, they should develop “cocaine logistics” into a model for expeditionary advanced base logistics.



Capt. Walker D. Mills is a Marine infantry officer. He is currently serving as an exchange officer with the Colombian Marine Corps. He is also pursuing an M.A. in international relations and contemporary war from King’s College London.

Lt. Cmdr. Dylan “Joose” Phillips-Levine is a naval aviator. He serves as an exchange instructor pilot in the T-34C-1 “Turbo-Mentor” with the Argentine navy. He has also served as an instructor pilot in the T-6B “Texan II” with VT-6 and has flown the MH-60R “Seahawk” with HSM-46 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom with 5th Fleet and with 4th Fleet in support of counter-narcotics operations.

Lt. Cmdr. Collin Fox is a U.S. Navy foreign area officer serving as the Navy and Air Force section chief in the Office of Defense Cooperation, U.S. Embassy, Panama. He earned a master of systems analysis degree from the Naval Postgraduate School, where his team’s study on novel anti-submarine weapons won the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab Award for Excellence in Systems Analysis. He is also a graduate of the Chilean Naval War College. 

The views presented are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy.

Image: U.S. Coast Guard Photo


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