In January 2019, a video made the rounds on news and social media outlets showing a Coast Guard boarding team from the USCGC Munro (WMSL-755) interdicting a suspected drug-smuggling vessel. The highlight of this thrilling video is when the boarding officer leaps from the Munro’s small boat on to the hull of the self-propelled semisubmersible and slams the hatch in a flurry of blows, exhorting the smugglers in Spanish to “Stop your boat!” The vessel heaves to, the hatch opens, and a pair of penitent smugglers appears. All told, the boarding team recovered approximately 17,000 pounds of cocaine with an estimated value of $232 million.1
But what if, when the boarding officer knocked, no one had answered?
As autonomous vessel technology advances and transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) seek to retain their edge, the Coast Guard needs to consider the impact to one of its highest visibility missions: counternarcotics.
1. “U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Munro Crew Interdicts Suspected Drug Smuggling Vessel,” DVIDS, 11 July 2019, and Morgan Gstalter, “Coast Guard Releases Video of $232 Million Cocaine Bust on Moving Submarine,” The Hill, 12 July 2019.
2. Ronald O’Rourke, Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles: Background Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service, 23 December 2020.
3. David B. Larter, “Fleet Commander Directs U.S. Navy’s Surface Force to Develop Concepts for Unmanned Ships," Defense News, 3 January 2020.
4. Jessica Barron, “Rolls Royce’s Autonomous Ship Gives Us a Peek Into the Future of Sea Transport,” Forbes, 7 January 2019.
6. Frank Wolfe, “U.S. DEA: Border Wall or No, Drone Drug Smuggling Likely to Increase,” 10 January 2019, and Brenda Fiegel, “Narco-Drones: A New Way to Transport Drugs,” Small Wars Journal, 5 July 2017.
7. Associated Press, “Major Saudi Arabia Oil Facilities Hit by Houthi Drone Strikes,” The Guardian, 14 September 2019.
8. Natasha Turak, “Drone and Missile Debris Proves Iranian Role in Aramco Attack, Saudi Defense Ministry Claims,” CNBC, 18 September 2019.