In the counter-drug world, a self-propelled semi-submersible is like the Loch Ness monster: You keep hearing that they're out there, but the chances of seeing one are remote unlikely. That is, unless you're a crew member on the national security cutter Stratton, which interdicted two drug-smuggling submarines during its most recent Eastern Pacific deployment.

Their eight total busts, combined with cocaine seized by from the cutters Bertholf, Midgett and Thetis and the U.S. Navy frigate Kauffman, resulteding in a 34 metric ton offload — valued at more than $1 billion wholesale value — when Stratton returned stateside in San Diego on Aug. 10.

"I think the one thing that the crew knows is that these sorts of magnitudes of interdictions have an impact on the drug trafficking organizations," Stratton commanding officer Capt. Nathan Moore told Navy Times in an Aug. 19 phone interview. "We know this hurts them. When you take over $1 billion of product off the street, we know that hurts them."

Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft met the crew pierside for the offload and commendeding their efforts.

"The cultivation, trafficking and distribution of narcotics fuels violence and instability throughout the Western Hemisphere, leaving a path of destruction directly to the door step of the U.S.," he said on Aug.ust 10. "We must continue to make progress in our effort to combat transnational organized-crime networks to ensure safety and security in our hemisphere."

Settling in After returning the ship to its Alameda, California, home port, Moore and Chief Maritime Law Enforcement Specialist Brian Milcetich, were still letting it all sink in.

"You know, I honestly don't even know if it's still hit home yet. I think it'll be something when I'm 10, 15 years down the road and I'm telling my grandkids the story," Milcetich said. "I looked back at some of the imagery and I just couldn't be more proud of the crew I was with."

Almost two decades into his career, Milcetich recalled telling his shipmates that he thought he might never see an self-propelled semi-submersibleSSPS in action.

"And here we are on a patrol and we actually interdicted two of them," he said. "Lightning really struck twice for us."

Stratton left home in April for a patrol in support of Operation Martillo, an anti-drug mission with U.S. Southern Command's Joint Interagency Task Force South, sending Coast Guard assets and Navy frigates with Coast Guard law enforcement detachments to work with partner nations to stem the flow of drugs coming stateside from South America.

A Coast Guard Cutter Stratton boarding team seizes cocaine bales from a self-propelled semi-submersible interdicted in international waters off the coast of Central America, July 19. The Coast Guard recovered more than 6 tons of cocaine from the 40-foot vessel.

Photo Credit: MC2 LaNola Stone/Coast Guard

Because most drug subs are constructed in thick jungles and nearly undetectable once underway, it's hard to estimate how often they're used to smuggle narcotics, according to a statement to Navy Times from JIATF.

The task force has nabbed more cocaine and marijuana in the past 10 months than in the past three years, officials told the Associated Press on Aug. 10, and for his part, Moore said this last patrol was one of the busiest of his career.

"There were some stretches in there where we had cases running almost every day," Moore said.

Milcetich offered some context.

"Without going into details about some of the seizures, we were able to execute multiple missions in one night and catch some of these go-fasts while being stretched on other missions," he added. "We had eight total interdiction, but that doesn't count — Gosh almighty, I couldn't tell you how many times we launched for something. Sometimes the alarm goes off for something, so to speak, but it doesn't pan out."

Both agreed that the crew's expertise and the national security cutter's capabilities combined for their success.

"We know from the speed, the range, the systems on this ship, there are things that make this asset incredibly capable that the Coast Guard needs to continue to prosecute this mission in the future," Moore said.

"Some of the missions we launched, you couldn't have done on an older cutter," Milcetich added.

The big one

The cherry on top, though, was the story that grabbed headlines all the press: The Coast Guard's biggest cocaine bust in history, with 12,000 pounds of cocaine seized from an illusive drug sub.

The vessels are nicknamed "white buffaloes," Milcetich said, because law enforcement knows they're out there, but they're nearly impossible to find.

But Stratton managed to find two.

"The second one was so big, or just loaded so heavily, that people have been tending to forget that it was actually the second one," he said.

On July 19, Stratton spotted the 40-foot sub hovering at the water's surface and sent out an interceptor boat with Milcetich's team to check it out.

Drug subs aren't meant to be walked on, he said, so there's nothing to hold onto while you're balanced on the roof, six inches above the water's surface. In seas over 4 feet — swells were 2 to 4 feet that day, he recalled — the water is washing over your boots.

And then you have to open the hatch, with no idea about what you might find inside.

"When I jumped on board, it was kind of a leap of faith opening that hatch that there wasn't somebody armed in there," he said.

The team found eight tons of cocaine and four men inside. Past semi-submersible busts have been in the four to six-ton range, according to JIATF data.

Once they removed the traffickers, they got to work unloading the drugs, not knowing if the sub was set to sink.

Narco-subs, Milcetich said, are typicallyusually equipped with a scuttling valve — an automatic sink switch — that the traffickers can flip if they get caught, so the evidence falls to the bottom of the ocean.

It wasn't engaged in this situation, and the crew spent 36 hours unloading the drugs. It's extremely dangerous to put personnel into the unstable boat with one tiny exit, particularly when each package removed shifts its already unstable weight.

With two tons left on board, they called off the unloading mission and moved to tow the sub back to shore.

"The intelligence folks would love to have these things back ashore if they could get them, right?" Moore said. "But they're not designed to be towed or carried on a ship."

"They're basically a wood and fiber glass homemade torpedo with a little tractor engine in them," he explainedadded.

Then it sank. Moore and Milcetich speculated that at some point, the sub's engine shut down and with it its bilge pump, which flooded the whole thing.

Just getting a tow going was an accomplishment, they said. The first sub they caught had to be burned at sea because it didn't have anywhere to hook up a line.

"I see a lot of articles written that we lost it because we were inept," he said. "We made a valiant effort of towing this under direction. People wanted this back in the United States, but it was a mechanical issue."

It was a disappointment, they said, but the water-sealed drugs are safely at 3,000-feet deep the bottom of the 3,000-foot seas now, where traffickers can't get to them and they can't harm the environment.

"There's only been a couple dozen that have ever been actually caught whether on land or at sea," Moore said. "For us to have two of them in this last deployment, we were just very fortunate to be put in the right place at the right time to make that happen."

The mission continues

Stratton is home, but Operation Martillo presses on. Both Moore and Milcetich sang the praises of the national security cutter and emphasized the need for more assets.

JIATF estimates that in 2014, Operation Martillo was only able to interdict about 15 percent of all the cocaine moving from South America to the U.S.

"The question I've been getting a lot is, are there things that can be done for the organization to have more success? What else would the Coast Guard need to do more of this?" he said. "I don't think there's a magic answer to that question except that we just need more ships out there. We need more presence."

Stratton is one of eight national security cutters in the Coast Guard's initial buy. Four are afloat, a fifth was commissioned in early August and a sixth will be christened in November. Number seven's construction began early this year and number eight's contract was awarded in March. All eight should be in service by 2019.

The NSCs will replace the long-serving high endurance cutter fleet, and next up on the recapitalization plan is the offshore patrol cutter, to replace two variants of medium endurance cutters.

These large ships are necessary for the anti-drug effort, Moore said.

"The second SPSS was over 250 miles off shore. That's not something you do with a patrol boat, that's not something you do with any shore-side boat," he said. "The local partner countries down there can't respond to something that far off."

As far as getting more assets on patrol, projections are that the number of U.S. ships and aircraft doing counter-drug operations will stay the same in the near future.

"To better execute our mission, we strive to become more efficient with the use of the assets we do have, to incorporate non-traditional capabilities such as Air Force aircraft conducting training missions, and to rely on partner nations to patrol in areas we can't be," the JIATF statement said.

Milcetich said he's just happy the busts have shone a light on the service.

"A lot of what I've been getting over the past few days, even from my own family — I think a lot of the people in America, the other services, have no idea what the Coast Guard does," he said.

His own mother didn't recognize him when realize it was him when she watched the boarding video online, he said.

"She heard my voice. She was like, 'Brian it sounds like your voice,' and I'm like, 'Yeah, Mom,' " he recalled. "And her response was, 'I thought they had specially trained people to do that.' "

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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